The Grand Old Man of Baseball: Connie Mack in His Final Years, 1932–1956 by Norman L. Macht
With this third and final volume of his biography of Connie Mack, Norman Macht has written about 2,000 pages on the venerable icon of twentieth century baseball. Macht's dogged pursuit of the details of the Philadelphia Athletics' owner, president, and manager again provides a comprehensive view of a part of Mack's long life, in baseball and in general (he was active in professional ball for sixty-seven straight seasons, from his first game as a rookie in Meriden, CT, in 1884 until he stepped down from day-to-day control of the Athletics in 1950).
Macht has been at Mack's story for thirty years, and the advantage of his lack of being in a hurry is evident in the book's depth and accuracy. Along the way he gained access to the club's financial records, and interviewed dozens of sources, including fifty former Athletics players (while insisting on confirmation, whenever possible, for their reminiscences). The result is an account of a great (baseball) man's life that is not dependent on the fables that grew up around it. Sports histories depend entirely too much on the approach of the Western editor in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who advised, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In fact, Macht urges the reader to "set aside the impressions you may have absorbed about Connie Mack and come to this play seeking to understand for yourself the man behind the myths" (xiv).
It is difficult to read The Grand Old Man without a sense of sadness and a [End Page 226] certain amount of frustration, but that's in no way the author's fault. Mack's Athletics had their ups and downs in terms of success, but for the first thirty-one years of his managerial reign they won nine American League pennants and finished in the first division nineteen times. This final volume starts in 1932, when they finished second. But the A's were in the second division by 1934 and never got out again during Mack's years with the team. The steady decline was the result of Mack's failure to adapt to the changing times of the major leagues—the Athletics were slow to develop a farm system, and for the longest time had only a handful of scouts. When baseball geared up again after World War II, Macht writes, "while his competitors had been raising young players on their farms, Mack had been browsing the bazaars for baseball bricabrac … now he was like a shopper at a Goodwill secondhand store, picking up the castoffs of clubs cleaning out their closets" (336).
The situation in Philadelphia wasn't helped by Mack's insistence on turning to his three sons for support and as successors. Two of them, Roy and Earle from his first marriage, are shown not to have been up to the job, and Connie Jr., from Mack's second marriage, was forced out by the other two. Connie Sr., who didn't wear a uniform as manager and, thus, wasn't allowed on the field, depended on Earle to represent him in pitching changes and tiffs with umpires. Earle prefaced his messages with "Daddy says," and the men in uniform had little or no respect for him. Sometimes, when Mack would send Earle to the mound to relieve the colorful pitcher Bobo Newsom, the hurler would just tell him to "get your ass out of here" (299). Older brother Roy, who stayed in the team's offices, was no master of innovation, either. Macht sums up Roy and Earle's contributions by quoting Philadelphia sportswriter James Isaminger: "Connie Mack's sons became senile before Connie did" (472).
Connie Mack did, of course, start to fail, while still nominally in charge of the A's, leaving Roy and Earle with the reins, for better or worse. Macht recounts in amusing detail the convoluted process of selling the franchise in 1954 when years of declining attendance and revenue finally made the Mack family's ownership unsustainable. The older brothers quickly rebuffed an attempt by Connie Jr. to seize control, then fought with each other over the bones of the franchise their dad had made famous. The sale process went on for weeks, with candidates including Arnold Johnson, who bought the A's; Charles Finley, who would own them later, and Clint Murchison Sr., a wealthy Texas oilman, popping in and out of contention. The process particularly baffled Johnson and a group of Philadelphia investors, as well as American League officials and owners. But the Athletics, of course, were sold and moved to Kansas City (and then to Oakland).
As he moves through the seasons in sequential order, Macht provides [End Page 227] accounts of many of Mack's bargain basement acquisitions who often were barely worth what he paid for them. Dee Miles, Bob Dillinger, Jesse Flores, and Bob Hooper are hardly household names, but they each played multiple years for the Athletics when the team was at its low ebb. But, then, there is the story Lou Brissie, a promising lefthander who nearly lost a leg to an artillery shell explosion in the war, but determinedly made himself recover and pitch in the majors, with Connie Mack backing him every inch of the way. Of course, even when the A's stunk, they had some great players, and the likes of Bobby Schantz, George Kell, Ferris Fain, and Billy Werber graced the lineup and provided informative and amusing copy for the book.
But Macht's most satisfying contribution is his success in letting the reader know of Connie Mack the individual, who quietly provided jobs to friends and family members who needed work, signed autographs for kids even when he didn't have to and, despite occasional bursts of temper in the dugout at players (particularly pitchers) who had flopped in a particular game, was remembered by many as an inspiring manager. Mickey Cochrane, who caught for the Athletics in some of their best seasons, described Mack's managing technique: "It's difficult to express in a few words, but you can come pretty close by saying it's the remarkable way in which the Old Man gets every player to not only give his best, but that extra something in the pinch. He sort of makes you feel you owe it to yourself to do it" (124).