December 31st, 2012
Some men’s characters are summed up in their physical presence. As a young 6’1”, 150-pound catcher born in 1862, Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy (“Slats” Mack to all but the census takers) presented so odd a specter that when he teamed with the equally bony pitcher Frank “Shadow” Gilmore in Washington in the 1880s, they were called “The Grasshopper Battery.” Writer Wilfrid Sheed said that as a manager of the Philadelphia Athletics in his later years Mack, with his angular body and patrician bearing, looked “like a tree from the Garden of Eden.”
We paint a mind’s-eye picture of him as upright (in both the physical and moral senses of that word) as he sat in the dugout in a business suit and positioned his players with a wave of the scorecard. Yet the real Mr. Mack (it seems almost blasphemy to call him by his first name) was, like his old rival Clark Griffith, a very sly fox indeed. As a catcher his fine defensive skills were, shall we say, augmented by his ingenuity. In those days any caught foul was an out–even a tip with no strikes or only one–so Connie liked to make a noise that resembled a ball hitting a bat on a swinging strike. He was also good at impeding a batter’s swing with the brush of his glove, invariably offering apology for his clumsiness. When he became a manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1890s, it is said he put the baseballs on ice the night before the game to deaden them.
Mack’s earliest days as a player were with his hometown nine of East Brookfield, Massachusetts, a village of barely 1,000 but so in love with baseball that it raised $100 to bring Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings to town one day in 1883. Mack joined the professional ranks the following season with Meriden, at the “stupendous” salary of $90 per month, then moved up to Hartford, and, at season’s end, his contract was purchased by the New York Mets of the American Association, a big league at the time. But he never played for the Mets, who sold him along with four other players to Washington for $3,500. He became a solid player with the Solons, and enjoyed his best year at the bat with Buffalo in the lone year of the Players League, 1890. He concluded his eleven-year career as a player with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who also gave Mack his first managing post, but he left in 1896 in a dispute with a meddling owner.
He moved on to manage the Milwaukee entry in Ban Johnson’s Western League, which in 1900 became the American League. When the American League challenged the National League by putting a team in Philadelphia, Mack got the chance to manage there. He also bought 25 percent of the club’s stock. Connie, who had salted away some of his salary, retained the job of manager through 1950, a prodigious run of fifty-one years.
John McGraw, no fan of the new American League or Ban Johnson, its president, who had virtually banned him for his umpire-baiting as manager of the 1901-1902 Orioles, said the Philadelphia operation was doomed to be a “white elephant”–a sure money-loser. The canny Mack wore the insult as a badge of pride and adopted a logo that survives to this day, mystifying the fans in Oakland. The A’s topped the American League in 1904, but McGraw extended the feud by refusing to match his Giants against them in the World Series, inaugurated the year before between Boston and Pittsburgh. When the Giants defeated the A’s in five games in the all-shutout Series of 1905, Mack vowed to gain revenge. His white elephants stomped McGraw’s men handily in 1911 and 1913, by which time they were cavorting in the new concrete-and-steel palace that would one day be named for Mack, but which had been christened Shibe Park after the A’s majority owner, baseball equipment magnate Ben Shibe.
Mr. Mack was beloved by his players and known for his ability to build a pitching staff around young talent. But when his highly favored A’s were toppled in the 1914 World Series by the “Miracle Braves” of Boston, he dismantled his franchise. He suspected that gamblers had reached some of his players, he later wrote to Red Smith. His team fell to last place in 1915 and stayed there for seven years. Mack felt his operation could be more financially successful with a first-half contender that settled into third or fourth place than with a pennant winner, which would certainly inspire the players to demand higher salaries. Gradually he built another powerhouse, featuring such future Hall of Famers as Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons. The A’s of 1929-1931 won three pennants and two World Series, right when Ruth and Gehrig were at their peaks. But the stock market crash and ensuing Depression brought the team to its knees, and once again Mack sold off his stars, this time from dire necessity. From 1934 through 1950 his team finished in the first division only once, but even though he was past the age of seventy, Mack didn’t fear for his job; since 1937 he had been the A’s sole owner.
Here the Tall Tactician tells John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News about his greatest day in baseball.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some great baseball in my days. It is wonderful to remember pitchers like Matty and Walsh and Waddell and Johnson and Dean and Grove for more than 40 years. But to me the most thrilling World Series ever played was between the Cubs and Athletics in 1929 and I’ll never forget the performance of Howard Ehmke. You see, Howard and I sort of put a fast one over on everybody and an old man likes to enjoy a chuckle at the expense of a younger generation. Only the two of us knew, two weeks ahead of time, that he was going to pitch the opening game, October 8.
We were leaving on the final western trip of the regular season when I called Howard up to my office in Philadelphia. We had the pennant pretty well in hand by then and so did the Cubs, so we could make plans. Ehmke came in and sat down and I watched him for a few minutes while we just chatted and finally I said: “Howard, there comes a time in everybody’s life when he has to make a change. It looks like you and I finally must part.”
Well, he didn’t say a word for the longest time, it seemed, just twiddled his hat and then he looked right at me and said: “All right, Mr. Mack, if that’s the way it has to be. You’ve been fine to me and I haven’t been much help to you this year. Lucky you haven’t needed me. But I’ve been up a long time and I’ve always had an ambition to pitch in a World Series . . . anywhere, even for only an inning. Honestly, I believe there’s one more good game left in this arm . . .” and he held it up to me like a prize fighter showing his muscle.
I couldn’t help smiling. Howard of course, had no way of knowing what I thought of him. Really he was one of the most artistic pitchers of all time. He was bothered with a sore arm most of his major league career, but he had a great head on him and studied hitters. He might have been a fine pitcher. So I asked him: “You mean you think you could work a World Series game?” He told me: “Yes, Mr. Mack. I feel it.” Then I explained what I had in mind. “So do I,” I said. “I only wanted to see how you felt about it. Now you stay home this trip. The Cubs are coming in. Sit up in the stands and watch them. Make your own notes on how they hit. You’re pitching the first game but don’t tell anybody. I don’t want it known.”
After he’d gone I sat thinking about Howard. Maybe he never realized how close he came to not pitching at all. If he hadn’t talked the way he did . . . if he’d said, for instance: “I realize I’m all through . . . my arm is gone” and accepted what he thought was dismissal, I wouldn’t have worked him even though I had no intention of letting him go anyway.
Finally the big day came around in Wrigley Field. Funny part of it was that none of my players nor even the newspapermen, bothered to ask me who’d start. They all took it for granted it would be Grove, or maybe Earnshaw. Since then people have asked me why I didn’t start Grove, but that’s a secret. I can’t tell, but there was a reason. Anyway we were in the clubhouse before the game and somebody asked Grove if he was working and I heard him say: “The old man didn’t say nothin’ to me.” Mose probably figured it was Earnshaw. When we got outside, they all threw the ball around. Ehmke must have had a sudden doubt that his dream was coming true because he came up to me on the bench and whispered. “Is it still me, Mr. Mack?” I said. “It’s still you . . .” and he was smiling as he walked away.
When it came time for the rival pitcher to warm up, Ehmke, naturally, took off his jacket and started to throw. I made sure I was where I could look along our bench and you could see mouths pop open. Grove was looking at Earnshaw and George was looking at Mose. Al Simmons was sitting next to me and he couldn’t stop himself in time. “Are you gonna pitch him?” he asked in disbelief. I kept a straight face and looked very severely at him and said: “Yes, I am Al. Is that all right with you?” You could sense him pulling himself out of his surprised state and he replied quickly. “If you say so, it’s all right with me, Mr. Mack.”
Voices were muttering down the dugout. Phrases like “the old man must be nuts” and “hell, the guy’s only finished two games all year” trailed off for fear I’d hear ‘em. But I heard. I’ve often wondered what they’d thought of me if we’d been beaten with Grove and Earnshaw and Walberg on the bench. Bob Quinn, who was president of the Red Sox then, was in a box behind our dugout and he said he almost swooned when he saw Ehmke peel off his coat. I suppose the fans and the gentlemen of the press thought old Connie was in his dotage at last. But I was certain about Howard, although if he’d had any trouble early I would have had Grove in the bull pen. We didn’t want to lose.
It was beautiful to watch. I don’t suppose these old eyes ever strained themselves over any game as much as that one. Ehmke was smart. He was just fast enough to be sneaky, just slow enough to get hitters like Wilson and Hornsby and Cuyler, who like to take their cuts, off stride. If you recall, he pitched off his right hip, real close to his shirt. He kept the ball hidden until just before he let it go. The Cubs never got a good look at it and, when they did, it was coming out of those shirts in the old bleachers. Charley Root was fast himself and by the end of the sixth inning neither team had scored. Then Jimmy Foxx hit over Wilson’s head, into the stands, and we led 1-0.
Jimmy touched home plate and came back to the bench and Ehmke said: “Thanks, Jim” and I knew he’d made up his mind maybe that was all the runs he’d get and it would have to do. Only in the third had Howard been in a jam when McMillan singled and English doubled with one out and Hornsby and Wilson were up. Some of my players looked at me as if to say: “Better get somebody warmed up . . . here’s where Ehmke goes,” but he stood there calm and unhurried and struck out the two men on seven pitches. You could tell the crowd had caught the melodrama of what was going on; I don’t believe I ever felt as happy in my life as when he fanned Hornsby and Wilson. Very few pitchers would have done as well in such a tense situation. He justified my faith in him right there.
In the seventh, after Foxx’s hit, Cuyler and Stephenson each singled and Grimm sacrificed. Joe McCarthy decided on pinch hitters. He had Cliff Heathcote hit for Zach Taylor and Simmons took care of a short fly for the second out. Then Gabby Hartnett batted for Root and I was tempted to have Howard put him on and take a chance on the next man, but I said to myself:
“No. This is his game. He asked for it and I gave it to him.”
He struck out Hartnett and we got two runs in the ninth on fumbles by English. I relaxed a little then, but we weren’t quite out of the woods. The Cubs got the tying runs on bases in the ninth, with two out and Charlie Tolson up to pinch-hit. If Ehmke fanned him, he’d break the strikeout record for world series play set by Ed Walsh against the Cubs in 1906 when he fanned 12. Howard already had struck out Hornsby, Wilson, Cuyler and Root twice each. It happened. Tolson went down swinging, too, for Howard’s 13th strikeout and the battle was over. He has lived on that game ever since. So have I.