The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that baseball was a sport, not a business. But Connie Mack always saw it as a business first. Like any business, it had to show profit to keep going. “It is more profitable for me to have a team that is in contention for most of the season but finishes about fourth,” he once confided. “A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don’t have to give the players raises when they don’t win.” But of course Mr. Mack – as he was universally addressed – liked winners. He had nine of them, and won five World Series. He also holds the managerial record for most wins lifetime with 3776 – but he attained it through longevity. With it came the records for most losses (4,025) and most games managed (7878).
For 50 of his 60 years in baseball, he had an ownership interest in the team he managed, the Philadelphia Athletics. He started in 1901 with a 25 percent piece of the team and eventually became sole owner. Baseball was his only business. Gate receipts and concessions sales were the only sources of capital he had to work with. He never had any corporate coffers to tap and never took much money out of the game. It was financial realities that forced him to break up two of the greatest teams ever put together. After winning four pennants in five years from 1910 to 1914, he lost some of his stars to the Federal League‘s higher salaries, and sold off his other top players. The Athletics fell from first to last and stayed there for seven years.
Gradually he built another winner. From 1925 through 1933 the Athletics finished no lower than third, dethroning the Yankees in 1929-30-31 with a team that rivals the 1927 Yankees for all-time honors. Once again, squeezed between declining attendance brought on by runaway pennant races, the Great Depression, and higher salary demands of his champion players, Mack sold his stars and dismantled his last winning team. For the last 17 years, until he retired at 88 in 1950, the Athletics had only one first-division finish, fourth in 1948.
Behind the saintly, grandfatherly appearance of the 6’1″ 150-lb, ramrod-straight, blue-eyed Mr. Mack, there was a complex personality, a blend of patience and impetuosity, kindness and stubbornness, tightfistedness and generosity. He never raised his voice and seldom confronted a player in front of his teammates, but he could put a man in his place with a cutting sarcastic comment. He disdained swearing, but did sometimes cut loose with a salty barrage. To strangers of any age who approached him in a hotel lobby or dining room, he was invariably courtly and pleasant. Despite a tendency to mispronounce some names and forget others, he had an unfailing memory for the faces of old friends from his hometown, East Brookfields, Massachusetts, and gave them a genuinely warm welcome whenever they came to Boston to see the Athletics play.
From the beginning in Philadelphia he never wore a uniform on the bench, and rarely went into the clubhouse except for a pre-game meeting, a practice he inaugurated in the major leagues. He was called the tenth man on the field for his ability to move his fielders, using his scorecard, into the proper positions. He liked tall, strong pitchers and considered pitching eighty percent of the game.
Mack was born to Irish immigrants, the third of seven children. He was attracted to the early forms of baseball at a young age, and played infield and outfield positions before becoming the town team’s regular catcher. After they won the state championship in 1883, Mack offered his services to several teams in the Connecticut State League, and was signed by Meriden (with his battery mate and later brother-in-law Willie Hogan) for the 1884 season, at $90 a month. He played for Hartford the next two years (in the Eastern League in 1886) and was sold at the end of the season to Washington in the National League.
In 1890 Mack was an avid supporter of the revolt that led to the formation of the Players’ League. He signed with Buffalo and got his first taste of club ownership, investing his life savings of $500 in the team. He lost it all.
Assigned to Pittsburgh in 1891, he replaced Al Buckenberger as manager toward the end of the 1894 season. By 1896 front office interference caused him to look elsewhere. The Milwaukee club in Ban Johnson‘s Western League was making a change, and in 1897 Mack began four years of managing and running the business affairs of the team. They were years in which he learned more about the game than at any other time. Mack’s connection with Johnson led to an offer to organize and manage the Philadelphia entry in the new American League in 1901. With the financial backing of sporting goods maufacturer Ben Shibe, Mack began his 50-year reign in the dugout and front office. The Athletics were the dominant team in the young league, winning 6 of the first 14 pennants. In 1933 he managed the American League in the first All-Star Game.
Four years after he retired, the Athletics were sold to Arnold Johnson and moved to Kansas City in 1955.
As a player, Mack played every position in the majors except third base and pitcher, but he was primarily a brainy, wily, sometimes rule-bending catcher. He distracted batters with his chatter, was not above tipping a hitter’s bat just before a swing, and learned to make a slapping sound as a batter swung and missed that made it sound like a foul tip. He was a .245 lifetime hitter; his best season was 1893 (the first year the pitcher was moved to 60’6″ from the former distance of 50′), when he hit .293.
Mack’s first wife died in 1892, leaving three children. His sons, Roy and Earle, were active in the team’s operation. He remarried in 1910 and had a son, Connie, Jr., who was also involved in the team, and four daughters. From the start Connie Mack was the most popular player with the fans wherever he played. Meriden fans gave him a gold watch in 1884. Washington fans gave him a silver tray. For the first half of the 20th century he was probably the best-loved and most respected man in any field in America.