By Doug Koztoski
In the beginning there was light. Not too long after that, at least in terms of the early years of big league baseball, there was a light-hitting catcher known by some as Cornelius McGillicuddy, but best identified as Connie Mack.
Major League Baseball’s National League started in 1876. A decade later, the same year as the Statue of Liberty’s dedication, Mack debuted in big league baseball as a catcher with the Washington Nationals. The tall, thin backstop, nicknamed “Slats,” went on to play 11 seasons of pro baseball, the last six with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where for the final three years he also managed the ballclub.
“Slats” earned his slot in MLB history with the most wins by any field general: 3,731. Much of the success came with the Philadelphia Athletics, a team he managed for the franchise’s first 50 years of existence, starting in 1901, when the National League’s rival American League began. For many years he was part owner of the Athletics, as well.
The greatest period for “The Tall Tactician” came shortly after the Ford Motor Co. started cranking out its famed Model T in 1908, as Mack and Co. seemed to have the assembly line to baseball success with pennants in 1910-11 and 1913-14, winning the World Series the first three of those appearances. He later added Series crowns in 1929 and 1930 and just missed a third straight title in 1931, Mack’s final team to play in a Fall Classic.
Matthew Farmer is a seasoned Oakland A’s fan and collector, and over time he delved into the team’s decades in Philadelphia, too.
“I have on the PSA Registry a graded and posted autograph set (in progress) of the 1930 Athletics team,” he said. “I have beautiful signatures of Connie Mack, Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane.”
Mack’s signature is a Farmer favorite. “Looking at his autograph, it is amazing. Every letter is signed with care and easy to make out,” he noted. “You can really tell when Mack signed items, his took his time, unlike what (often) happens today.”
At some point, Farmer would like to add a personally penned Mack letter to his collection. “He was a prodigious writer during his life and was known to pretty much answer every letter sent to him,” said the hobbyist. “He enjoyed it and devoted time each day to letter writing.”
Earning election into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, Mack not only stood out in his time for his relatively long 6-foot-2 frame, but also because he wore a business suit and tie while managing.
The Massachusetts native certainly made his fair share of appearances on a baseball diamond, and likewise can be said for him in trading card sets.
You be the judge
In the much-in-demand Old Judge Cigarettes issues (1887-90), some of the first card offerings with widespread distribution, Mack can be found in different poses; in the most entertaining, he stoops with his hands on his knees seemingly mesmerized by a baseball at about eye level.
Among the manager’s early 20th-century cards is one celebrating his team’s success: the 1911 Cullivan’s Fireside Philadelphia A’s (T208) issue. Mack and 17 of the title-winning Athletics players comprise the hard-to-find set. Commons alone go for thousands in mid-range condition.
A cross section of other Mack-included sets from the era: 1906 Fan Craze; 1910 Old Put Cigar; 1910 E98 “Set of 30”; 1913 Tom Barker’s Game and The National Game, both with black-and-white photos; 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack; 1916 Ferguson Bakery Felt Pennants. Some near pristine Mack E98s were rediscovered in the famous “Black Swamp Find” about four years ago and sold for big money.
The 1940 Play Ball set contained a handful of retired all-time greats (Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and others) mixed in with the players of the day, such as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Mack’s card (#132) mingles well amongst both camps.
In 1950, Mack’s managing finale, he appeared in a couple of smaller sets (Callahan Hall of Fame and the tiny R423 issue) and came out with his book My 66 Years in the Big Leagues. At some point four cards were included with the book, Mack, Babe Ruth and pitchers Rube Waddell and Mathewson. Some say the cards came out in 1950, others say 1951. Either way, those cards are scarce and in high demand.
Mathewson, by the way, appeared as one of 11 players in the 1951 Topps “Connie Mack’s All-Stars” issue, a rare die-cut offering. Mack described Mathewson as “the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgement, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you.”
Mack went to the big dugout in the sky in 1956 at age 93. Some other cards of his with a solid vintage came out a few years afterward: the 1960 and 1961 Fleer Baseball Greats and the 1963 Bazooka All-Time Greats.
“Great” and Mack go together like a well-turned double play, mainly for his managerial exploits – as most people know of the man. With about 1,000 wins more than any other manager in big league history, his place in pro baseball annals will likely never seriously be challenged. It all seems fitting for a guy who once said, “No matter what I talk about, I always get back to baseball.” But in a way baseball was much like the sharp clothes that Mack was known for. Yet he stood tall for much more.
In 2015, many readers and critics, alike, strongly welcomed The Grand Old Man of Baseball: Connie Mack in His Final Years, 1932-1956 (University of Nebraska Press), the third installment in the Mack biography series by Norman L. Macht.
It’s no surprise the other pair of Macht books on the baseball icon drew high praise, too.
Farmer read the Macht books on the legend and one of the biggest nuggets the collector garnered from the trilogy was that Mack was not the “skin flint owner” as some have portrayed him – in fact, quite the contrary.
“Throughout his life he quietly gave money to downtrodden former players, various charities and those in need,” said Farmer. “Mack was extremely generous and put himself second to many people. When all of this is considered in context, it really paints a picture of a phenomenal human being.”
A winner on the field much of the time and an even bigger success off the field in many ways in private, Mack truly was a “bright light” from beginning to end.
“The $100,000 Infield”
With “Stuffy” McInnis at first base, Eddie Collins at second and Jack Barry and Frank “Home Run” Baker at shortstop and third, respectively, the Philadelphia Athletics sported one of the best and most famous infield lineups in history. The foursome played together on the four pennant winners between 1910 and 1914. Mack said the athletes were so good that he would not sell them for the then princely amount of $100,000.
Collins and Baker, however, the two eventual Hall of Famers in the group, left the team after the 1914 season, partly due to financial competition from the new but short-lived Federal League (1913-15), as salaries skyrocketed. The “outlaw” baseball league, as some refer to it, helped prompt Mack to sell Collins’ contract to the Chicago White Sox in late 1914. Baker sat out 1915 due to a contract dispute and was later sold to the Yankees.
A good shot of the core of the famed glovesmen appears on a few different cards in the T202 Hassan Triple Folders issue with the middle panel labeled as “The Athletic Infield.” One version also features Baker and Barry on the side panels (#115).
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.