Indie Sport
He was born during the Civil War and died on this date, February 8, at the height of the Eisenhower administration, a span that bridged Lincoln's "house divided" and a nation basking in victory. Fittingly, and illustratively, his Hall of Fame career mirrored both ends of this American spectrum.

He played baseball for the Washington Nationals, the Buffalo Bisons, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, but his name is inextricably linked with the team that still bears its original, modest, turn of the century moniker, the Athletics. And though they now ply their craft in Oakland, the club that Connie Mack managed in Philadelphia for fifty consecutive years is once again infused with his ethos.

Mack was not only the manager of the Athletics, he was their owner-- a controller akin to George Steinbrenner, but a classier version who possessed the nerve to direct his men from the field, where the buck always stopped. He was a staunch traditionalist, universally addressed by his players as "Mr. Mack." But he was also fiercely independent, eschewing the manager's custom of wearing his team's uniform in favor of a business suit and bowler. Imagine Joe Torre walking to the mound to give his pitcher the hook in a get-up like that and you see right away just how indie Mr. Mack really was.

Like the present-day Athletics of Oakland, who arrived in the East Bay by way of Kansas City, the Philadelphia A's were run on a shoestring, always struggling to compete with their wealthier competitors. They had barely been founded as an original franchise of the upstart American League when, in 1901, Mack bought in. His decision was derided by the legendary New York Giants manager, John McGraw of the far more established National League, who described the Athletics as "a white elephant nobody wanted." Ever the ingenious gentleman, Mack ignored the insult, embraced the imagery, and adopted the white elephant as the team's logo, an emblem that remains in use today and is as poignant as it was more than a hundred years ago.

With patience, guile, and savvy Mack built a contender, and then a champion, winning the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913 with his fabled $100,000 infield of Eddie Collins, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Jack Berry, and Stuffy McInnis. Mack, a skinflint by nature and necessity, of course did not pay this quartet $100,000. Their nickname actually referred to their appraised value on the open market. And in what would become the case throughout the history of the Athletics, the nucleus of stars who coalesced into a team of champions was broken up when the club could no longer afford to keep them-- but not before the white elephant stomped the arrogant McGraw and his Giants in the 1911 Series.

What followed in the wake of glory was something quite else: seven consecutive last place finishes between 1915 and 1921, including a 36-117 record in 1916, the lowest winning percentage in modern major league history.

Lacking the funds to build a true dynasty like his rival, the New York Yankees, Mack persevered and had one final run of greatness with his 1929-31 juggernaut, who won three consecutive pennants and two World Series before the hardships of the Great Depression led to their dissolution. He pressed on stoically for another nineteen seasons, in the midst of which his club finished last or second-to-last twelve consecutive seasons. When he finally called it quits as a manager in 1950 he was eighty-seven years old.

Perhaps no example reveals Mack's resourcefulness for getting the most out of what he had-- or the reason we now have a players union-- than the July 10, 1932 single-game "series" between the Athletics and the Cleveland Indians. The game was scheduled for Sunday, but Pennsylvania's blue laws prohibited play on the sabbath, necessitating a road trip to Cleveland. To save money, Mack brought along only two pitchers and when his starter was knocked out of the game in the first inning, the show was handed over to knuckleballer Eddie Rommel.

In a mind boggling contest of ebb and flow, the game, and Rommel, went on another 17 innings, with Cleveland pounding out a league-record 33 hits before succumbing 18-17. It was a manifestation of both the franchise's circumstances and its soul.

By the time Mack died in 1956 at the age of ninety-three, the Athletics had moved to Kansas City, where they languished another fourteen years as bottom dwellers and, on occasion, as a de facto extension of the Yankees' farm system. It would not be until 1972 that the team would return to greatness, in Oakland, under the bombastic tightwad, Charlie Finley, a Connie Mack wannabe who sacreligiously replaced the white elephant mascot with a mule bearing his name. Finley was as reviled as Mack was beloved, and the underpaid Athletics, motivated by a collective contempt for their owner, harkened back to their gloried past and won three consecutive World Series before they were dismantled in the fiscal tradition of the organization, and faded back into oblivion.

Fortuitously, they and the white elephant were plucked from the orphanage by Walter Haas, the great grand-nephew of Levi Strauss, whose beneficent ownership resulted in three consecutive World Series appearances and one World Series title, before he closed the book on the fairy tale and the team returned to its roots as poor cousins fighting for scraps.

And fight they have, under the brilliant leadership of Connie Mack's 21st century incarnation, Billy Beane, who has alchemized the old man's formula for winning every few decades on the cheap into Money Ball, an ingenious low budget model that relies on statistical insight to uncover talent flying under the radar. True to form, the Athletics remain a revolving door of personnel as their performers steadily follow the money trail out of town. But unlike the past, these Athletics have weathered the exodus unfazed, systematically repopulating and averaging 90 bargain basement wins per season the past decade in their grass roots campaign to challenge the vain and easy power of the wallet.

Connie Mack has been gone fifty-two years today. But his legacy lives on, with and within his beloved Athletics, the white elephant whose time may have finally come.


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