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The decline and fall of the Philadelphia A's

The Grand Old Man of Baseball: Connie Mack in His Final Years, 1932-1956 - Norman L. Macht

I may have mentioned it in an earlier post, but I am a sucker for multi-volume biographies. For me there is just something about having a person's life covered in detail by someone who has spent years studying their subject's life and times. When they're well-done, I finish them with a profound understanding of that person, one that I usually don't get from shorter studies.


Most multi-volume biographies tend to be of political figures (Lincoln, Hitler, Thatcher) or of prominent artistic and cultural icons (Goethe, Berlioz, Picasso). This was why I was intrigued when I saw that the baseball historian Norman Macht had written a three-volume biography of Connie Mack, a person about whom I knew next to nothing. Did his life justify such attention? And why does it take three volumes to tell the story of it?


It turns out that the answer to the second question is pretty straightforward, as Macht writes not just an account of Mack's like and times, but a season-by-season chronicle of the Philadelphia A's. It's an understandable decision, given the importance of the team to Mack's life -- he was both majority owner and manager of the club. And to Macht's credit, he never loses sight of the fact that his book is a biography of Mack and not a history of the team. But it does result in the book that one has to be a baseball fan to enjoy, which may be obvious given the subject but is nonetheless true to provide the perseverance necessary to wade through the details.


Macht's tale is a sad one of the decline and departure of a storied baseball club. The story picks up at the start of 1932, with the A's recovering from a close loss in the world Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Though Macht regards the team as possibly the best in the history of baseball, Mack was soon forced to sell some of his top players due to the increasing financial strictures imposed by the Great Depression. With attendance declining dramatically, Mack had to cut costs and the only way he could was by reducing his payroll.


Despite his cutbacks, Mack still pined for another pennant, and he scoured the country looking for good players. Yet Macht notes that for all of Mack's knowledge about the game, he missed out of the future: the farm system. Slow to adopt it himself, Mack's teams had to struggle uphill against organizations with well-groomed player ready for the big leagues. Though Mack made halfhearted gestures to create a farm system by the end of the 1930s, throughout most of the decade his teams fought simply to post winning records. Though baseball recovered by the end of the decade, America's entry into World War II forced another four years of hobbled play. It was only after the war that the octogenarian Mack finally had his last opportunity to win a pennant, only to fall short in 1948.


Macht recounts all of this is a book heavily seasoned with anecdotes. They make for lively reading, conveying a time when professional baseball was a lot more haphazard and fun than it seems today. They also make this a book primarily written for baseball fans, something further underscored by Mack's frequent use of baseball slang, which is provided without explanation. It's a minor barrier, though, for anyone who is interested in learning about the fascinating life of a baseball legend, one whose life spanned the establishment of "America's pastime."