Connie Mack's hometown marks 150th anniversary of his birth

Posted: September 17, 2012

EAST BROOKFIELD, Mass. - Like the Quaboag tribe that once thrived here, Connie Mack had become a largely forgotten artifact in his New England hometown's history.

His boyhood home on North Brookfield Road was destroyed by fire almost a century ago. The farm where he picked vegetables, the cotton mill where he earned 25 cents a day, the one-room schoolhouse where he acquired all eight years of his formal education are gone, too. A bank now occupies the field where Mack learned baseball. And while there are still a few McGillicuddys in town, the family's nexus has shifted south, to Florida.

"The young people here don't know him," said Larry Gordon, whose house on North Brookfield Road stands on property the Macks once owned. "The old people probably know that he was an old-time baseball player but have no idea about the other things that made him famous. He just isn't as popular up here as he is in Philadelphia."

That should change now.

This weekend this old shoe-factory town 12 miles west of Worcester paid tribute to its most noteworthy native with a two-day celebration marking the 150th anniversary of Mack's birth.

Not surprisingly, Philadelphia, where Mack spent more than 50 years of his Hall of Fame career as the manager/owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, provided the impetus and much of the content for the event.

A year ago Dan Lambert, a town official, was in Philadelphia on business. He stopped by the Philadelphia A's Historical Society's museum in Hatboro and discovered that 2012 would mark the 150th anniversary of Mack's birth.

"We decided we really had to do something," said Gordon. "Dick Rosen, who's the president of the Philadelphia A's society, planned this whole event [a series of talks on various aspects of Mack's life]. The whole thing has grown so much bigger than we ever envisioned."

The two-day tribute included Friday's lectures as well as an exhibit of Mack-related memorabilia. Saturday's agenda was filled with the kind of small-town events 19th-century Americans like Mack were familiar with - a Main Street parade, a carnival, band concert, and chicken barbecue all capped by a re-created 1883 baseball game at Connie Mack Field.

The commemoration attracted an eclectic mix of family members, Philadelphia-linked Mack disciples, and locals who were curious to learn more about a fellow citizen who overcame a lack of formal education, a bad temper, and an alcoholic father to lead the A's to nine pennants and five World Series titles.

They included Rosen and several members of the A's Historical Society; the aged children of the South Philadelphian who served as that team's trainer for more than 30 years; the last surviving member of the A's front office; the biographer who has been obsessively working 27 years on Mack's story; and three generations of Connie Mack's namesakes.

"I also bring you greetings from Connie Mack's daughter, Ruth, who is 98 now and living in a nursing home outside Philadelphia," biographer Norman Macht told an audience of more than 100 who had gathered for the lectures in East Brookfield Elementary School's auditorium. "She desperately wanted to be here but her health wouldn't permit it."

Nearby, Connie Mack III, a former U.S. senator from Florida, posed for photos alongside a wall covered with students' crayon-and-construction paper depictions of his grandfather, some with the old man in a bowler hat and high-collared shirt, others with him wearing his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.

"You look so much like your grandfather," one woman told Mack as she studied the children's work.

Mack, accompanied by a nephew who still resides here, Dennis, replied that the family resemblance was a powerful one. Several years ago, on a visit to County Kerry, Ireland, he said he encountered some McGillicuddy relatives in a pub.

"These two teenage girls came in and, I swear, they were the spitting images of my own daughters," Mack said. "It was eerie."

Saturday, Mack III was joined by his son, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV (R., Fla.), who is running for the U.S. Senate, and by his 9-year-old grandson, Connie Mack V.

"Cinco de Mayo is a big concept in Florida, so my wife calls our grandson 'Cinco de Macko,' " he said.

Like their famous namesake, the contemporary Macks have officially retained the McGillicuddy surname. They traveled here in part to learn more about the place to which their Irish ancestors emigrated early in the 19th century.

"There's a lot to learn here," said Macht, 83, who has published two books in the three-part biography he began in 1985. "They don't throw anything away in East Brookfield."

A display case in the school lobby held Mack's pocket watch and the woolen uniform he wore in an 1883 Central Massachusetts League championship game that his East Brookfield team won, 2-1, over North Brookfield. There were photos and programs from both that 1883 game and a 1934 event here at which Mack and Broadway legend George M. Cohan, who grew up in North Brookfield, were honored here jointly.

"Cohan was 15 years younger than Mack, but the two became great friends," said Brandon Avery of the North Brookfield Historical Society. "It's amazing when you think about the things Mack did in his life. He knew Franklin Roosevelt. He took a team to Japan. He won five World Series. And it all started here."

The ball field that bears his name and the street leading to it - Connie Mack Road - are the only visible reminders that Mack spent the first 21 years of his life here.

He was born in 1862 in a small rented house at Main and Maple Streets while his father, Michael, a wheelwright, was away fighting in the Civil War. The war scarred Mack's father, an alcoholic who never worked again and became a regular at Steven's Tavern. By then the Macks had moved to the small North Brookfield Road cottage they'd purchased for $625.

"I've read that they grew things out back there and had cows and pigs," Gordon said. "I live there now and I'd love to know how they fit all those things on that small piece of property."

Mack, because of his father's alcoholism and his mother's determination that it not be repeated in his children, never drank. He was, Macht said, forever self-conscious about his lack of education, but once he learned to control his temper he set about transforming himself into a gentleman.

"You people in East Brookfield probably believe Connie Mack was always this tall, white-haired, saintly person," Macht told the audience. "But when he was young he was hot-tempered. There was one occasion in New York where it took two people to drag him off the field after an argument."

Mack went to work at 14 in a local mill. During lunch, in the evenings, and on Sundays, he and his friends would play baseball in a field across the street from his home.

After the triumph in that 1883 game - Mack would always say it was his greatest day on a baseball field - an East Brookfield teammate, Will Hogan, was signed by a professional team in Meriden, Conn. Hogan asked that Mack be given a tryout. The lanky catcher nicknamed "Slats" impressed, and one of the longest careers in baseball history began.

Dick Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister who worked as the A's public-relations person in the last years before their 1955 move to Kansas City, said his elderly boss commanded so much respect that virtually everyone called him "Mr. Mack."

"I've never met anyone who didn't love the man," Armstrong said.

Betty Tanley Carter, whose father, Ted, a South Philly native who was the A's longtime trainer, said she and brother Fran met Mack on several occasions at Shibe Park, the North Philadelphia ballpark later renamed for him.

"He was always so nice and polite," said Carter, 73, of New Haven. "Baseball is still extremely popular, but back then it truly was America's pastime. It was so special for us as kids to have been a part of all that."

While the lectures were taking place, a father and his teenage son roamed the lobby exhibits, the boy increasingly amazed by what he learned about this fellow East Brookfield resident.

"I can't believe it," the boy said. "Someone from East Brookfield is in the Hall of Fame."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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