1915 The Great Connie Mack Fire Sale

Sensing bad vibes and bad finances, Philadelphia A's manager Connie Mack tears apart his first dynasty.

Having won four of the last five American League pennants, Philadelphia A’s front man Connie Mack sees too much red ink from rising player salaries and dumps his star talent, diving what’s left of a once-invincible squad into an unprecedented freefall.

As the Federal League began its second campaign in 1915, more than a few wondered whether it could play out the year. Though the FL had staged a fine first impression on the baseball public, the money put forward to spearhead its effort was fast evaporating. The only solution they could think of was to sue major league baseball for antitrust violations. Hearing the case in Chicago would be a famed, crusty trustbuster who doubled as a devout baseball fan: Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

While the FL was quickly making a victim of itself in saturating the baseball market, it was also making an impact on the two established major leagues as well.

Nobody felt that impact worse than Connie Mack and his Philadelphia Athletics.

As the American League entered its 15th season, Mack had emerged as its goodwill ambassador. His gentile personality was matched by his ability to bring constant success to his franchise. Mack remained as the league’s only active charter manager, and in his 14 years with the A’s, he produced six American League pennants with three World Series triumphs—all achieved over the previous five years, courtesy of the league’s most powerful dynasty to date.

But even as the A’s ran away with another pennant in 1914, attendance shrunk to nearly half the previous year’s total, the Shibe Park faithful perhaps more spoiled over their team’s monotony of dominance.

While the Feds had little to do with the decreased gateA national recession may have contributed to lagging ticket sales in Philadelphia.—they provided no direct competition in Philadelphia—they were more likely to be blamed for the state of mind in Mack’s clubhouse. Baseball’s best grouping of talent had begun to argue with one another over who would jump to the Feds and who would remain loyal to the Tall Tactician.

While most star players were exiting out of Philadelphia, future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie came back to the A’s where he began his AL career in 1901. But at age 39, he had almost nothing left.

But after the A’s sleepwalking performance against the Miracle Braves in the 1914 World Series, the only loyalty Mack could entrust was to his franchise’s bottom line. He knew his vast supply of talent would slip away to the Feds if he didn’t pay them what they thought they were worth. Problem was, the A’s were losing lots of money—with not much left.

Mack knew that, one way or the other, his dynasty would get dismantled. So he decided to do it himself, on his own terms.

Wasting little time after the Series loss to Boston, Mack set an unmistakable tone for what was to follow. In one day, he released his three top veteran pitchers—Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and Jack Coombs—who between them had won 596 games for Mack, nearly half of the A’s all-time total to date. All three pitchers cleared waivers and Mack lost any chance to get something in return. Free agents all, Plank and Bender migrated to the Federal League, Coombs to Brooklyn.

Shortly thereafter, Mack had to send Eddie Collins, his best offensive weapon, to Chicago after Collins threatened to jump to the Feds. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey paid Mack $50,000 to acquire Collins and assume his multi-year contract at $15,000 a season.

Home Run Baker, the team’s perennial deadball slugger also under a multi-year contract, wanted to stay with the A’s, but also wanted renegotiation. Mack wouldn’t budge, and neither would Baker, whose ensuing holdout would last through all of 1915.

Mack made one newsworthy acquisition during the offseason, bringing in Nap Lajoie from Cleveland. But at 39, Lajoie was no longer the superstar of lore, sending a clue that Mack’s purchase was a skeletal gesture to the fans.

If what was left of the A’s was to be underwhelming to their opponents, it wasn’t noticed on Opening Day. Starting pitcher Herb Pennock threw a one-hit shutout against the Boston Red Sox, with Harry Hooper breaking up a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth.

Four of the A’s top young pitchers, from left to right: Herb Pennock, Weldon Wyckoff, Bullet Joe Bush and Bob Shawkey. In 1914, they combined to go 54-32 with a 2.90 ERA. In 1915, the group deteriorated to 24-48 and 3.91; Pennock and Shawkey would be traded before the year was done.

A month later, Mack punished Pennock for being too good; he was placed on waivers. Having seen him up close and personal, the Red Sox gladly picked up Pennock, who resumed his trek towards the Hall of Fame.

Things went immediately downhill after Opening Day. Lajoie committed five errors in a game one week later. The A’s headed straight for last place, and when it seemed they had hit rock bottom, they fell even deeper.

The talent of the young pitching staff evaporated. Rube Bressler, who in 1914 won ten of 14 decisions with a stellar 1.77 earned run average, crashed to 4-17 and a 5.20 ERA in 1915. Bullet Joe Bush, a 17-12 hurler the year before, dropped to 5-15. Weldon Wyckoff led the A’s with ten wins. He lost 22.

In one game Mack threw at the opposition Bruno HaasHaas reinvented himself as a star minor league hitter with the St. Paul Saints during the 1920s.. Haas went the distance, but it was an exercise in torture; losing 15-7, he gave up 11 hits, a major league-record 16 walks, and threw three wild pitches.

By plummeting 56 games from their 1914 record, the A’s set the major league mark for the worst one-year performance drop. Below is the list of the five such steepest declines.

As the team descended through the season, Mack continued to deal away his players for cash, though by now those who got traded we’re probably happy to go. Pitcher Bob Shawkey was sold to the New York Yankees; outfielder Eddie Murphy, to the White Sox; and shortstop Jack Berry, to the Red Sox. Berry’s departure left behind only Stuffy McInnis from the famed “$100,000 Infield,” a group of talent—if not a dollar figure—Mack could no longer afford to maintain.

By season’s end, the A’s were a laughable imitation of their former greatness. They finished at 43-109, a staggering 56-game turnaround from the year before. As their record plummeted, so did attendance. The average crowd at Shibe Park fell below 2,000.

Mack, to his credit, gave it all he could, as evidenced by the record 56 players he tried out in uniform during the season. He waxed philosophical when it was over, making the understatement of his career: “You can’t win ’em all.”

Unbelievably, it would get even worse before it got better for the Athletics. And it wouldn’t get better for a long time.

For the second straight year, Philadelphia and Boston would be represented in the World Series. But it would be the “other” teams—the Phillies and the Red Sox—vying for the title.

For the Phillies, it was their first National League pennant in their 33-year existence. Stuck for a decade around the .500 level, the Phillies broke to the top under rookie manager Pat Moran—but in getting there, had to hold off another miracle attempt by the Boston Braves to claim the NL flag. As with 1914, the Braves went on a run after getting stuck in last place in July—but this time, the magic fell shortWhat the Braves lacked in 1915: Their clutch game and a decent batting average (the NL’s worst at .240).) .. Boston could only extend as far as second place, finishing eight games back.

Two top players who enjoyed the year of their lives boosted the Phillies. Pete Alexander had perhaps the finest season of his great career, leading the NL with 31 wins (against just ten losses), a 1.22 ERA and an exhausting 376 innings pitched; opponents hit just .191 against him. Offensively, the Phillies were shouldered by slugger Gavvy Cravath, whose 24 home runs nearly doubled the runner-up total. It would be the most homers hit in the 20th Century before Babe Ruth emerged as an everyday hitter.

In his first full year in the majors, Babe Ruth excelled on the mound for the Red Sox with an 18-8 record and 2.44 ERA; with a bat, Ruth’s four home runs—in just 92 at-bats—led the Red Sox.

In Boston, it was Ruth who helped propel the Red Sox back to the World Series—mostly by pitching. The 20-year old lefty won 18 of 26 decisions and was part of an impressively youthful five-man rotation. Ruth was also beginning to raise a few eyebrows at the plate; despite batting just 92 times during the year, Ruth’s four home runs were more than anyone else—regulars included—on the Red Sox. His .315 batting average was surpassed on the roster only by the great Tris Speaker.

The Red Sox survived a close and highly competitive pennant race with the Detroit Tigers to take the AL flag.

Both teams had reached the 100-win mark, but the Red Sox had an extra win—and four less losses—to pull away by 2.5 games. Crucial was head-to-head competition between the two teams, of which the Red Sox won 14 of 22. Detroit fell short in spite of another batting title for Ty Cobb, who spiced the achievement with 96 stolen bases—a record that would stand for 47 years.

Both the Red Sox and the Phillies did what they could to bring in extra customers for the World Series. Those adjustments would first handicap, then backfire upon, the Phillies.

For the first two games at Philadelphia, owner William Baker had installed 400 additional seats in right-center field to help ante up more cash for his coffers. But he also did it to make the relative small dimensions of the Baker Bowl even cozier for slugger Gavvy Cravath against a Red Sox lineup that had shown no longball muscle all year. But Cravath was neutralized by stellar Boston pitching, and the Phillies were lucky to split the first two games thanks to a solid outing by Alexander in Game One.

In an era where ten home runs in a season qualified a player’s reputation as that of a power slugger, Gavvy Cravath’s total of 24 in 1915 must have been considered quite a blockbuster. Cravath’s output was, in fact, the most by a player during the deadball era, before Babe Ruth began completely rewriting the recordbook in 1919.

A year after the Sox had loaned Fenway Park to the Braves during their World Series drive, the defending champs—having since built Braves Field—returned the favor and allowed the Sox to play at their new ballpark for the Series. Strategically, as well as economically, the decision was a no-brainer; Braves Field sat nearly 10,000 more spectators, and its immensely spacious outfield—which included a 550-foot distance from home plate to just right-of-center, and 400 feet down the lines—would hurt Cravath’s chances of driving one out.

Behind more outstanding pitching by Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore, the Red Sox won both games at Braves Field by 2-1 scores to take a 3-1 Series lead back to the Baker Bowl.

In a seesaw Game Five, the Red Sox became the ironic benefactors of William Baker’s greed. Outfielder Harry Hooper erased an early 2-1 Phillie lead by bouncing a line drive into the temporary bleachers behind right-center field—decreed, according to the ground rules, as a home run. After the Phillies reclaimed the lead at 4-2, the Sox tied it up in the eighth inning on a two-run homer—the legitimate, over-the-fence-on-the-fly kind—by Duffy Lewis.

In his first full year in the majors, Babe Ruth excelled on the mound for the Red Sox with an 18-8 record and 2.44 ERA; with a bat, Ruth’s four home runs—in just 92 at-bats—led the Red Sox.

But in the ninth, Hooper again foiled Baker’s best-laid plans by drilling another bouncer into the same extra seating in right-center. The second of Hooper’s hoping homers matched his entire regular season total, and rewarded the Red Sox with a lead they would keep to help capture their third World Series title.

Only three Red Sox pitchers—Leonard, Shore and Rube Foster—were needed in Boston’s five-game triumph. Babe Ruth sat on the bench, appearing only once in the Series as an unsuccessful pinch-hitter. More frustrated was Gavvy Cravath, who at least had the chance to contribute. Handcuffed throughout, he managed only two hits in 16 at-bats.

Before the season closed down, Kenesaw Mountain Landis had closed his book on the antitrust lawsuit brought on by the Federal League—telling both parties to settle it amongst themselves. It neutered the Feds’ ability to sue for peace and forced them to negotiate, dooming any hope for survival.

Just before Christmas, the three leagues reached agreement. Fed owners in Chicago and St. Louis were allowed to purchase, respectively, the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Browns and bring aboard their players. Other Fed franchises got healthy doses of severance pay. All Fed players became free agents, and the league officially declared itself defunct after just two seasons.

Feeling they got the very short end of the settlement stick, owners for the Feds’ Baltimore Terrapins went back to court to keep the antitrust suit alive. Their long and winding road would lead to the Supreme Court seven years later, where they met resounding defeat—and witnessed the creation of a little something for baseball called the antitrust exemption.

1916 baseball historyForward to 1916: A Test of Robins Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson takes on former pal and current foe John McGraw for the National League pennant.

1914 baseball historyBack to 1914: The Miracle Braves Cellar-bound in July, the usually hapless Boston Braves perform one of the game's greatest turnarounds.

1910s baseball historyThe 1910s Page: The Feds, the Fight and the Fix The majors suffer growing pains as they deal with a fledgling third league, increased scandal and gambling problems, and a brief interruption from the Great War.

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1915 Standings

National League
Philadelphia Phillies
Boston Braves
Brooklyn Robins
Chicago Cubs
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds
New York Giants
American League
Boston Red Sox
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Washington Senators
New York Yankees
St. Louis Browns
Cleveland Indians
Philadelphia Athletics

1915 Postseason Results
World Series Boston (AL) defeated Philadelphia (NL), 4-1.

It Happened in 1915

One Down, 713 to Go
Babe Ruth hits his first major league home run on May 6 for the Boston Red Sox. Ironically, the 20-year-old connects against the New York Yankees, the team for which he will ultimately become famous. Jack Warhop is the first of many pitchers to serve Ruth with a gopher ball; Ruth’s homer (and his 13 innings of pitching) will be wasted as the Red Sox lose at New York’s Polo Grounds, 4-3.

Kauff Suppressant
Benny Kauff, who tore apart the Federal League during its inaugural 1914 campaign, is persuaded to sign with the New York Giants and goes so far as to take the field for his first National League contest on April 29—but can do nothing more as the opposing Boston Braves protest his presence and refuse to play. The umpires overrule the Braves’ objection and reward the Giants with a forfeit win. NL President John Tener we’ll later rule Kauff ineligible, fearing New York’s ambush signing will cause FL teams to retaliate by raiding NL rosters. Ironically, Tener will also rule against the Giants’ forfeit win and acknowledge the results of a “practice” game the Giants and Braves went ahead and played, won by Boston, 13-8. Kauff will “rejoin” the Giants after the FL folds.

Stealing So Many Bases…But Few Hearts
Ty Cobb sets a major league record with 96 stolen bases that will hold up until Maury Wills reaches the century mark in 1962. Cobb attributes his success to an offseason regimen in which he wears weights around his hunting shoes to strengthen his legs. The fiery Tiger is tagged out 38 times attempting to steal, setting another mark that Rickey Henderson will erase in his record-breaking year of 1982.

What Can We Say, Ray?
New York Yankee pitcher Ray Caldwell is the unlikely choice to become the first American Leaguer to hit two consecutive pinch-hit home runs, on June 10 and 11. Continuing his momentum the next day, Caldwell will homer in the role of starting pitcher. He will hit only five other home runs over a 12-year career.

A Running Start
The Washington Senators steal a major league record eight bases in the first inning off the Indians and catcher Steve O’Neill on July 19 at Cleveland. The Senators go on to win, 11-4.

On the Other Foot…
Catcher Wally Schang of the Philadelphia Athletics throws out six would-be basestealers, an AL record, on May 12 against the St. Louis Browns. The A’s still lose, as is the case for much of the year, 3-0.

The Athletics set a major league mark by allowing 827 walks—over five a game on average—throughout the season.

Zipping It Up for 18-Plus
On June 17 at Chicago, the Cubs’ Zip Zabel replaces starting pitcher Bert Humphries with two outs in the first inning—and goes the next 18.1 frames to earn the victory in a 4-3, 19-inning decision over the Brooklyn Robins. It is the longest relief stint in major league history. Losing pitcher Jeff Pfeffer also hurls 18.1 innings for the Robins, losing the game with one out in the 19th.

Three Hundred for Eddie, One for the Lefties
Eddie Plank, 39 and now pitching for the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League, collects his 300th career win on September 11 over the Newark Peppers. Plank becomes the first major league left-hander to reach the milestone. For those who think FL statistics shouldn’t count among major league totals, Plank will reach 300 American League triumphs late in 1916 for the Browns.

One Sisler of a Controversy
The National Commission declares that hot pitching prospect
George Sisler be declared a free agent after the Pittsburgh Pirates had made an erroneous claim on him. Sisler will eventually sign with the Browns, where he’ll flourish not as a star pitcher but as a Hall-of-Fame-caliber hitter. Sisler will do a little bit of both in 1915, recording a 4-4 record in 15 appearances on the mound while batting .285 in 66 games playing both first base and the outfield.

Nickname Powwow
Now that Nap Lajoie (acquired by the A’s) is no longer with the Cleveland Naps, the team decides that it’s a good idea to come up with a new nickname. At the request of owner Charles Somers, the Cleveland Plain Dealer holds a contest that results in the team’s new ID: The Indians. For years it is assumed that the name is chosen in honor of Louis Sockalexis, a Native American who played for the NL’s Cleveland Spiders during the 1890s, but recent research shows no evidence of fans picking “Indians” as a tribute to him. One present-day theory states that the Sockalexis link may have some validity since the Spiders were sometimes called “Indians” while he played; another puts forth the notion that the name change was an attempt to be hip and follow the lead of the Boston Braves, who initiated their new team name in 1912 and, quickly soon after, won a world championship. Nearly a century later, critics decry the name as insensitive in the least—and racist at the worst.

New Ballparks

Braves Field, Boston Completed in August on the coattails of the Miracle Braves’ 1914 championship campaign, Braves Field was the largest (40,000 seats) and most expensive (over $1 million) ballpark yet to be built. It was also one of the least architecturally inspiring. It consisted of a sprawling, single-decked grandstand going down both lines, tacked on with diagonally placed bleachers near the right field corner. It was behind this corner where Braves Field’s main entrance sat, a chalet-like structure that seemed more suited to welcoming Oktoberfest revelers.

On the field, Brave owner James Gaffney wanted an outfield so spacious, it would be next to impossible to drive one over the fence; he got his wish. The outfield walls measured 400 feet down each line from home plate, and an incredible 550 feet—over a tenth of a mile—to right-center. Those dimensions were considerably brought in during the mid-1920s as the slugging boom pressured owners to please homer-happy fans.

Braves Field hosted three World Series over its lifetime, but the Braves only participated in one of them; the Red Sox borrowed the ballpark for their successful quests for back-to-back world titles in 1915-16. After the Braves left for Milwaukee in 1953, Braves Field was bought by Boston University and transformed into a football stadium—retaining only part of the first-base side seating from the original structure.

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