Spring Training 1944

By Bob Warrington

Introduction

Although organized baseball continued to operate during World War II, the conflict had a tremendously disruptive impact on the game. Players enlisted voluntarily in the military or were drafted into the service. Others took jobs in defense industries. Older and even retired players found their baseball careers suddenly resuscitated as clubs scrambled to fill rosters with men whose skills echoed—perhaps faintly—those normally seen at the major league level.

 

In his book, “The Athletics of Philadelphia,” David Jordan devotes a chapter to the war years and their adverse impact on the A’s—on the field and off. Jordan notes that one of the most visible consequences was the restriction of big league clubs to the north for spring training. The director of Defense Transportation asked baseball to curtail its use of the nation’s railway system given the demands of war-related shipments. In response, baseball Commissioner Landis in January 1943 ordered all clubs to find spring training locations north of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. (The only exceptions to this rule were the two St. Louis clubs. The Cardinals and Browns could train anywhere in Missouri.)

 

The Athletics spent spring training 1943 in Wilmington, Delaware. The selection probably was influenced by the Athletics’ half interest in the Wilmington club of the Interstate League. The location offered established training facilities and a ready supply of minor league talent for manager Connie Mack to assess as he looked to fill the A’s roster. The 1943 Philadelphia Athletics, however, were just a plain awful club. With a 49-105 record, the team finished in the American League (AL) cellar, 49 games out of first place and even a full 20 games out of seventh place. The team scored fewer runs than any other AL team, had fewer hits, and was saddled with the highest ERA among pitchers.

 

Cutting Loose from Wilmington

Connie Mack had a very busy off-season once the 1943 season concluded. The first order of business consisted of disposing of the Athletics’ one-half interest in the Wilmington club. Mack’s decision to do so was prompted by developments involving the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

On November 23, 1943, Commissioner Landis declared Phillies’ President William D. Cox permanently ineligible to hold any office or employment anywhere in organized baseball after discovering that Cox had bet on games during the 1943 season in which the Phillies’ played. The evidence against Cox was substantial, and his only defense was that he was unaware of baseball’s anti-gambling statute.

 

Cox’s dismissal created the need for a new team owner, and the Phillies were bought for an estimated $400,000 by Robert R. M. Carpenter, Sr. Reports were that Carpenter had bought the club primarily for his son, Robert Jr., who had an avid interest in sports. Robert Jr., at 28, was named the Phillies’ president. Robert Sr. already owned one-half of the shares of the Wilmington club of the Interstate League, and Robert Jr., had been president of that franchise, operating it as an Athletics’ farm club.

 

Now that the Carpenters owned the Phillies, either they or the Athletics had to relinquish their interest in the Wilmington club. League rules forbade two major league clubs to hold interest in one minor league club, so the partnership Mack had enjoyed with the Carpenters in owning the Wilmington team had to be dissolved.

 

Negotiations were conducted, and on December 7, 1943, Robert Jr. announced that Connie Mack had agreed to sell his half interest in the Wilmington club to the Carpenters for an undisclosed sum. That franchise now would operate as a Phillies’ farm club. Not surprisingly, the Phillies conducted their 1944-45 spring training camps in Wilmington, using the same facilities the Athletics had utilized during the 1943 pre-season.

 

Herb Pennock Reemerges on the Philadelphia Baseball Scene

Robert Carpenter Jr. moved quickly to improve the Phillies’ organization by hiring Herb Pennock on December 1, 1943 to be the club’s general manager. The five-year contract also called for Pennock to take the reins as Phillies’ president should Robert Jr. be inducted into the armed services. (Robert Jr. was called to service in early 1944, and Pennock served as acting team president until Robert Jr. was discharged once the war had ended.) Prior to his hiring as Phillies’ general manager, Pennock had spent four years as general manager of the Boston Red Sox farm system.

 

Herb Pennock should be a familiar name to Athletics’ fans. The left-hander had toiled for the Mackmen from 1912-15, tallying a very modest record of 17-13. During the 1915 season, Connie Mack sold Pennock to the Boston Red Sox. Pennock’s elevation to Phillies’ general manager prompted Mack to reminisce about his decision to sell Pennock. Philadelphia sports writers held an annual luncheon in late December to honor Mack’s birthday, and he used that occasion in 1943 to admit that not keeping Pennock was a terrible mistake. Mack told the assemblage:

 

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I regard Pennock as one of my worst. Somehow, I got the idea he wasn’t ambitious. He had an ironclad contract, as I recall, but finally I had to take him out of a game at Detroit. I was pretty well disgusted when he came into the dugout. I said, “Pennock, as far as I am concerned, you can sit on the bench and not throw another ball the rest of the season.” He replied, “If that’s the way you feel, either sell me or give me my release.” I learned one thing from that mistake. Never let a pitcher go who has a lot of stuff.”

 

Pennock played with the Red Sox (1915-22, 34) and New York Yankees (1923-33), becoming one of the great southpaw hurlers in baseball history. With his 241 career wins, Pennock was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1948. (Pennock, by the way, was in the audience at the luncheon when Mack told this story.)

 

At 81 years old, Connie Mack was in a reminiscing mood at the sports writers’ luncheon, and he recalled that he had bought the contract of the highly talented Athletics’ pitcher Chief Bender in 1902 for only $100.00. But, Mack called his greatest bargain Jimmie Foxx. He observed, “Jimmie Foxx cost me $2,000, stayed with me a long time, and brought a considerably higher price when I sold him.” (Mack sold Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Red Sox in December 1935 for $150,000 and two players.)

 

Mack also commented ruefully that he passed on an opportunity to purchase the services of Babe Ruth and Ernie Shore in 1914 from Jack Dunn, owner of the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Mack said, “That Ruth was a great pitcher in those days too. But I told Jack he needed the money they would bring and I wasn’t in a position to offer what they were worth. So, they went to the Boston Red Sox.”

 

Choosing a Spring Training Site

With Wilmington out as a spring training location, the Athletics had to look elsewhere to get into shape for the 1944 season. On November 17, 1943, Connie Mack examined Bader Field and the National Guard Armory in Atlantic City, New Jersey as one possibility. (The armory serving for indoor training when inclement weather prevented outdoor practice.) Mack was aware that the Yankees had previously looked over Atlantic City as a potential spring training facility, and the A’s manager announced that he would await the Yankees’ decision before making his. (The Yankees chose Atlantic City soon thereafter for their 1944 spring training camp.)

 

Connie’s son Earle was dispatched to Frederick, Maryland on December 1, 1943 to inspect McCurdy Field. The Frederick Chamber of Commerce had been promoting the facility as a place where a major league team could conduct spring training. Earle must have liked what he saw—and perhaps been influenced by Frederick officials who accompanied him during the tour—because the next day the Athletics announced that the team would hold spring training in Frederick in 1944. Connie Mack himself did not personally inspect the Frederick facility until December 11th.

 

Shaping a Team Against the Backdrop of War

Although organized baseball continued during World War II, the war constantly impacted the business and operations of baseball—on the field and off. On November 17, 1943, Connie Mack Jr. was ordered by the draft board to report on December 15th for an Army physical examination. Connie Jr., was the manager of the concession stands at Shibe Park and the father of four children. He passed the exam and was ordered to report for induction into the Army at the New Cumberland, Pennsylvania Reception Center on January 5, 1944.

 

On January 8, 1944, Jimmie Foxx was contacted by his draft board and directed to take his Army physical examination on January 17th. At 38, Foxx had been a salesman for an oil and leather goods company in Philadelphia since quitting baseball after the 1942 season. The military, however, didn’t take him, and Foxx spent 1944 playing in ten games for the Chicago Cubs, and 1945 toiling for the Phillies in 89 games. Thus concluded a long and distinguished baseball career that led Foxx to the Hall of Fame in 1951.

 

Bert Kuczynski was a right-handed pitcher who had appeared in six games for the Athletics in 1943, going 0-1 before enlisting in the Marines. In early 1944, Kuczynski was given a medical discharge by that service, and in April he reported to the A’s spring training camp to begin workouts. Kuczynski’s draft board, however, had other ideas, and he was ordered to take a draft physical. He passed it, which, after a brief stay with the Athletics at spring training, led to his induction into the Navy. Kuczynski never played major league baseball again.

 

Those players whose baseball careers were interrupted by World War II did not all serve in the military. Working in defense-related industries also was a critical wartime need. Hal Wagner, a catcher for the Athletics from 1937-43, took a job in a defense plant in New Jersey after the 1943 season. Wagner was classified as a 2-B defense worker, which limited his availability as a player.

Wagner’s situation, shared by many other players, created a unique phenomenon during World War II—the part-time ballplayer. Wagner told the press that he would work weekend shifts behind the plate for the Athletics at home and nearby road games. The arrangement didn’t last very far into the 1944 season, however. Wagner played only five games with the A’s before being shipped to the Boston Red Sox, where he played most of the season. His baseball career lasted until 1949.

 

Supporting the war effort was not merely a matter of losing men temporarily to the military services and defense industries. The war had to be fought, and it was a dangerous business. Evidence of that was brought home to the Athletics when in early December, 1943, Connie Mack announced that Bob Savage, a former Philadelphia Athletics pitcher wounded in action in Italy on November 5, 1943, had been awarded the Purple Heart. The A’s manager had received the information in a letter from Savage’s mother, who lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. Savage had left the Staunton Military Academy in May 1942 to pitch for the Athletics, appearing in eight games and earning an 0-1 record. Savage would return to pitch for the A’s after World War II.

 

Greater dependence on older veteran players to flesh out rosters during the war turned Connie Mack’s eye toward a great former Mackman—Al Simmons. The 40-year old outfielder had played for the Red Sox in 1943, but quit the team after playing in only 40 games and hitting a little better than .200. Simmons lamented, “No man worked harder or was in better physical condition for a comeback, but I couldn’t make the grade.” He added that he had the extra incentive of trying for his 3,000th hit in an effort to become the seventh man to attain that plateau. (Simmons never would reach that magic number, falling just short with 2,927 lifetime hits, but that didn’t prevent him from being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1953.)

 

Undaunted by Simmons’ retirement, Connie Mack stated on December 11, 1943 that “Bucketfoot” Al likely would return to the A’s in 1944 as a player-coach. It would be Simmons’ third time with the Athletics, having played for the team in 1924-32, and again from 1940-41. Simmons joined the Athletics in 1944 as a player-coach, but made only a brief appearance between the white lines of the diamond. He played in four games, batting .500 with three hits in six at-bats. It was his last hurrah on the ballfield.

 

Connie Mack made his biggest trade of the off-season on December 13, 1943 when he sent knuckleball pitcher Roger Wolff to Washington for pitcher Louis “Bobo” Newsome. The deal turned out fairly well for both teams. Wolff pitched poorly in 1944, going 4-15 for the Senators, but he bounced back with a 20-10 record in 1945. Newsome became a mainstay pitcher for the Athletics in 1944-45, working over 500 innings for the club. But, he could do no better than 21-35 in those two years and, as will be seen, created more than a little grief for Mack along the way.

 

The Athletics had a gem of a minor leaguer who would be ready for the major league roster in 1944. George Kell was the batting champion of organized baseball in 1943. He had hit .396 as an infielder with the Lancaster Red Roses of the Class B Interstate League. In achieving that lofty level, Kell beat out two Class D players—Hal Gruber of Bristol in the Appalachian League and Ben Visan of Batavia in the Pony League—each of whom had hit .369 in 1943. Kell’s figure also topped the 1943 batting leaders in the American and National Leagues.

 

For his achievement, Kell received a Louisville Slugger silver bat, which since 1933 had been presented to the minor league player with the highest batting average provided that player had participated in at least 75 percent of the team’s games. But, could Kell hit major league pitching? Time would tell.

 

Approaching Spring Training

On February 25, 1944, Connie Mack announced that the A’s spring training camp would open on March 10th, but the deadline for players to report wouldn’t be until March 12th. The team would stay at the Francis Scott Key Hotel in Frederick. Earle Mack released a partial schedule of Athletics’ pre-season games, which included contests against the Curtis Bay Coast Guard team, Baltimore and Toronto of the International League, and three match-ups against the Yankees.

 

On March 9, 1944, Connie Mack told the press that 26 players had returned signed contracts to the Athletics. There were two holdouts—pitcher Luke Hamlin and outfielder Bill Burgo. Mack, who had a longstanding and well-deserved reputation as a tough negotiator when it came to players’ contracts, was unsympathetic toward both players’ demands. “The contract Hamlin sent back called for $4500,” Mack said, “and that is better than 33 percent above what Toronto paid him last year. He says it’s not enough.”

 

Regarding Burgo, Mack was unsparing in his criticism. “Burgo wants more money, too, and I don’t care much if he stays out. He got $900 from us last year for four months’ work, and I offered him $3000 for this season. He’s a funny man. Every time he has a good day, he lets you know what he’s getting, just as if I didn’t know.”

 

Both players eventually reported to the Athletics, although it is not clear if either managed to get a more lucrative deal out of Connie Mack. Hamlin went 6-12 for the A’s during the 1944 season, while Burgo hit .239 for the team in 27 games. It was the last year in the majors for both men.

 

Bobo Newsome, however, gave Connie Mack his greatest pre-season headaches. Like other players, Newsome had been called by his draft board shortly after the start of 1944 to report for a pre-induction physical. Newsome announced on February 27th that he had been declared 4-F because of a broken kneecap he had suffered previously. But Newsome, who had strongly preferred to stay with Washington, displayed no sense of urgency about signing his contract or reporting to the Athletics.

 

The portly pitcher visited Connie Mack at Shibe Park on March 2, 1944 but left without signing a contract. In describing the meeting, Mack commented that salary never figured into the conversation and noted, “All he (Newsome) did was talk baseball. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.” Newsome told reporters that he didn’t want to sign a contract “until I see if I can get into shape.” He continued, “If I play at all it will be for Mr. Mack. I’m sure I’d like it here (Philadelphia). If everybody who’s booed me here turned out to cheer me, we’d fill the stands every day.” Mack could only say, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until he makes up his mind.”

 

Newsome was in no hurry to do so. He asked the Athletics in early March to ship bats and balls to his home in Hartsville, North Carolina, saying that he planned to work out there while deciding whether to play baseball in 1944. Connie Mack complied with this request and must have felt confident that Newsome would join the Mackmen. The A’s manager announced to the press on March 18th that Newsome was getting into shape at the White Sulphur Springs health resort in West Virginia and would be the Athletics’ starting pitcher on Opening Day.

 

But, nothing happened. Mack informed the press on March 29th that Newsome hadn’t wired, phoned, or written since spring training camp opened on March 10th. Showing his exasperation with the situation, Mack called Newsome a “peculiar fellow” and added that there was no disagreement on salary terms with the big hurler. Mystified over Newsome’s unaccustomed silence, Mack could only wait and see what happened while he worked with the rest of the players to form a team for the 1944 season.

 

Spring Training Camp

The weather did not cooperate. Training camp opened with 15 hours of steady rain that turned the ballpark into a muddy morass. The rain, coupled with chilly temperatures, meant that much of the training took place indoors. The early days were spent tossing the ball around, taking batting practice, and posing for individual and team photographs. Despite limited activities, a team slowly started to emerge from the spring training regimen.

 

Connie Mack had seen enough that by March 18th—a week into the spring training camp—he could announce to the press his Opening Day line-up: Frankie Hays-C; Dick Siebert-1B; Irv Hall-2B; Edgar Busch-SS; George Kell-3B; Bill Burgo-LF; Jo Jo White-CF; Lew Flick-RF. The pitcher, as previously noted, was to be Bobo Newsome, although he had not yet made an appearance at the A’s camp or evened signed a contract.

 

The line-up Connie Mack revealed was a mixture of old and new blood. Hays, Siebert, White, and Newsome were veterans with a number of years of major league experience. Busch, Hall, and Burgo had been rookies in 1943. Flick and Kell had played in the minor leagues in 1943, although Mack managed to squeeze both of them into the same late-season game that took place on September 28, 1943.

 

The careers of Flick and Kell show how uncertain and unforgiving baseball can be. Both players started out with the Athletics, made their big league debuts in the same game, and became regulars at the major league level in the same year. That’s where the similarities end. Kell played in the majors for 15 years in a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1983. (Regrettably, only a brief part of that career would be with the A’s.) Flick played in 19 games with the Athletics in 1944, hit an anemic .114, and then was banished by Connie Mack to the minors. He never again appeared in a major league game.

 

Other players with the A’s at spring training included pitchers Jesse Flores, Luke Hamlin, Russ Christopher, Don Black, Lum Harris, Fred Peeler, Bill Woods, Bert Kuczynski (briefly), and Jack McGillen. Flores, Christopher, Black, and Harris had been regulars on the A’s 1943 roster, going a combined 30-59 for a very poor team. McGillen had played in Philadelphia’s semi-pro league in 1943, and was described in newspapers as a “promising southpaw.” McGillen pitched in two games for the Athletics in 1944, recorded an ERA of 18.00, and then disappeared from the annals of big league baseball. Peeler and Woods didn’t stay around long enough to even have a cup of coffee in the majors.

 

Three other pitchers with the Athletics in Frederick were Joe Berry, Carl Scheib, and Talmadge (Ted) Abernathy. “Jittery Joe” Berry had appeared in two games with the Chicago Cubs in 1942, not recording any wins or losses. He spent 1943 in the minors, winning 18 games with Milwaukee. Connie Mack eyed him as a relief pitcher, and Berry would perform that role in over 100 games for the A’s in 1944-45. He led the American League in saves in 1944 (12), and in games pitched in 1945 (52).

 

Mack was quoted in newspapers as saying Scheib and Abernathy are “two young pitchers who will be heard from belong long.” Scheib, a 17-year-old who played in one game for the Athletics in 1943 also was considered a fine prospect by pitching coach Chief Bender, whose job it was to tutor the young hurler on the art of pitching. The instructions must have worked because Scheib pitched for the A’s for over a decade.

 

Mack said during spring training that Abernathy “has a chance to be a pretty fair pitcher.” He had pitched in one game for the A’s in 1942 and then had gone 0-3 in five games with the club the next year. Mack’s prognosis was not on the mark, however. Abernathy appeared in just one game for the Athletics in 1944 and then left the big leagues never to return.

 

Some of the non-pitchers who participated in the Philadelphia Athletics 1944 spring training camp were Bobby Wilkins, Joe Rollo, Woody Wheaton, Bobby Estralla, Tony Parisse, and William “Buster” Mills. Their fates varied, and most saw relatively limited time with the A’s during the regular season. Wilkins appeared in 86 games during 1944-45; Wheaton played in 37 games in 1943-44; and Parisse saw service in only 10 games in 1943-44. Mills was on the Athletics’ roster only in 1944, seeing action in just five games. Joe Rollo never made it to the big leagues during the regular season.

 

Estralla was a veteran, starting with the Senators in 1935 and winding up his career with the Athletics in 1949. Unlike the abovementioned players who appeared, played briefly, and then disappeared during the war years, Estralla fashioned a respectable baseball career, notching a .282 batting average over nine years.

 

The Athletics had planned for approximately 30 players to participate in their spring training camp, but the number fluctuated over time. Players were supposed to report on March 12th, but two days after that date, only 17 were in camp. Catcher Wagner, for example, didn’t report until early April because of the priority given to his defense plant work. Pitcher Flores also didn’t report until early April because he was detained in California by a family illness. Then there was the absent Bobo Newsome. One unnamed Athletics’ official said in mid-March that the team was hoping he would “drift into camp” in a week or so.

 

Unlike the roster, the coaching staff was set when spring training camp opened. The A’s coaches were: Earle Mack, Earle Brucker, Al Simmons, Lena Blackburne, Chief Bender, and Dave Keefe.

Spring Training Games

The Philadelphia Athletics first spring training game took place on March 25, 1944 and pit the Mackmen against the Curtis Bay Coast Guard team at McCurdy Field in Frederick, Maryland. The A’s took the game 8-3, with Al Simmons emerging as the batting hero. He hit a double and a single, knocking in two RBIs and scoring two runs.

 

The next exhibition game took place on March 26th at McCurdy Field, where the Athletics bested the Baltimore Orioles of the International League 3-1. This game was noteworthy for a very important reason. One of the players on the A’s squad was a 16-year-old, diminutive, unheralded infielder by the name of Jacob Nelson Fox. On this day, Fox got a single—his first hit at the major league level. Fox would not actually play in a regular season game until 1947, but in a 19-year career, he would lead the American League in hits four times, smacking 2,663 of them in a career that would lead to the Hall of Fame in 1997. Unfortunately, like Kell, Fox would mostly earn his Hall of Fame credentials wearing the uniform of a team other than the Philadelphia Athletics.

 

Against minor league opposition, the A’s just kept on winning. The Mackmen beat the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League by a score of 5-1 at McCurdy Field on April 4, 1944. The Athletics’ scoring was sparked by a key double smacked by Irv Hall.

 

Competition against big league teams began on April 5, 1944 when the New York Yankees journeyed to Frederick to take on the Athletics. Because of wartime travel restrictions, this was the only trip the Yankees made to McCurdy Field, and the Yanks were the only major league team to come to Frederick to play the Athletics. The Bronx Bombers got thumped by the A’s 9-1, with Irv Hall notching two doubles and a single, and pitchers Christopher, Black, and Harris holding the Yankees to only four hits. The game marked the Athletics’ sixth win in a row.

 

Approximately 1,500 fans took in the game. Frederick City Fathers had declared a half-day holiday to encourage workers to attend the contest. Snow began in the fourth inning, but the players carried on and the game continued. After subsiding briefly, it began snowing again in the eighth inning, this time reaching “blizzard-like proportions,” according to one account of the game. The contest then was stopped by the umpires and not resumed. Halting the game because of snow was indicative of the relatively harsh weather conditions the A’s and other teams had to endure training that far north that early in the year. But, there was a war on, after all.

 

The Athletics then made their only trip away from the Frederick spring training camp, traveling to Atlantic City to battle the Yankees. The first game took place on April 7, 1944, and the Yankees got revenge for their earlier defeat by outslugging the A’s 13-5 in front of 1,721 fans. It marked the first loss by the Mackmen during spring training.

 

A second game between the two teams occurred the next day, with the Athletics again coming out on the short end of the score, 8-5. There were 1,516 hardy souls in the stands to watch the exhibition contest. Hal Wagner smacked a double and triple but made a key error in the fifth inning that allowed the Yankees to score two runs.

 

A return match against the Baltimore Orioles took place on April 9th, with the Orioles coming out on top 4-3. George Kell led the A’s hitting attack with two singles and a double. (Some newspaper accounts of this game referred to Kell as “Georgie.”)

 

The Athletics had a final pre-season warm-up game on April 12th, taking on for a second time the Curtis Bay Coast Guard team. Before summarizing the results of that contest, the wanderings of that prodigal son of the Philadelphia Athletics—Bobo Newsome—must be addressed.

 

Where is Bobo?

When we last left Bobo Newsome, he was reportedly training in West Virginia using equipment shipped to him by the Athletics. Although Newsome had yet to sign a contract with the A’s to pitch for the team in 1944, Mack acknowledged that he was footing the bill for the pitcher’s training at the White Sulphur Springs spa. “I told him to go right ahead and take his wife with him—it was on me,” the A’s skipper acknowledged. (Newsome’s wife did accompany him.)

 

Finally, on April 1, 1944 Newsome telephoned Connie Mack to report that he was in Florida training. According to newspaper accounts of the phone call, Newsome said, “I’ll pitch that opening game for you, Mr. Mack. I’ve been in Florida working out. The trip cost money, but it was worth it. I’m in shape. I’ll be with you on the 10th. The Missus is coming too.” Newsome never explained how he wound up in Florida to finish his conditioning, and one newspaper reporter couldn’t help but mention that the pitcher chose to call Mack on April Fool’s Day.

 

Although a little miffed that Newsome wouldn’t arrive in camp until spring training was almost over, Mack sounded hopeful when told newspapermen, “There was none of that old ‘braggadocio’ that sometimes gets into his talk. He’s got to act right when he’s with us. He’s a good businessman and he can be a good pitcher again. I’m counting on his bride to keep him in order.”

 

Newsome arrived at A’s camp on April 10th and signed his contract. On April 12th, he started the last spring training game played by the Athletics in 1944. It was, as noted, against the Curtis Bay Coast Guard. Although the Athletics won the square-off 9-6, the Coast Guard team scored four runs off Newsome in the third inning. Not pleased, Mack announced that Newsome’s “indifferent” performance had cost him the assignment to open the season on the mound against the Washington Senators.

 

Mack’s Ruminations

1944 marked Connie Mack’s 50th year as a major league manager, a role that began as skipper of the Pittsburgh Stogies in 1894. Given Mack’s near-legendary status in the game, reporters sought him out for interviews, and the A’s manager was more than happy to oblige by sharing his thoughts on various aspects of baseball.

 

In an interview with columnist John F. Chandler, Connie Mack opined on March 13, 1944 that southern spring training jaunts would be out after the end of the war. The Athletics’ manager stated, “Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever again put in six or seven weeks way down South. When it comes right down to it, it’s the individual; any player can get into condition in any climate if he decides to do so. No doubt it would be a little better to train in a warmer climate, but I can’t see that it makes a great deal of difference.” (This was one of Mack’s more fanciful notions. Once the war ended, teams flocked back to their traditional spring training sites in the deep south. The Athletics trained in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1946.)

 

On March 17th, a testimonial dinner was held in Frederick to honor Connie Mack. It was attended by 250 members of the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs. Offering a self-deprecating assessment of his skills as a manager, Mack claimed the dinner was to honor the fact that he had more tail-enders than any other manager. In comments to the assemblage, Mack observed that the New York Yankees of the Ruth-Gehrig period were the greatest modern team. He identified John McGraw as the greatest manager ever, and Christy Mathewson as the greatest pitcher.

 

In another interview with newspapermen on March 26th, Connie Mack remarked that his 1944 Mackmen “have a chance of ending the A’s 13-year pennant drought.” He added a caveat that his estimate was based on the assumption that the team could “keep what we have now” in terms of players. The risk of losing players to the draft always lurked in the background for all major league teams during the war, and a couple of the Athletics’ pitchers were in jeopardy of being called to active duty during the season. But, one reporter noted, the A’s of 1944 were built around “a reservoir of players who have been rejected by the armed services, or are either too young or too old.”

 

At a Frederick Chamber-of-Commerce banquet held on April 7th to honor the Philadelphia Athletics before their departure for the regular season, Connie Mack thanked his hosts and announced that “the Athletics will train in Frederick next year if we are not permitted to go to Florida.” With the war still on in early 1945 and spring training in distant camps still prohibited, the A’s did return to Frederick to conduct spring training camp one last time at that location.

 

The Governor of Maryland, Herbert R. O’Connor, attended the banquet and told attendees that he would declare a legal holiday in the state if the Athletics won the American League pennant. With the regular season just about to start, O’Connor would begin to find out whether he would need to prepare that proclamation.

 

Opening Day

The Philadelphia Athletics opened the 1944 season on April 19th at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The A’s starting pitcher was Lum Harris. Vice President Henry Wallace, pinch hitting for President Franklin Roosevelt who was on a southern vacation, tossed out the ball in the traditional pre-game ceremony. The A’s jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the first inning, but the advantage didn’t last very long. At the end of nine innings—regulation play—the score stood tied at 2-2. Extra innings. The Athletics broke up the contest in the 12th inning on singles by Dick Siebert and Irv Hall, a sacrifice, and an infield hit. The A’s took the game 3-2, with Joe Berry the winning pitcher in relief of Harris.

 

The Philadelphia Athletics had started the campaign in promising fashion, but 1944 turned out to be another disappointing season for the A’s. Fulfilling Connie Mack’s promise, the team performed much better than in 1943. The A’s finished in sixth place instead of eighth, and only 17 games out of first place instead of 49. Nonetheless, the club was never in contention and the pennant drought continued.

 

1945 brought the promise of an end to World War II, a resumption of peacetime normalcy, and a return to major league baseball unfettered by military drafts and travel restrictions. Maybe that would restore good fortune to the Philadelphia Athletics…maybe.

 

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