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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Connie Mack's All-Early Baseball History Team

Connie Mack is one of the most enduring figures in the history of baseball. The Hall of Famer spent 15 years playing professionally as a catcher and then went on to manage and own the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 seasons. To say that he knew the game would be quite the understatement. That’s why when he gave his opinions it was best to listen—including the time he talked about his all-time team of players who debuted prior to 1900.

In 1944, Mack was getting towards the end of his illustrious career (he stepped down as manager following the 1950 season) but had been on hand to have observed a major portion of baseball history to that point. Therefore, when he was asked by the AP’s Chip Royal to compile a list of the best players who started their career prior to 1900 to ever play the game, it was fascinating to see his answers. Keep reading for his full roster.

Catcher: Mack had two names that came to mind here, as he nominated Buck Ewing and Charlie Bennett.

Ewing hit a combined .303 over 18 major league seasons (1880-1897) and eventually made the Hall of Fame. Considered a true two-way player, his offensive and defensive capabilities made him one of the first superstars in baseball.

Although Bennett hit just .256 during his 15-year career (1878-1893), primarily with the Detroit Wolverines and Boston Beaneaters, he was considered a good-hitting catcher for the time. However, his defense was his real calling card and he is even credited with developing the first chest protector. He was also considered one of the toughest to ever play the position, especially at a time when backstops took a ferocious beating because of the lack of good equipment. He once “declared that only a sissy would use a padded glove with the fingers and thumb cut off.”

First Base: “My first baseman would have to be Fred Tenney of the Boston Nationals who started out as a left-handed catcher,” asserted Mack. “He was more up to date in his time than any man I ever saw.”

In 17 major league seasons (1894-1911), spent mostly with the Beaneaters, he hit just a total of 22 home runs. However this was during the Dead-ball Era and he was a fine batsman, hitting .294 along with revolutionizing how to play first with how he fielded and the way he positioned himself in the field.

Second Base:Nap Lajoie of Cleveland never had an equal at second base,” claimed Mack. There should be no arguments about this selection, as “Larry” hit a robust .338 with 3,243 hits and 1,599 RBIs in 21 major league seasons (1896-1916) with the Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics, and the Cleveland Naps. Yes, he was so good that the team was actually named after him while he was playing for it! The right-handed hitter won five batting titles, including in 1901 when he paced the fledgling American League with a ridiculous .426 mark. Naturally, he was one of the first members of the Hall of Fame.

Shortstop: Herman Long was the pick here. In 16 seasons (1889-1904), primarily spent with the Beaneaters, he hit .277 with 91 home runs, 1,055 RBIs and 537 stolen bases. Although he still holds the major league record for most errors (1,096) in a career, he was a tremendous defensive player and was notorious for his superior range. Despite strong support, the Hall of Fame has continued to elude him, more than a century after he last played a game.

Third Base: Perhaps the most obscure of all his picks, Mack named Billy Nash as his third baseman on this team. He hit .275 with 60 home runs and 979 RBIs over 15 seasons (1884-1898) spent mostly with the Beaneaters.

Utility Infielder: Scrappiness is a trait typically associated with good utility players. Hughie Jennings had that in spades. Known as “Ee-Yah” for his excited yelling on the field, he predominantly played shortstop and first base from 1891-1902 (he played in an additional 12 games while a coach/manager between 1903-1915 but only as a fill-in). He hit .312 with 12 home runs, 529 RBIs and 248 stolen bases. He also still holds the major league record for times hit by a pitch (287) and was the quintessential sparkplug—which led to 14 years as a manager. His combined contributions to baseball garnered him entry to the Hall of Fame.

Outfield: Mack picked a real murderers row for his outfield, going with Hugh Duffy, Ed Delahanty and Sam Thompson.

A tiny man (5’7” and 168 pounds) with a big bat, Duffy formed one half of the Beaneaters’ famed “Heavenly Twins” duo with Tommy McCarthy in the 1890s. A right-handed hitter who played 17 seasons (1888-1906), Duffy combined for a .326 batting average, 106 home runs, 1,302 RBIs and 574 stolen bases. He won two batting titles and two home run crowns, and is the only player in history to have at least one .300 season in four different major leagues (National, American, Players and American Association). He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1945.

Delahanty terrorized pitchers with his right-handed bat for 16 seasons (1888-1903), primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. For his career he hit .346 (5th all-time) with 522 doubles, 186 triples, 101 home runs, 1,466 RBIs and 455 stolen bases. Not much of a defender, he made up for it by hitting over .400 three different seasons. His numbers would likely be even more impressive except for his tragic death at age 35 in the midst of the 1903 season. While playing for the Washington Senators, he was ejected from a train near Niagara Falls for being intoxicated. He somehow fell off the bridge and into the falls, thus sadly ending the life of one of baseball’s greatest hitters. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1945.

Big Sam Thompson played 1885-1898 with the Detroit Wolverines and the Phillies (he also got into 8 games in 1906 with the Detroit Tigers). With his size (6’2” and over 200 pounds) and thick handlebar mustache, he cut quite the intimidating figure. During his career, he combined to hit .331 with 126 home runs, 161 triples and 1,305 RBIs. He was also known for a cannon arm and would have had even more impressive numbers had he not started his major league career when he was 25. Despite his impressive resume, he had to wait until 1974 to get into the Hall of Fame, via the Veteran’s Committee, more than 50 years after his death.

Pitchers: Mack told Royal that “for pitchers, you can’t beat Cy Young, Cleveland’s immortal ace; John Clarkson of the Chicago White Stockings and Tim Keefe of the (New York) Giants.” These were relatively easy choices, as each had at least 328 victories; each eventually made the Hall of Fame; and each helped define the position into what it is today.

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