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Connie Mack's A's a coal region hit

Published March 12. 2011 09:00AM

By jim zbick

At the beginning of 1911, the Philadelphia Athletics were basking in the limelight of the sporting world. It was coming off an outstanding season in which the team compiled a 102-48 record and then thrashed the Chicago Cubs in the 1910 World Series.

Coming into the 1911 season, the team was well equipped for another title run with its "$100,000 infield", consisting of John "Stuffy" McInnis (first base), Eddie Collins (second base), Jack Barry (shortstop), and Frank "Home Run" Baker (third base), as well as two workhorse pitchers in Eddie Plank and Charles "Chief" Bender.

So when local fans heard that the team would be making a brief stop in Tamaqua on their way to Mahanoy City for a mid-winter banquet early in 1911, it created quite a stir. When the three special Pullman cars carrying the team pulled into the Tamaqua depot on the afternoon of Feb. 8, there were some 500 fans to greet the world champs.

Connie Mack, whom the Tamaqua Courier described as "the greatest baseball general, made a brief speech before the admiring fans.

"I wish we had you in Philadelphia to lend encouragement to the boys when they strike a slump," Mack told the crowd. "We are sorry that we cannot transfer our team to Tamaqua, but as this is impossible we will ask you to remove to Philadelphia, where you will always be welcome at our park to assist us in making further and successful tries for the World Championship."

Mack knew that the coal regions had produced some of the greatest talent of the era. There was Hughie Jennings, who left the coal mines near Scranton to play semi-pro ball in Lehighton and Allentown, launching him into a Hall of Fame big league career as a player in Baltimore.

After his playing days ended, Jennings became manager of the Detroit Tigers. Mack considered him one of the three greatest managers in history along with John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

It was not unusual for Mack's teams to barnstorm during the offseason. In 1903, his team visited the Panther Valley on an early exhibition excursion. During that visit, the Lansford Miners' Band gave Mack an inkstand and well carved from a single chunk of anthracite.

Tamaqua was also imbedded in the story of how the A's acquired the services of Charles Albert Bender, their Hall of Fame pitcher.

Bender's father had German ancestry while his mother was a Chippewa Indian. He left the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota at the age of 7 to attend a school for Indians in Philadelphia and from there, transferred to Carlisle starring on the sports field just a few years before the great Jim Thorpe.

In 1902 Tamaqua's semi-pro team was in need of a pitcher. Frank Cannon, who managed the local club, had seen Bender pitch at Carlisle and a contract was prepared to sign the Indian. Bender was reportedly waiting in the Reading depot at Harrisburg for his train to Tamaqua when he was intercepted by one of Mack's scouts from Philadelphia, who was also hot on his trail.

A Harrisburg physician named Dr. Harvey Smith was instrumental in closing the deal on a contract, which paid Bender $300 a month. Mack also reportedly sent $100 to the manager of Harrisburg's team for tipping him off about Bender.

Mack always called him Albert - the name used to sign his contract - when he was in his company but sometimes referred to him as "chief" when talking to others about his star pitcher. Baseball fans came to know Bender by that name.

"The Indian, whose name is spoken from coast to coast today, missed coming to Tamaqua by a hair's breath," the Courier reported after Bender pitched the A's to a 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the 1910 series.

Whenever Bender appeared on the field, even in his professional years, he was greeted with war dance whoops, and he often answered the comments with some quick one-liners of his own regarding his Indian heritage.

One young female autograph seeker once commented that she thought "Indians wore feathers."

"Yes miss, we do," Bender replied, "but unfortunately this happens to be the molting season."

When the As arrived in Mahanoy City after their brief stop in Tamaqua, they received more of the red-carpet treatment. That evening they were entertained at Kaier's Hall by "Madam Sherry." During the banquet that followed, manager Mack was presented with a large baseball made of solid coal, and each member of the team received a miniature baseball made of coal.

Despite the offseason banquet activity, the Athletics were not out of shape once the season began. During the 1911 season, the team again finished first in the American League with a record of 101 wins and 50 losses on its way to another World Series.

The 1911 stop in Tamaqua wasn't Connie Mack's last visit to the area. On Jan. 13, 1929, baseball's greatest manager addressed members of the Holy Name Society at St. Ann's Parish in Lansford. His appearance was made possible through his friendship with the Rev. W. J. Casey, rector of the church.

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