Birth and Early Life
The year 1862 was dark and difficult for America as Abraham Lincoln led the Union in a desperate struggle to gain military traction in the Civil War. Far away from those battlefields, in the tiny hamlet of Podunk, New York, a son was born to Irish immigrants Michael and Mary McGillicuddy. He arrived three days before Christmas, the third of their seven children. They named him Cornelius Alexander.
Young Cornelius grew to be a tall, thin young man who loved sports. He took a particular shine to baseball in the very early stages of the game’s organized history. His town’s team won the New York state championship in 1883. In 1884, he signed with the Meriden team of the Connecticut State league for a salary of $90 per month. He played the next two years for Hartford of the Eastern League, and then was sold to the Washington Statesmen in 1886. He supported the revolt that led to the formation of the Player’s League in 1890, signing with the Buffalo Bisons and investing his life savings ($500) in the club. (He lost his entire investment.) Assigned to the Pittsburgh Pirates (1891-6), he also managed the club in 1894-6. Known as an intelligent and astute catcher, he was not above distracting a batter with chatter or even tipping his bat just before a swing. Cornelius ended his playing days with a .245 lifetime batting average in 723 major league games.
The upstart American league offered him the manager’s job for (and a 25% ownership interest in) the new Philadelphia franchise in 1901. Thus began a love affair with the Philadelphia Athletics that would last half a century.
Cornelius’s style as a manager was distinctive. His unwillingness to wear a uniform meant that he could never step onto the field itself. He would sit ramrod straight in the dugout, attired in a dapper business suit, necktie, and hat. His piercing blue eyes would scan the game, and with a wave of his scorecard, he would position his players.
And what players they were! He attracted and managed legends like Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Rube Waddell. Shoeless Joe Jackson began his major league career under Cornelius’s tutelage in 1908.
Baseball men were a coarse, rough-and-tumble lot in those days, but not Cornelius. He never smoked, drank, or profaned. He disliked public confrontations, but there was never any doubt about whose team it was; he could put a player in his place with a private, brief (and sometimes sarcastic) comment.
“The Tall Tactician”, as he was widely known, successfully managed the A’s to their first American League pennant in 1902, one year before the World Series was inaugurated. It was the first of nine AL pennants and five World Series crowns his teams would garner during his long career.
Cornelius was no stranger to hardship and sorrow. His first wife had passed away in 1892, leaving three young children behind. His financial life was a rollercoaster; he took many calculated risks during his career, and not all of them paid off. Yet, through it all, he maintained an effective mix of realism, optimism, and persistence. He remarried in 1910, and had another son and four more daughters with his new wife.
The Hall of Fame Beckons
Cornelius continued to break new ground in major league baseball. He was selected to manage the American League club for the very first All-Star game in 1933. In 1937, he was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, 13 years before he retired as an active manager in 1950 at age 87. His retirement triggered an invitation to the White House, and a ticker tape parade in his honor in New York City.
Fifty years as a big league manager earned Cornelius the records for most games managed, most games won, and (of course) most games lost. He finished that amazing career with 3,776 wins, 4,025 losses, and a winning percentage of 0.479.
There is no doubt that he loved the game; yet he was among the few who never lost sight of the business behind it. He once said, “It is more profitable for me to have a team that in is contention for most of the season, but finishes about fourth. A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, but you don’t have to give the player’s big raises when they don’t win.”
Beloved Sports Legend
When Cornelius finally passed away on February 8, 1956, at age 94, he was probably the best-loved and most respected man on any baseball field in America. Nevertheless, if you searched the newspapers the next day for the obituary of Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy, you would have searched in vain. He had changed his name long ago, when he got tired of trying to fit it onto the ballpark scoreboard back at the turn of the century. America had known this son of Irish immigrants, who walked large upon the sporting stage, as the great Connie Mack.