The career of Amby McConnell represents a lifetime commitment to the game of baseball. McConnell left a distinct mark on the game, serving as a player and manager at virtually
all levels of the sport. In one way, his story is one of a small town boy making good in the national pastime. Yet in another sense, one is struck by his uncanny knack of turning up in the
wrong place at the wrong time.
Ambrose Moses McConnell entered the world on April 20, 1883. Exactly where is still a matter of debate. His death certificate lists his birthplace as Ksohe (likely meaning Cohoes), New York, while other sources place him in Williamstown, New York. It is commonly accepted that McConnell’s family resided in North Pownal, Vermont, a town far too small to have any hospital facilities. It was here that his baseball career got its start.
In visiting North Pownal today, one can be left with the impression that the town has been forgotten by time. Tucked away in a scenic valley not far from the Massachusetts border, the town center is dominated by a ruined tannery, once its major employer and industry. As a teenager, Amby worked fifty hours a week in the mill for the lofty wage of six dollars. McConnell always hoped to save his money to go to Boston to see the champion Beaneaters squad of Hugh Duffy and Kid Nichols. However, he would never have that opportunity and the first major game he saw was also the first he played in.
McConnell would take advantage of any chance to play the game on a small diamond nearby. Nicknamed “Midget,” the speedy 5’5″ infielder soon became well known in the region for his defensive prowess. Teams in neighboring towns would offer him his expenses to play on weekends. On one such occasion, Amby caught the attention of a team from Dalton, Massachusetts. Their manager offered him $7.50 a week to join the squad. McConnell jumped at the chance to make a $1.50 raise to play the sport he loved, not knowing that some players on the team made twice his salary. Thus was born a trend of financial misadventure that would dog his professional career.
Leaving Dalton in 1902, McConnell split the next season between Rutland, Vermont, and Beloit, Wisconsin. A fine showing with the latter squad brought him to Troy in the New York State League in 1904. In 121 games, Amby rapped out 150 hits and batted a sterling .318. This earned him a promotion to Rochester in the Eastern League, where he slumped back to a .254 average.
Returning to the New York State League with Utica in 1906, McConnell stole 22 bases and fielded at a .958 clip.
McConnell returned in 1907 to the Eastern League with Providence, enjoying his best season yet. Playing 129 games at second base, he hit a robust .320 with 50 stolen bases. The diminutive infielder had earned the reputation as a crafty batsman and adept fielder. At the end of the season, his contract was purchased by the Boston Red Sox, allowing him to finally realize his dream to see a major league game.
The Red Sox had suffered through a miserable season in 1907, finishing 32.5 games out of first place and going through four different managers. Its star player was still aging ace Cy
Young, nearly at the end of his illustrious career. However, the nucleus of the championship teams of the next decade was forming. A young outfielder from Texas named Tris Speaker had been signed at the end of the season. Joining McConnell as rookies in 1908 were pitchers Joe Wood and Ed Cicotte. A fellow Vermonter, third baseman Larry Gardner, would also make his debut that year. The Red Sox thought so much of McConnell that they dealt veteran second baseman Hobe Ferris to make room for him in the lineup.
The Midget did not disappoint his New England fans in that rookie season. The left-handed swinger finished second on the team in base hits (140) and batting average (.279). Although
struggling a bit defensively in the early going, he was credited with steadying the infield and propelling the team to an improved fifth place finish. McConnell used his speed to steal 31 bases, leading the team in that category. The total remains as the second highest reached by a rookie in Red Sox history. At the end of the year, admiring fans voted him the team’s most popular player. Amby even made his way onto a tobacco card. All in all, it was quite a year.
Now married with two children, McConnell spent his winters in Utica, New York. In 1909 he again put forth a solid season for the surging Red Sox, who won 88 games on the way to a third- place finish. Although slumping to a .238 average, McConnell played well defensively and stole 26 bases as part of the BoSox ‘s heralded “Speed Boys” offense. On July 19, he earned a small
place in baseball history. Taking the plate with two on against the Cleveland Indians, McConnell hit a liner right at shortstop Neal Ball, who quickly doubled off the base runners. It was
baseball’s first unassisted triple play.
With Harry Hooper, Ray Collins, and Duffy Lewis joining the ballclub, 1910 promised to be the best season yet for McConnell and the Sox. The season would however prove to be the turning
point of McConnell’s major league career. The second baseman got off to a poor start, and suffered a serious leg injury. Fellow Vermonter Larry Gardner took over his position. Now considered expendable, the recovering infielder was unloaded in what was considered a “blockbuster” deal, going with infielder Harry Lord to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Frank Smith and infielder Billy Purtelle. The change of Sox improved McConnell’s fortunes somewhat, and he hit .275 for the rest of the season.
McConnell’s new boss was the crabby and penurious Charles Comiskey, who went to great lengths to limit his player’s compensation. The always money conscious McConnell would soon run afoul of him. In May, McConnell suffered a knee injury and was confined to bed for a few days. Due to his mishap, he was unable to go to the local bank to cash his paycheck. Instead he mailed it to his wife back in Utica. When she went to the bank, she was told that the check was no good because the account had been closed. Checking further, McConnell found that the Chicago bank from which the check had drawn had closed down.
An irate McConnell accused Comiskey of financial misconduct, as the latter refused to settle the debt until the bank’s matters were concluded. The issue dragged on throughout the season, with McConnell threatening legal action while Comiskey maintained his hands were tied until the courts decided the fate of the bank. Meanwhile, Amby played solidly at second base for the White Sox, hitting .280 and leading the league in fielding percentage. At season’s end, he was shocked to learn of his release. According to the White Sox, injuries had robbed him of the speed they wanted at the position.
McConnell quickly caught on with Toronto in the International League, but continued his grievance against Comiskey. The story behind his complaint reveals much about the
inner workings of baseball in this period. The ruling National Commission consisted of an “old boy” network of owners who shared similar interests. By reading the correspondence between Comiskey and chairman Garry Hermann, it becomes easy to see that a player like McConnell did not stand a chance of winning his case. In a condescending tone, the ballplayer was told that he would receive full payment in due time. In any case, he would never return to the majors, and one is left to wonder if Comiskey made sure of this.
While his old Boston ballclub was winning the World Series in 1912, McConnell played well for Toronto, hitting .321. For the next 12 years he would wander aimlessly throughout the minor
leagues. After playing for Atlanta in the Southern League and returning to the New York State League from 1915-1917, McConnell was signed as player-manager of Richmond in the Virginia league.
In 1919 he would have his best professional season, winning the batting title with a .338 mark. This success earned him a final trip to the International League with Syracuse. Again serving as
manager, McConnell hit .355 in the first 32 games. With no big league promotion forthcoming, he resigned and returned to Virginia to manage the Tarboro ballclub.
1922 found Amby as the popular player-manager of the Luddington Mariners in the Central League. Once again, injury would strike him down. After getting off to a .329 start,
McConnell was nailed in the head by a line drive and forced to leave the ball club. The injury kept him out of the 1923 season. Returning to Utica, he finished his career with a .350 average in 1924. His minor league playing career had been long and not without distinction.
Baseball remained in Amby’s blood. After running a semipro team in Camden, New Jersey, he returned to help rejuvenate baseball in Utica. McConnell purchased the local stadium, Braves Field, and secured a franchise in the Can-Am league. Along with co-owning the team, he also took over the roles of field and general manager. His co-owner was Father Martin, a Catholic priest who doubled as the president of the league.
The Utica Braves failed to reach McConnell’s aspirations. Although attendance was excellent, fans complained that ticket prices were too high. On the playing field, the team limped to a
depressing 45-78 record. McConnell did not help matters by becoming involved in yet another financial misadventure. The Can-Am league operated under a salary cap, which the manager
tried to circumvent by signing shortstop Leo Schoppmyer to two different contracts.
Ironically, McConnell was busted by his own partner, Father Martin, who disliked Schoppmyer. In his role as league president Martin ordered McConnell to be suspended and fined. As he had in the Comiskey affair, McConnell brought the case to a higher office. The judge in charge of baseball’s National Association cut the suspension to two years probation, but McConnell stepped down as field manager for good at the end of the season.
The old infielder suited up just one more time, for an Oldtimers All-Star game held in Cooperstown in 1939. He continued in his post as Utica’s general manager, hiring Schoppmyer as manager in 1939 and then firing him a year later. On May 20, 1942, Amby McConnell died of a massive heart attack at age 59. His wife sold his Utica team to the Philadelphia Phillies a year later.
There is little left in North Pownal, Vermont, to remind one of Amby McConnell. However, less than a mile away from the tannery lies a small, grassy diamond. A century ago, it was here
that an undersized boy began his dreams of big league glory. Although ill-fated at times, McConnell’s career stands was not without honor and distinction.
In preparing this biography, I made use of the research files of the Baseball Hall of
Fame, and also the private files of David Pietrusza and Dick Thompson. An important article was “How I Got My Start” by Amby McConnell, Sporting Life, 1908.