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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack Prosecuted a Heckling Fan

Heckling has been a part of the baseball experience since the earliest days. Some fans believe that paying for a ticket gives them a right to razz players, both opposing and their own, if they feel it is deserved. This is certainly not one of the more pleasant aspects of the game, and one time Hall-of-Fame manager Connie Mack once decided he had enough and had one particularly aggressive fan arrested for the negative impact he was having on his Philadelphia Athletics.

The city of Philadelphia is well known in the sports world for having some of the most hard-nosed fans. This reputation is supported by an infamous incident in 1968 when even Santa Claus was booed at a Philadelphia Eagles football game. However, the origins for such behavior go back even further and are highlighted by the case of Harry Donnelly and the Athletics.

Bill “Good Time Bill” Lamar was a left-handed sweet- hitting outfielder. A .330 career batting average in the minor leagues made him a valuable major league commodity. Although he reached the big leagues in 1917 with the New York Yankees at the age of 20, it wouldn’t be until 1924, when Mack traded for him (also sending a reported $30,000 in the deal—a princely sum for the time), that he became a regular, hitting .330 in 87 games that year, and .356 in 138 games in 1925.

Unfortunately, Lamar did not turn into a star. He dropped off to a .284 batting average in 1926 and was more of a platoon player in 1927. It was that year that the outfielder seemingly fell out of favor with Mack. In early June it was reported that the team was trying to trade him to the Chicago White Sox for first baseman Earl Sheely, himself a former hitting star who had fallen on tough times.

Although Lamar was hitting .299 in 84 games, he was placed on waivers on August 7, 1927. Reports indicated the move was predicated by the player’s inability to follow team training rules. This was borne out in his numbers, as he hit .337 during the first two months of the season, spanning 42 games, but fell to just .252 the rest of the way—over another 42 games, obviously losing playing time because of his lack of production. Another theory as to what led to his downfall was the incessant heckling, particularly by one Harry Donnelly.

Donnelly was a 26-year-old Philadelphia native who enjoyed going to Athletics games and sitting in the left field stands, right behind where Lamar played most often. He liked needling players in a loud voice that was described as having the “resonance of a three-mile loud speaker,” but his actions were generally considered more offensive than funny. He was even kicked out of one 1926 game when umpire George Hildebrand had ordered him escorted from Shibe Park.

History repeated itself again on August 10, 1927, when umpire Brick Owens grew tired of Donnelly’s incessant baiting and stopped the game to have police remove him from the park. After the game, the arbiter explained he took such extreme action because he found the heckling so objectionable. “The American League has always striven to make baseball a clean game of rowdyism and one that ladies might attend without fear of hearing or seeing anything objectionable… and when a fan goes beyond the pale of common decency and shouts remarks that reek with filth and vileness, then it is time to interfere. Baseball can be enjoyed without that sort of rooting and it can get along without the type of man whose mouthings are full of oaths an indecencies. I’ll have them run out of the park as fast as I can spot them.”

Despite the multiple run-ins over his actions, Donnelly continued coming to games and apparently didn’t learn any lessons. On September 15th, he was up to his same schtick as the Athletics hosted the Chicago White Sox, but this time Mack noticed and had police remove him from the stadium and arrest him for disturbing the peace.

Mack, who had seen his players harassed by a number of fans over the season decided enough was enough and went to court to pursue the charge against Donnelly. Facing the judge, the manage testified that “Yesterday, Mr. Donnelly rode third baseman Sammy Hale until he had him so nervous he would have missed the ball had one been hit to him. In this game an error might have meant defeat (Philadelphia did prevail 5-4 but it is interesting to note that Hale was removed after two at-bats in favor of Chick Galloway).

Continuing, Mack laid the blame for Lamar’s demise squarely at the feet of Donnelly. “Lamar was one of the best outfielders I ever had. But a group of fans, of which this man was the ringleader, kept riding him until he wasn’t any good to me and I had to trade him away.

The hammer was truly dropped in Mack’s closing remarks, as he told the judge, “It seems this young man pays his $1.10 to come and ride the players. Why doesn’t he save it and meet them outside aft the game? We want him to stay away from the park.”
Donnelly refuted Mack’s charges, claiming that he didn’t heckle players but rather attended games to cheer the team on to win. The judge, allegedly an Athletics fan himself, sided with the manager and held Donnelly on $500 bail with the additional threat that he would impose further sanctions if the young man was cited again for “handing out raspberries.”

One can only surmise that the judgment was enough to have Donnelly adjust his behavior, as no further record exists of him causing trouble at Athletics games. Nevertheless, there are some important things to note about the case:

The heckling may have gotten to Lamar but probably not in the way that history remembers. With his decline being attributed to the constant riding, the assumption is that he lost his confidence. However, he was known for his temper (once suspended for his role in a fist fight while with the Louisville Colonels) and may have instead had a hard time concentrating because of how he was triggered.

Lamar was initially picked up on waivers by the Washington Senators but was quickly cut loose again after trying to hold out for a $1,000 bonus to join the team. He played 85 games for Newark in the International League the following season, batting a modest .271 in 85 games and getting himself suspended twice. He never played professional ball again after that, done at the age of 31.

The numbers also don’t suggest that Lamar was long-suffering at the hands of overly aggressive Philadelphia fans. He hit .321 during four seasons with the team, and his home/road batting average splits were .317/.339 (1924), .376/.330 (1925), .287/.281 (1926), and .272/.312 (1927).

The Athletics were good in 1927. Although they finished 19 games behind the New York Yankees, they won 91 games and were a stellar 50-27 at home, on their way to a second place finish.

Despite his stated aversion to heckling, it has been alleged by some, including Hall-of-Fame outfielder Larry Doby, that the Athletics paid fan(s) to heckle opposing players during Mack’s tenure running the team.

Regardless of the impact heckling had on the demise of Lamar’s career, this is one of the more interesting tidbits of baseball history. Not only does it stand out for its unusual nature, the incident is also in contrast to the image many may have of Mack. Certainly, it is an episode that will never been seen again.

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