In the summer of 1934, three very different lives converged in North Brookfield, Mass.: song-and-dance man George M. Cohan; Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack; and Martin Bergen, a Boston Beaneater who murdered his family and killed himself 34 years previously.
All three had grown up in or near North Brookfield. Cohan, born in 1878, spent summers in North Brookfield at his grandmother’s house when he wasn’t traveling on the vaudeville circuit with his family. He loved the town. His musical Fifty Miles From Boston was inspired by North Brookfield and includes the song Harrigan.
In 1934, Cohan told a reporter, “I’ve knocked around everywhere, but there’s no place like North Brookfield.”
Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, was born Dec. 22, 1862 in East Brookfield, Mass., to a large Irish family. He quit school at 16 to work in a shoe factory and help support his family. He played baseball, or what was then called town ball, any chance he could get.
In 1886 he began his 10-year career as a light-hitting catcher in the National League. Then he went on to manage, and become part owner, of the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 seasons. He won, lost and managed more games than anyone in baseball history, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
Martin Bergen was also a catcher, and some said he was the best defensive catcher ever to play the game. He was born on a farm in 1871 in North Brookfield.
From 1896 to 1899, he played for the Boston Beaneaters (later the Braves), growing increasingly erratic. Sometimes he would disappear for days. Once he suddenly slapped a teammate without provocation. He claimed people were trying to poison him and he began to walk sideways so he could detect his potential assassins.
His teammates mistook his behavior for alcoholism, but Martin Bergen suffered from mental illness.
When his three-year-old son died in the summer of 1899, Martin Bergen complained his teammates kept reminding him of his son’s death. Some of the Beaneaters, on the other hand, said they wouldn’t play the next year if he were still on the team.
On Jan. 19, 1900, Martin took an axe and bludgeoned to death his wife and two small children. He then slashed his own throat so savagely his head was nearly severed. Doctors concluded he had schizophrenia and possibly manic depression.
Cohan and Mack knew Martin Bergen. Mack had played baseball with him. Mack and Cohan had become friends, and in 1934 they helped collect enough money to establish a granite monument to Martin Bergen at his gravesite in St. Joseph Cemetery.
Connie Mack Day
The Brookfield Chamber of Commerce planned July 10, 1934 as a special day to dedicate the monument. George M. Cohan agreed to play master of ceremonies. He asked Connie Mack if his Philadelphia Athletics, on pace for a losing season, would play a top town team, the Armortreds.
Ironically, the day to honor Martin Bergen became Connie Mack Day. The town bedecked itself in patriotic bunting and American flags. The 181st Infantry Band serenaded a crowd of 6,000 with tunes. NBC broadcast the game, with Cohan doing the play-by-play when he wasn’t umpiring or sitting next to Connie Mack, eating hot dogs or signing autographs.
After the Athletics lost 9-5, Connie Mack spoke to the crowd:
I cannot begin to tell you the pleasure it has given me to come back to North Brookfield today. It was 51 years ago on the Fourth of July that I played my last ball game on this common … And I lost that one too. I don’t know if I have set foot on this field since.
Mack had returned to North Brookfield 34 years earlier to attend Martin Bergen’s funeral. Only two others had joined him for the sad ceremony: his brother Bill Bergen and his teammate Billy Hamilton.
The inscription on the monument read, “In memory of Martin Bergen, 1871–1900. Member of the Boston National League Club. Erected in appreciation of his contribution to American’s national game.”
With thanks to Connie Mack: A Life in Baseball By Ted Davis. This story about Martin Bergen was updated in 2020.