Larry MacPhail, Hall of Fame baseball executive
There is a thin line between genius and insanity, and in Larry's case it was sometimes so thin you could see him drifting back and forth.
Leland Stanford MacPhail was born February 3, 1890 in Cass City, Michigan, named after the great California railroad pioneer. At the tender age of 21, Leland enlisted in the Army, and was a captain when World War I fighting broke out. Leland was among a select group of men sent to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm from Holland where he was in exile. The group came within 24 hours of attempting their mission, but it was aborted.
After the war, Larry returned to the States and began managing and co-owning several minor league baseball teams. By 1931 he was the sole owner of the Columbus Red Birds. He campaigned hard for more open business channels between his league and the major leagues, and in 1932 he offered his team as an exclusive farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals, then ran by another young baseball entrepreneur named Branch Rickey. In 1933 Larry bought an interest in the Cincinnati Reds and offered, free of charge, to serve as the team's general manager.
In 1934, teams traveled primarily by train. In the middle of a sweltering heat wave, rail travel became almost unbearable at timse. Larry made headlines by sending the team via airplane to Chicago - the first team to do so. Within two years it would become a standard, and one hardly even thinks about it now - but at the time is was considered shockingly excessive in the midst of The Great Depression. But MacPhail wasn't done yet. In 1935 he had lights installed at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, and on May 24, President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw a switch from the White House that lit up the field for Major League Baseball's first night game.
Larry also proved he knew his way around the ins and outs of engineering a baseball team, adding players like Ernie Lombardi, Ival Goodman, Billy Myers, and Paul Derringer to the team. Larry left the team abruptly in 1935, embroiled in controversy, but his additions proved to be vital to the Reds' championship years of 1939 and 1940.
In the meantime, Larry got a new job working under Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. The team was losing games, losing fan interest, and most importantly losing money. In his first two years, Larry turned everything around, adding Babe Ruth as a coach to generate fan interest, helping the team improve 20 games in 1939, and introducing his old Cincinnati friend Red Barber as the team's first radio announcer. Oh yeah, and he also made the team a hefty $4 million in his first year - not too shabby for a first-timer. Continuing his innovative ways, in 1941, Larry invented the first batting helmet - though it was much shoddier than today's fiberglass models, it was a remarkable innovation never the less.
MacPhail was a notoriously hard GM, always demanding success. His early years had taught him that even if he did all that he could, if his managers couldn't keep the players in line then all was moot. In 1941, his Dodgers won the pennant. The team celebrated with a ride on the team train through Manhattan, but manager Leo Durocher skipped a stop at 125th Street - where MacPhail was waiting. Furious, MacPhail fired his Series-winning manager on the spot.
In 1942, MacPhail's Army roots got the best of him, and he re-enlisted, despite being 52 years old. Rickey took the opportunity to fire his very smart but very irritable general manager. As a testament to his hard work both with the home team and the farm system, the Dodgers came in 3rd place or higher in the National League 15 times in 16 years after Larry's departure.
Unfazed by his firing, Larry and two friends collaborated to buy the New York Yankees in 1945. Now a 1/3 owner, Larry resumed his dictatorial general manager duties. In 1946, Joe McCarthy quit mid-season on him, replaced by long-time catcher Bill Dickey and then Johnny Neun - who also quit at the end of the year!
At the start of the 1947 season, MacPhail's dignity was called into question when he was spotted consorting with known gangsters. Both he and his nemesis Durocher battled over improprities in the papers and in the commissioner's office. When it was said and done, Durocher was suspended for all of 1947 and MacPhail was forced to pay a $20,000 fine. That year, MacPhail's Yankees beat Durocher's Dodgers in the World Series. MacPhail celebrated by punching out a writer and quitting in a drunken stupor. His co-owners bought out his share in the team, and he retired for good from baseball.
Larry MacPhail passed away October 1, 1975 in Miami, Florida.
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