MacPhail, Leland Stanford, Sr. ("Larry")
MacPHAIL, Leland Stanford, Sr. ("Larry")
(b. 3 February 1890 in Cass City, Michigan; d. 1 October 1975 in Miami, Florida), Major League Baseball executive whose creativity and inventiveness led to many changes in the game.
MacPhail was one of three children of Curtis McPhail, a Cass City banker, and Catherine MacMurtrie, a homemaker. (MacPhail later changed the spelling of his last name to call attention to his Scottish ancestry.) After graduating from Staunton Military Academy in Virginia in 1906, MacPhail enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Following his freshman year, he transferred to the University of Michigan Law School, but eye trouble forced him to withdraw after the first semester. He entered George Washington University as a junior and received his LL.B. in 1910 at age twenty. Following graduation, he married Inez Thompson; they had three children.
MacPhail practiced law, then rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army during World War I. Settling in Columbus, Ohio, after the war, he owned automobile distributor-ships, among many other business ventures. MacPhail and Thompson divorced in 1939, and on 16 May 1945 MacPhail married Jean Bennett Wanamaker, who had been his secretary while he was president of the Brooklyn Dodgers; they had one child.
In 1931 the Columbus Triple-A club became a financial victim of the depression. Local businessmen rallied to keep the team operating, and because MacPhail was out of work due to the depression, they chose him to be team president. MacPhail convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to add Columbus to their well-established farm system. That negotiation brought him in contact with Branch Rickey, a prominent baseball executive, with whom he developed a long-term love-hate relationship. MacPhail's success in drawing fans to a new modern ballpark with lights bothered Rickey, and his resistance to providing Columbus players to help the parent club angered Rickey. During the 1933 season, Rickey unceremoniously fired MacPhail.
By the end of 1933 MacPhail had been hired as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a weak second-division team in the National League (NL). He raised fan interest through player acquisitions, promotions, and regular radio broadcasts with Walter "Red" Barber, the "Voice of the Reds." He also inaugurated airplane flights in the majors to replace tedious train travel. Night baseball had been played in the minors, but it was prohibited in the majors. MacPhail persuaded the NL to permit the Reds to play one night game with each team in the league. On 24 May 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in Washington, D.C., flicked the switch to turn on the lights in Cincinnati's Crosley Field, and the majors' first-ever night game was played. In September 1936 the Reds' president Powell Crosley, Jr., fired MacPhail after he slugged a police sergeant in a hotel elevator. The Reds were a much-improved team after MacPhail left, and in 1939 the rejuvenated Cincinnati won the NL pennant.
MacPhail took on another challenge in 1938, becoming executive vice president of the downtrodden Brooklyn Dodgers. The slightly over six-foot, 195-pound entrepreneur with bright red hair, watery blue eyes, and a freckled face initiated the triumvirate of renovation, promotion, and acquisitions that was his prescription for breathing life into an unsuccessful franchise. He had new sod laid on the field and gave Ebbets Field a coat of paint—mostly orange. MacPhail created a festive atmosphere by having the newly organized Dodger Symphony Band produce a loud cacophony of raucous sound. His well-trained ushers were attired in flashy green-and-gold uniforms.
MacPhail had to completely revamp the Dodgers, a team known more for its comedic ineptness than its ability. He accomplished this through conniving, trades, and purchases. In 1938 commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who believed the depth of the Cardinals farm system prevented youngsters from a fair shot at reaching the majors, declared Pete Reiser and seventy-two other St. Louis minor leaguers to be free agents. MacPhail signed Reiser for $100. Branch Rickey thought Landis had agreed to hide Reiser for him in the Brooklyn farm system and later give him back to the St. Louis system. When Rickey asked to have Reiser back, MacPhail responded with a resounding "No."
The Cardinals Leo Durocher signed to play shortstop for the Dodgers in 1938, bringing an intensity that endeared him to MacPhail. One year later MacPhail, who had become the president of the club, appointed the thirty-three-year-old Durocher to be Brooklyn's player-manager. At times, the two men worked together well as they rebuilt the franchise. At other times, their relationship included fits of blind rage and anger, often precipitated and fueled by MacPhail's use of alcohol. During Durocher's four years as manager, the "Roaring Redhead" fired Leo "The Lip" at least four times, including the night in 1941 when Brooklyn clinched the pennant. After each firing, Durocher went right on managing and MacPhail looked the other way.
During his time as president of the Dodgers, which ended in 1942, MacPhail brought lights to Ebbets Field, had batting helmets manufactured for his players, scheduled special events to entertain fans before games, and brought Brooklyn to the airwaves with Red Barber at the microphone, ending a long-standing agreement by the three New York teams not to broadcast their games. MacPhail also arranged for a Brooklyn game to be televised. His inventive plan to use yellow baseballs failed to catch on in Brooklyn.
MacPhail, a staunch patriot, returned to military service on 1 October 1942 during World War II. Lieutenant Colonel MacPhail served as an aide to Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson. Following the war, MacPhail, Del Webb, and Dan Topping became owners of the New York Yankees. MacPhail was the club's president and helped build the foundation for a dynasty. His Yankees farm system, which numbered over twenty-five clubs, provided outstanding talent for many years.
MacPhail had lights installed in Yankee Stadium, was instrumental in bringing televised games to the New York area, set up a pension plan for Yankees players and front-office personnel, initiated a Stadium Club to cater to season-ticket holders and others, and organized Old Timers' Days, when retired players were honored before the start of a game and sometimes played shortened games themselves. MacPhail resigned as Yankees president at the Biltmore Hotel following the Yankees victory over the Dodgers in the 1947 World Series. At the celebration, MacPhail punched out general manager George Weiss and Dan Topping in a mêlée later known as the "Battle of the Biltmore." He retired to his Glenangus Farm in Bel Air, Maryland, with his wife and daughter to breed and run racehorses. Illness forced MacPhail to live his last few years in a Miami nursing home, where he died. He is buried in Cass City.
The dynamic, creative, charismatic, combative, heavy-drinking MacPhail worked in major league baseball for only eleven years, but he won world championships in both leagues and was responsible for many of the game's advances. MacPhail was elected posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978. One of his sons, Leland S., Jr. ("Lee"), and a grandson, Andrew B. ("Andy"), also became successful major league executives. His son joined him as a member of the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Don Warfield, The Roaring Redhead: Larry MacPhail, Baseball's Great Innovator (1987), offers an account of MacPhail's life and accomplishments. G. Richard McKelvey, The MacPhails: Baseball's First Family of the Front Office (2000), presents an account of MacPhail's career, using the remembrances of his son Lee, his grandson Andy, and other baseball personnel as primary sources. A three-part series, "The Great MacPhail," by Gerald Holland, appeared in Sports Illustrated (17, 24, and 31 Aug. 1959). Obituaries are in the New York Times (2 Oct. 1975) and Sporting News (18 Oct. 1975).
G. Richard McKelvey