This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
Lee MacPhail ran two baseball teams — the Orioles (1958-1965) and Yankees (1966-1973) — and did not win a pennant at either stop. That said, the evidence suggests that he did a great job at both places, dramatically improving organizations that had been in disarray and won championships soon after he had (voluntarily) moved on. MacPhail spent more than four decades in the game and is perhaps best known today for his tenure as AL president, but his role as a builder of teams should not be forgotten.
The son of a brilliant but combative Hall of Fame baseball executive, Lee MacPhail inherited his father’s intelligence but not his personality. While Larry had a short and somewhat mercurial baseball career colored by occasional triumph and continual controversy, Lee quietly earned the respect and admiration of nearly everyone he met. Lee spent a few years running minor league teams in the Dodger and Yankee organizations, before serving several years as George Weiss’s chief assistant with the Yankees, responsible for one of the most productive farm systems in the game. In late 1958 MacPhail became the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Paul Richards had been serving as both GM and manager in Baltimore, but ownership had tired of his excessive bonuses to players who did not pan out, and the destructive disharmony between Richards and farm director Jim McLaughlin. The hiring of MacPhail (who kept Richards as manager) lessened the bonuses and led to a general calming of the organization. After another sixth place finish in 1959, the club broke through with an 89-65 record and a second place finish in 1960. A solid group of players from their system – Brooks Robinson, Ron Hansen, Jerry Adair, Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada and others – made up a youthful core.
By 1961, both McLaughlin and Richards were gone, and MacPhail promoted Harry Dalton to run the farm system. Dalton formalized the organizational instruction and what became known as the Oriole Way, and the MacPhail/Dalton organization was soon a model in the game. In a five-year period beginning in 1959, the Orioles signed Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Dave Johnson, Dean Chance, Tom Phoebus, and Andy Etchebarren, along with several other future major leaguers. MacPhail also proved adept at nabbing useful players from other organizations, like Jim Gentile from the Dodgers in 1959, Jackie Brandt from the Giants in 1959, relief pitcher Stu Miller from the Giants in 1962, and pitcher Robin Roberts (who had been released by the Yankees) also in 1962. In early 1963 he acquired Luis Aparicio from the White Sox for four good players: infielders Ron Hansen and Pete Ward, outfielder Dave Nicholson, and veteran relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm. The cost proved to be steep, but Aparicio provided outstanding defense and base running for several years in Baltimore. The 1964 club, with Powell, Aparicio, and Robinson (league MVP) having big years and Steve Barber, Milt Pappas and Wally Bunker anchoring a fine pitching staff, won 97 games, finishing just two games back of the Yankees for the AL pennant. They won 94 more in 1965.
After the 1965 season baseball hired a new commissioner, retired Air Force General William Eckert, a man who knew little about how the baseball business worked. To help ease his transition, the owners enticed MacPhail to accept a new job as Eckert’s assistant. As his last act as the Orioles GM, MacPhail attended the 1965 winter meetings and held talks with Cincinnati on a deal to bring star outfielder Frank Robinson to Baltimore, leaving final approval to his successor, Dalton. The new GM agreed, and the Orioles went on to win the 1966 World Series and become the winningest team in baseball over the next two decades. After the 1966 season MacPhail was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year, in recognition of his building of the Orioles and his year hand-holding the commissioner.
MacPhail’s next job was back with the Yankees, who named him their general manager in October 1966. The club had been purchased by CBS in 1964, and fell to sixth place and then tenth (last) place. In response, CBS named Mike Burke club president, and Burke talked MacPhail into running the baseball team. Burke focused on promoting the team (which had become very unpopular), selling tickets, and Yankee Stadium itself. For the most part, Burke left MacPhail alone to run baseball operations, and the latter got to work. Within a few months he traded Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Pedro Ramos; within a few years nearly all of the 1964 champions were gone. Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle were allowed to retire as Yankees, but the rest were sent packing in favor of younger players.
Little by little, talented players began to arrive. Mel Stottlemyre was the one youngster from the 1964 team that lasted into the 1970s, providing the team a decade of solid pitching. Outfielder Roy White debuted in 1965 and took a couple of years to begin to hit, but by 1968 he was an underrated star. Left-handed pitcher Fritz Peterson came up in 1966, Stan Bahnsen won 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award in 1968, Bobby Murcer joined the lineup in 1969, and Thurman Munson in 1970. After another rough year in 1967, the Yankees won 83 games in 1968, then 93 in 1970. Although MacPhail’s conservative approach to rebuilding the team (before the quicker fix of free agency) required time and patience, he thought it was close to paying off.
MacPhail made his best two deals in 1972, acquiring relief pitcher Sparky Lyle from Boston just before the season, and third baseman Graig Nettles just after. The Yankees were in their first division race in eight years that September, before falling short in a tight four-team battle. With Lyle and Nettles added to Stottlemyre, Peterson, White, Munson, and Murcer, many observers considered the Yankees one of baseball’s best teams heading into 1973. Before the season started, CBS sold the club to a group led by Cleveland shipbuilder George Steinbrenner, the man destined to be the dominant force in the front office for the next 35 years. Burke resigned a few months later, and MacPhail followed at the end of the season. The Yankees were in first place much of the summer, but a brutal August left them far behind the Orioles.
MacPhail did not win in New York, but he improved the organization considerably in his seven years in charge, and left a lot of talent for Steinbrenner and new GM Gabe Paul. During the years between the start of the amateur draft (1965) and the advent of free agency (1976) the Yankees could not rely on money or prestige. Building the team took patience, and the Yankees were vastly improved from the 10th place club MacPhail and Burke inherited.
MacPhail spent ten years as AL president, then two more as the owners’ chief negotiator with the player’s union. He finally retired in 1985, ending an impressive career in the game. His two stints as general manager deserve their due.
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