Honorable Mention — Larry MacPhail

Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices). 

MacPhailLarry

It might seem strange that Larry MacPhail does not make our list of the top 25 general managers.  He is in the Hall of Fame, after all, one of very few GMs so honored.  Some consider that there are only five GM honorees — Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, George Weiss, Pat Gillick and MacPhail.  Two others in the Hall, Lee MacPhail and Warren Giles, served as GMs longer than Larry MacPhail, before long terms as league presidents.  Either way, there aren’t many.

Larry MacPhail ran three ballclubs (Cincinnati 1933-36, Brooklyn 1937-42, Yankees 1945-47). In all three cases he acted more as a team president, making decisions outside the scope of baseball operations.  He is most famous today for installing lights at all three of his ballparks, bringing night games to the majors in Cincinnati and then following suit in Brooklyn and New York.  He also hired Red Barber to broadcast games for the Reds and later brought him to Brooklyn, breaking an agreement the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees had made not to broadcast games.  MacPhail was a brilliant promoter, and in both Cincinnati and Brooklyn improved his team’s finances considerably.   When considering MacPhail for this list, we tried to separate MacPhail the president from MacPhail to team builder.  He could easily have made this list anyway and was on the first version we considered, but ultimately we decided his career was a little short.

MacPhail was a bright fellow — he had a law degree from Georgetown, served as an artillery captain in World War I, and had worked in law and business for a decade before beginning his baseball career in 1931 running the Columbus Redbirds, part of the large Cardinals farm system. When he was asked to run the Reds in late 1933 the club was nearly bankrupt — he was hired because of his business skills, and MacPhail’s ballpark improvements, innovations, and drive helped make the club profitable within a couple of years. He was also instrumental in luring industrialist  Powel Crosley to buy the team, which helped considerably.

On the field, the Reds slowly progressed.  They won just 52 games MacPhail’s first year (last place) and he got them up to 74-80 in 1936.  Most of the improvement came because MacPhail convinced Crosley to spend money, and MacPhail purchased Kiki Cuyler and a few others.  But along with his frenetic business genius, MacPhail could be abusive when he drank, which was rather often.  After the 1936 season Crosley decided the overall package was not worth it and fired his GM.  The aging club regressed the next season before new general manager Warren Giles made a few astute trades and won the 1939 pennant and 1940 World Series.

After a year off, MacPhail was offered control of the Brooklyn Dodgers, another club was that losing games and bleeding money.  The 1925 deaths of both Charles Ebbets and Ed McKeever, who between them owned 75 percent of the team, had left club ownership in the hands of squabbling heirs and, once the Depression hit, impatient bankers. By late 1937 the Dodgers were $700,000 in debt and losing more than $100,000 a year. MacPhail’s transformation of the Dodger finances was rapid, starting with his convincing the banks to let him spend more money in order to improve the operation. He began by cleaning, repairing, and repainting Ebbets Field, again installing lights. He brought Barber from Cincinnati. Home attendance increased from 482,000 in 1937 to a league-leading 976,000 in 1940 and then to a franchise record 1.215 million in 1941. By 1940 the Dodgers were turning a profit and by 1941 were out of debt.

MacPhail also greatly improved the product on the field, mainly by buying veteran players — Dolph Camilli, Whitlow Wyatt, Curt Davis, Joe Medwick, Kirby Higbe, Arky Vaughan — over a three year period. In 1939 MacPhail promoted shortstop Leo Durocher to player-manager.  He extracted two young stars — Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese — from other clubs and claimed Dixie Walker off waivers.  The 1941 Dodgers, made up mainly of men MacPhail had brought into the organization over the previous three years, broke through and won 100 games and Brooklyn’s first NL pennant since 1920. The 1942 Dodgers won a franchise record 104 games but were overtaken by a Cardinal club that won 38 of its final 44 contests.

Despite his success, after five years MacPhail had again worn out his welcome due to his personality and his spending. In September 1942 MacPhail, sensing that his time was up, entered military service. During his five years at the helm, the Dodgers had evolved from a pathetic franchise to one of the better teams in baseball. As his successor the Dodgers hired Cardinals GM Branch Rickey, who was starting to chafe after many years working for Sam Breadon.  The Dodgers were quite old, not Rickey’s kind of team, but the team was profitable enough to allow Rickey to build a farm system and develop his own star players.

MacPhail spent two years in the War Department, before putting together a partnership — with construction tycoon Del Webb and sportsman playboy Dan Topping — to buy the Yankees from the estate of Jacob Ruppert.  Like in Brooklyn, MacPhail was in complete control.

Unlike the Dodgers, the Yankees had a long tradition of success.  The war scrambled everyone’s rosters and left little for MacPhail to do beyond playing the players he had, but he interfered with manager Joe McCarthy enough that the skipper took a short sabbatical, nominally for health reasons, in the middle of the season.  While he was gone and with the team in the pennant race, MacPhail sold his best pitcher — Hank Borowy — to the Cubs, helping Chicago win the NL flag.

In 1946, with the war over, MacPhail installed lights in Yankee Stadium, added a new Stadium club, reinstalled 15.000 seats, and added lots of promotional events.  The Yankees had never felt the need to promote their ballclub, but the 1946 team played before an all-time record 2,265,512 customers. All of baseball experienced an attendance boom that year, but the Yankees were easily the biggest draw.

More importantly,  everyone got their real players back, which for the Yankees meant Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and more.  The Yankees finished well back of Boston in 1946, and MacPhail’s meddling finally caused McCarthy to quit — he again claimed health problems, but the main cause was his increased drinking. Bill Dickey took over the club in May but he quit in September when MacPhail appeared unwilling to extend his contract.  Johnny Neun finished out the year but left after the season to join the Reds.

In the following off-season MacPhail traded Gordon for pitcher Allie Reynolds, a deal which worked out well over the long  haul, and acquired veteran George McQuinn the play first base. Somewhat surprisingly, the 1947 Yankees won ninety-seven games and a fairly easy pennant. After their dramatic World Series victory over the Dodgers, MacPhail went on a drunken tirade at the team’s celebration dinner, berating players, his fellow owners, and longtime farm director George Weiss.  The next day Topping and Webb announced they had bought MacPhail out.  Just 57, he never worked in baseball again.

As a general manager, MacPhail’s resume is complicated.  His most impressive team building took place in Brooklyn, where he spent a lot of money to buy players.  He never built a sustainable organization, perhaps because he didn’t think he’d be around long.  He looked for the quick fix, and he proved adept at finding available players to push his team forward.  But his principal skill as a baseball man was his brilliant business sense, his ability to make a team profitable.  This he did spectacularly well.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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4 thoughts on “Honorable Mention — Larry MacPhail

  1. The timing is all wrong, but can you imagine a combination of Larry MacPhail as GM and Billy Martin as manager? Two very volatile, hard-drinking guys who usually wore out their welcome in a few years. That would have been something to see.

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  2. I think you overrate Theo Epstein, leaving out some key facts.

    Theo Epstein had virtually unlimited money to spend in Boston and built himself a second place team to the Yankees, getting a wildcard spot. He wanted Carl Pavano, outbid the Yankees to get him, failed – thank God for him and winds up having funds to sign Curt Shilling. So, does a guy who builds a wild card team with virtually unlimited money deserve this kind of respect?

    He left the Red Sox because he knew he had a lot of bad contracts that was of his doing. What am I missing here?

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      • Maybe so. I’m not taking credit away from that. But to have him as a top 20 GM of ALL TIME? Didn’t Brian Cashman win more World Series?

        How about the bag of horse poop he left his successor? I really think Theo’s motivation in going to Chicago was to escape his bad contracts.

        John Mozelak of St. Louis has shown he can win consistently with a medium level payrol while not going through crash and burns. So have other GMs. Hey, shouldn’t Ben Cherington of Boston be in the top 20 since he won a WS? Theo is overrated and his time in Chicago will prove that.

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