There is nobody like MacPhail. There is nobody who is even remotely like Leland Stanford (Larry) MacPhail.
Who but MacPhail could rampage through major league baseball like the snout of a tornado, take two ball clubs that were in hock to the bankers and put them on their financial feet, build pennant-winning ball clubs in both leagues and win a world championship in one? Argue reluctant club owners into adopting night baseball and then battle just as hard to keep them from overdoing it? Turn on the lights of a ball park at 3 o'clock in the morning for a game of rounders with sportswriters? Force lighting engineers to accept his theories about how to illuminate a ball park? Punch a newspaperman and then persuade him to join his staff as director of public relations? Select the elevator of a Cincinnati hotel as the place to slug it out with a police sergeant? Turn his back on it all after the New York Yankees had won the World Series in 1947 and pocket a check for $2 million, parlayed in three years from a personal commitment of $500,000?
Who but MacPhail could take a rundown farm and a crumbling house and build them into a 1,000-acre estate that is now one of the show places of Maryland? Who, in his middle 50s, could sink a fortune in the riskiest of businesses, the breeding of prize cattle and Thoroughbred horses, and make the venture pay from the start? Who, a Johnny come lately among breeders, could go to Saratoga and set one of the alltime highs with yearling sales totaling $666,700?
Who, in his new role of horseman, could become president of the Bowie race track, rebuild it from top to bottom and then be barred from even entering the premises? Who could thereupon take the track officials to court, sue them for breach of contract and win and collect a judgment of $99,971.10?
August 16, 1959
Who could be hauled off to jail for cop-fighting and turn up in the headlines again, not long afterward, as co-chairman of a drive to save the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra? Who could startle his staid Maryland neighbors by suing his new home county of Harford, force it to repave a road leading into his property and then name the road after him? Who could sit in the quiet of his own living room far out in the country, get in an argument with a telephone operator and, before the evening was over, find himself being arrested on a charge of assaulting the manager of the telephone office? Who, in that same living room, could spend an entire evening manipulating the stops on his electric organ to match the tone of his 8-year-old daughter's toy flute?
Who, in one lifetime, could be a church organist, a courtroom lawyer, a department store executive, an automobile dealer, a banker, a building contractor, a big-time football referee, an Army officer with a brilliant record in two world wars, a baseball impresario, a racing-stable proprietor, a knowledgeable musician and a first-rate amateur chef? Who could be called, at various times during his cataclysmic career, a busher, a bully, a brawler, a flop, a MacPhailure—and also an incomparable administrator, a superlative showman, a sure judge of talent in humans and horseflesh, a savior of the national game and the purest genius ever to streak across the sporting scene?
Nobody. Nobody but MacPhail.
Del Webb and Dan Topping," cried Larry MacPhail, raising a clenched fist, "didn't buy me out!" The fist crashed on the table top and the coffee cups jumped.
"Larry," murmured Mrs. MacPhail, unperturbed, "that's a glass table top."
"Mother," said 8-year-old Jeanie MacPhail quietly, "may I have some more fruit?" Her mother shook her head.
"Well," I said, "perhaps I phrased the question badly. But if Webb and Topping didn't buy out your interest in the New York Yankees, who did?"
"Nobody bought me out!" roared MacPhail. "The Yankee corporation retired my stock, and that happened in August, three months before I made a fool of myself by rushing down to the clubhouse after we had won the World Series and announcing my resignation as president of the ball club." He turned to his wife and said out of the corner of his mouth, "A little more fruit wouldn't hurt her, would it?"
"She's had enough for now, Larry," said Mrs. MacPhail. "She can have some more later on."
"Then may I be excused?" asked Jeanie.
"You may," said Jean MacPhail. Jeanie got up and smiled at her father and he grinned back at her. She went over to an end table and picked up a toy flute.
MacPhail's eyes followed her. "What will you take for that two-bit flute?" he said. Jeanie turned and said, "This is not a two-bit flute. It costs $1.29. That may not be much money to you, but it certainly is to me." She walked slowly away, blowing on the flute, struggling bravely to play Shoo, Fly, Don't Bother Me. She had a long way to go, and it happened to be a deadly serious business because she had to learn the piece in time to play in a whole chorus of toy flutes at the local public school a few days hence. Jeanie is the dark-haired, dark-eyed image of her mother and the only child of the 69-year-old MacPhail's second marriage (to the former Jean Wanamaker, his secretary when he was president of the Brooklyn Dodgers). The youngest of MacPhail's three children by his first marriage (which ended in divorce 14 years ago) is 32 years older than Jeanie. MacPhail's son, Bill, is director of sports for CBS; Lee is general manager of the Baltimore Orioles; his daughter, Marian, is chief of research for LIFE.
We had dined on the glass-enclosed terrace of the main house at MacPhail's Glenangus Farm near the town of Bel Air, Md. MacPhail had helped to carry in the dinner dishes, and now he began to help carry them out. It was the maid's night off. I stood up and picked up a plate, but Mrs. MacPhail said, "Why don't you both go in the living room and talk? I'll do the dishes." MacPhail shook his head. "No, I'll give you a hand," he said.
As the MacPhails worked in the kitchen I stood looking out from the terrace, down at the pond, stocked with bass and bluegills, and out over the green fields, each with its own spring, each set off by the hedges of multiflora roses which MacPhail planted to serve the double purpose of fencing and cover for game and wildlife. Visible through the trees were herds of Aberdeen Angus cattle (including one bull for which MacPhail paid $35,000) and the cottages that are the homes of some of the 30 fulltime employees of the estate.
Suddenly I staggered a little as an elbow jabbed me in the ribs. I turned and there was MacPhail, wiping a saucer with a towel. "It was a damn fool thing to do," he said, "running down to the clubhouse and announcing my resignation that way. That was a happy occasion and it belonged to the players. I should have kept my big mouth shut." I spread my feet a little, bracing myself, for I had learned that MacPhail punctuates his stories with assorted elbow jabs, chest pokes, shoulder nudges and pushes with the flat of his hand, all with the friendliest of intentions. But this time he just said, "I'll be back in a few minutes and tell you the facts about how I retired from baseball." He turned, and I watched him walk back to the kitchen. He didn't look 69; his hair was thinning but it was still red. He didn't need glasses to read the racing charts. He was a little beefy, but solid as a bullpen catcher. He smiled easily and often, but his eyes narrowed to slits and his lower lip protruded in the process, giving the effect of what someone once called "MacPhail's built-in leer."
I went on into the living room in the white-frame wing that MacPhail built onto the stone structure of the original farmhouse. The big room has a breathtaking picture window, a magnificent stereophonic sound system and a theater-size organ which MacPhail plays almost every day. I looked out the picture window in the fading twilight, down at the training track for the horses stabled at the farm, at the swimming pool and out over the gently rolling hills to the 150-acre tract on which MacPhail has just started his latest adventure in sports, the construction of an 18-hole golf course. He plans to lease it for operation as a private country club. He has other plans for setting aside some acreage for subdivision into two-acre miniature estates. It is his intention to keep intact the 300 acres surrounding the main house.
MacPhail became interested in Maryland through his longtime friend, Alfred Vanderbilt. He purchased the first 400 of his present 1,000 acres in 1941 when he was president of the Dodgers. The war interrupted his plans for developing the property, but in 1945 he imported 30 cows and a bull from Scotland and purchased three brood mares from Vanderbilt and began operations in earnest.
I reached down and took a cigarette out of a silver box on a coffee table between two long, curving sofas. I lit the cigarette and glanced around for an ashtray, and then I recalled that there was supposed to be a very special ashtray in this house. I didn't see it anywhere and so I walked over to the door leading into the library. I looked in and there it was sitting on a table behind MacPhail's desk: a heavy brass tray with a dog's head built into it. I remembered the story behind it: after the Armistice, at the end of World War I, some American soldiers, hearing that Germany's Kaiser had fled to Holland, decided to raid his castle hideout there, kidnap the old man and turn him over to Allied authorities with the recommendation that he be strung up. The jolly kidnaping party, made resolute by great quantities of French wine, was headed by Colonel Luke Lea of Nashville. In the forefront of the eight conspirators was MacPhail, who succeeded in penetrating to within earshot of Kaiser Bill before the alarm went up and the Dutch army guards came running to the scene. MacPhail had to flee with the others, but he alone had presence of mind to swipe a memento of the occasion—the ashtray that now rested on his library table.
I walked back into the living room and sat down on the sofa before the picture window. In a moment MacPhail came in from the kitchen and sat down on the sofa across from me. "Now then," he said, "about the Yankees. Let's go back a little way. When I was still in the Army in 1944, Mr. John Hertz of California called me and said he would lend me $3 million to buy the ball club. We went along and organized a syndicate that included Mr. Hertz, Mr. Robert Lehman and Mr. Floyd Odium and others and were all set to take over the club when the Surrogate refused to approve the purchase on behalf of the heirs of Colonel Jake Ruppert without a public hearing. That seemed to finish it, but later on I was called back by the executors of the Ruppert estate and told that the club could be purchased if the syndicate would increase the price offered by $500,000, bringing it to $2,800,000. I said I was sure that could be arranged and, after Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street investment house, had vouched for my financial responsibility, the deal was set. But then I found that Mr. Hertz, whom I was unable to contact directly, apparently had lost interest. This left me in the position of having, for all practical purposes, purchased the New York Yankees personally. Of course, I was confident that I could either revive the old syndicate or form a new one. The first person I contacted was Alfred Vanderbilt. But he was afraid his racing connections might bring some objections from Judge Landis, baseball commissioner.
"Now, just at that time, I happened to run into Dan Topping at '21,' the restaurant in New York. Dan had told me if I ever had the opportunity to buy a major league ball club he'd like to come in with me. So, going up in the elevator, I said, 'Dan, I've just bought the New York Yankees. Would you like to come in on the deal?'
"Dan said he certainly would, and he suggested that he and I buy the club together. I said I wasn't prepared to go in that deep. We had to raise approximately $3 million. I said I knew I could get a mortgage of a million and a half on the Stadium, and that would leave $1,500,000 to be raised. I said I didn't want to commit myself for more than a third of that. So Topping said he thought he could get his friend, Del Webb, the Arizona contractor, to come in for a third. As it turned out, Webb was agreeable and, instead of getting a mortgage on the Stadium, I got a straight loan of $1,500,000 for 12 years. Incidentally, I paid that off in 17 months."
Mrs. MacPhail came into the room and asked if she could bring us something to drink. I said I'd have a Coke and MacPhail said he'd have a No-Cal ginger ale. It was not his usual or his favorite drink, but he rarely takes anything stronger after dinner.
When Mrs. MacPhail had served our drinks, MacPhail held up his glass and looked at it. "When I was a kid in Michigan," he said, "I used to play ball with a town team on Sunday. Of course, I'd go to church first. Played the church organ, as a matter of fact. I remember one Sunday, after church, I was sneaking out the front door in my baseball uniform and my father called out to me from the parlor. 'Son,' he said, 'if you must play ball on a Sunday, I'd advise you to go out the back way so the neighbors won't see you.' I turned around and started for the kitchen, but then my mother called out to me. 'Son,' she said, 'if you must play baseball on Sunday, at least have the courage of your convictions. Go out the front way and make no apologies to anybody.' There was nothing hypocritical about my mother. Or my father, either. He just had a banker's caution."
He took a sip from his glass and set it down carefully on the table. "Now, I am a hypocrite about some things," he said. "For instance, I think hard liquor is a curse. I should contribute generously to the war chest of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union." He picked up the glass again and looked at it. "But," he said, "I do not contribute at all."
He grinned and returned to the subject of the New York Yankees.
"Jumping ahead now to 1947. By that time the Yankees had increased enormously in value. We had drawn approximately 2,300,000—a new record in baseball. The old Yankees—even with Ruth and Gehrig—had bettered a million in only one year. We had done a lot to improve the Stadium. We had almost completely rebuilt it, we had rescaled the seats to provide more boxes, we had put in the Stadium Club, new clubhouses, a new press room, new rest rooms and, I think, the first decent dressing room the umpires had ever had.
"In the middle of the season in 1947 a New York investment house came to us with an offer of $3 million for a 49% interest in the club. Now, at the time of our purchase of the club Topping, Webb and I had agreed that we would try to get back our original investments if we could do so and still retain a controlling interest. I recommended accepting this offer in 1947 and Topping agreed with me. But Webb did not. So I began to think about my personal situation. With the club now valued at $10 million for tax purposes, I could foresee what would happen if I was hit by a truck someday. My wife and children wouldn't be able to pay the inheritance tax without selling out my shares of Yankee stock. This gave me a lot of concern, and I finally went to Webb and Topping and suggested that the corporation retire my stock. Retire my stock. They agreed on a price of $2 million to be paid to me—not by Webb and Topping personally, but out of the corporation treasury. That left them in sole control of the club on their original personal investment of $500,000 each, which is all either of them has put into the Yankees personally—personally—to this day."
MacPhail took a gulp of No-Cal, held it in his mouth a moment and then swallowed hard.
"That left me," he continued, "with my contract as president of the Yankees which had two years to run. But now that my stock had been retired, I began to give serious thought to my own retirement as an active baseball executive. I knew that Dan Topping would like to be president of the club, and that was natural—anyone would like to be president of a major league ball club. As for myself, well, I had been in baseball for about 25 years and I was getting pretty tired."
MacPhail swirled the ice around in his glass.
"I don't know," he said after a moment, "I don't know if I'd be here today if I hadn't quit in '47. I've had cancer twice in the last five years, and I doubt very much if I would have had the constitution, the physical and mental condition or whatever else it takes to lick it."
He put down his glass and stood up and then came around the table and grasped my shoulder, shaking me until the ice rattled in the Coke glass.
"So in 1947 we won the pennant, and the Series with Brooklyn went to seven games. I'll never forget that seventh game as long as I live. Brooklyn still had some pitching left and we didn't have a thing."
He pushed me back against the sofa and my feet shot up, hitting the coffee table. Gesturing with a pitching motion, MacPhail, his excitement growing, exclaimed: "I had no idea who Bucky Harris would pitch in the final game. It was a very dramatic situation. We didn't have anything left. So Harris settled on Frank Shea. Shea had had only one day's rest. Well, they knocked Shea out in the second and Bevens went in. He was pitching very well, but when we got a couple of men on in the fourth, who's up to bat but Bevens himself! Now the situation calls for a pinch hitter, but if somebody hits for Bevens, who have we got to pitch? Well, Harris makes the decision and sends up Bobby Brown. Bobby hits a double down the left field foul line, then somebody drives Brown home and we're out in front."
MacPhail sank to the sofa and jabbed at me with an elbow, then put out both hands before him. "Get the picture now," he cried. "We're out front, but how are we going to hold the lead with no pitching left?"
He jumped up and put up an arm, peeking over it like a man in hiding. He lowered his voice:
"I was crouched down in the ramp leading to the dugout so the umpires wouldn't see me. Frank Crosetti, the coach, was at one end of the dugout, talking to the bullpen on the telephone, Harris was clear down at the other end of the bench. Crosetti was getting a report from Johnny Schulte, one of our other coaches, on the two pitchers who were warming up in the bullpen. Crosetti listened and then he yelled down to Harris, 'Schulte says Page hasn't got a thing and the Indian is knocking the glove off his hand!'
"Page," explained MacPhail, putting the back of his hand to his mouth for an aside, "was, of course, Joe Page, our great relief pitcher. If it hadn't been for Page we probably wouldn't even have gotten in the Series. The Indian was Allie Reynolds. Schulte was telling Harris that Page had nothing on the ball and that Reynolds was hot as a pistol."
MacPhail shook his head. "It was the most dramatic moment I had ever experienced in baseball. I held my breath as I waited to hear what Harris would do. Then Bucky turned around and saw me hiding in the ramp. He grinned and said, 'Well, boss, this probably means even more to you than it does to me. What do you say?' I said, 'Bucky, you've been calling them for 154 games and six games of the Series and I guess you call this one.' "
MacPhail went over to the other sofa and sat down. He let the drama sink in and then he said quietly, "Harris just nodded his head, and then he called down to Crosetti at the other end of the dugout."
MacPhail cupped his hands to his mouth (impersonating Bucky Harris) and yelled: "Give me Page!" He stared at me, calculating the effect of his story. He resumed:
"So Page came in, and for the rest of the game it looked like he was throwing aspirin tablets. We won 5-2. But what if they had knocked him out of there? The whole bench had heard Crosetti relay the message from Schulte that Page didn't have a thing. The story would have leaked out, and if we had lost on Harris' gamble, Bucky would have been a discredited manager and the second guessers would have had a field day. But Bucky Harris knew his Joe Page."
MacPhail got up and said, "Come here, I want to show you something." We walked into the dining room and he stopped before a buffet with a handsome silver service on it.
"Now I've been often criticized for running down to the clubhouse after that game and announcing my resignation. I'm frank to say it was a great mistake, even if it was an emotional mistake. I shouldn't have done anything to detract from the players at a joyful moment. They should have had all the headlines. Instead, next day the papers were filled with stories of how I had announced my resignation at the clubhouse celebration."
(The papers, alas, were filled with more than that. They reported, with eyewitness accounts, MacPhail's appearance at an evening celebration at the Hotel Biltmore in New York. He arrived, apparently in a mood to kidnap a kaiser, took a punch at John McDonald, who had been his traveling secretary with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and told George Weiss, the Yankee farm director, that he was fired forthwith.)
MacPhail gestured at the silver service on the buffet. "This is something that was sent to me months after my retirement. I've never seen anything like it, it must have cost six or seven thousand dollars. I treasure it above anything I have, except my family." He pointed carelessly to the big silver tray. "There's an inscription there." He turned and walked back toward the living room.
The inscription on the tray read: "To Larry MacPhail, the greatest executive in baseball, whose zealous efforts were the greatest factor in our 19-game winning streak and the winning of the American League pennant and world championship in 1947. From his Yankees." Reproduced on the tray were the signatures of the 37 players and coaches.
This affectionate testimonial and the violently contrasting newspaper headlines about the manner of MacPhail's leave-taking of the Yankees fit into a theme of point and counterpoint that runs through all that has been written and said about MacPhail. I had heard it expressed in talks I had with a dozen or so of MacPhail's former associates. What all of them had said about the paradox of MacPhail was reflected in what James Mulvey, one of the directors of the Brooklyn Dodgers when MacPhail was brought in to head up the floundering ball club, had said at lunch a few days before.
"If MacPhail came to me tomorrow," said Mulvey, "with a proposition he had dreamed up, I'd be tempted to chuck everything and go in with him. [Mulvey is with Samuel Goldwyn Productions.] I'd just like to be around him, to watch him work. MacPhail can make a success of anything he puts his mind to. If I went in with him I wouldn't want any written agreement. MacPhail's word would be good enough for me because, above everything else and despite all the controversies his redheaded temperament has got him into, MacPhail has integrity. And integrity is what he is always looking for in other people. Baseball misses MacPhail. It certainly could use him today."
I walked into the living room and said to MacPhail, "A year or so ago you said unlimited night baseball—which you introduced at Cincinnati—was going to kill the day game. Does it still look that way?"
"Day baseball," said MacPhail, "is now dead for all practical purposes. Sooner or later the game will be played in its entirety at night and, as I've said before, then baseball will be squarely in the amusement, the entertainment business along with wrestling, midget auto racing and the trotting tracks. But the big tragedy in baseball is that the amateur spirit has gone out of it to a large extent. Now you may say, how can you have an amateur spirit in professional sport? Well, I'll tell you. It's been done just a few miles from here, in Baltimore. The men who brought the Baltimore Colts back in professional football have that amateur spirit. They're in the game, primarily, because they're sportsmen, they love the game, and as a result the whole promotion down there has got heart in it. It's taken Baltimore by storm."
He jumped to his feet and threw out his arms, raising his voice.
"I went up to New York last year to see the Giants play the Colts in that terrific game. Now I've seen lots of great sporting events in Yankee Stadium, the World Series, world championship fights, the Army-Notre Dame game, but never—never in my life—have I witnessed anything like that Giants-Colts game. Why, the whole town of Baltimore would have been there if the people could have got tickets. I never saw such spirit or heard as much noise in all my experience. A fellow asked me at that game, 'Larry, did you ever think you'd see such interest and enthusiasm in professional football?' I said no, I didn't think it possible, and I was never so wrong about anything in my life! Now, I owned a third interest in a major league football team, but I sold it and I was wrong, dead wrong."
He sank down on the sofa.
"That's what's missing in baseball today," he went on. "That's what's basically wrong with the game. It's too commercialized, there are too many ball clubs owned by breweries or contractors and by other people whose major interest is in the advertising value or the publicity or the contacts the ownership of a ball club gives them. I remember running into Ty Cobb one time, and I said, 'Ty, why have you lost interest in the game?' And Ty said, 'Larry, the old home-town spirit is gone. It just doesn't exist any more.' "
"What's going to happen?"
"Apparently," said MacPhail, "the club owners are just going to sit back and wait for pay television to solve all their problems."
"What do you think about the third league idea?"
"Baloney!" exclaimed MacPhail. "It's simply more evidence of the almost hopeless confusion that exists in baseball today."
"You're for expanding the present leagues."
"Well," said MacPhail, "of course, I am. It's really a joke when you stop to think that one major league has only one club east of the Ohio River and the other has only one club west of Chicago. The largest city in the country has baseball only 77 days a year. So the majority of club owners have what are in effect semicivic monopolies, and they don't want to give them up."
They don't want to see expansion. They won't take the steps necessary to expand each league into 12 clubs with an eastern and western division in each league, each division composed of six clubs."
"How fast could that be done?"
"Oh," said MacPhail, "it probably wouldn't be advisable to add four additional clubs to each league in one season. But it would be possible to add two clubs to each league next year and two more two or three years from now. The only thing preventing this is the selfishness of a group of club owners in control of each major league. They simply don't want expansion and so they say, 'Oh, God bless the third league.' "
(Later, when formation of the new Continental League was announced, MacPhail still insisted that the idea was "silly.")
Jeanie came into the room, carrying her toy flute.
"How's it going?" asked MacPhail, smiling at her.
"Not so good," said Jeanie, looking at the flute.
"It will come to you all at once," said MacPhail.
Jeanie hesitated a moment and then said, "You promised I could hear the My Fair Lady tapes tonight." (Promises are not taken lightly in the MacPhail household. Frequently, in dubious cases, Jeanie will win her point by declaring, "You promised—and a MacPhail never breaks a promise!")
MacPhail snapped his fingers. "That's right, I did promise. I'll put them on right now." He got up and gestured for me to follow him into the control room for his stereophonic sound setup. "I just got these new tapes in New York and we haven't played them yet," he said. In the control room, designed for him by NBC as a gesture of appreciation for his pioneering of radio broadcasts and the first experimental telecasts of baseball, he threaded the tapes and set the tone and volume knobs and we went back to the living room to listen. Jeanie had stretched out on the sofa. MacPhail and I took chairs at the far end of the room to get (he explained) the full stereophonic effect.
The wonderful music filled the vast room. Outside the picture window moonlight bathed the great trees around the house. The rain in Spain fell mainly on the plain, and Eliza Doolittle had got it—even if Jeanie MacPhail hadn't quite gotten Shoo, Fly on her toy flute just yet.
Mrs. MacPhail, having heard the music, came into the room and sat down near Jeanie. MacPhail looked around and raised a finger in greeting. He rested his head on the back of his chair and closed his eyes to listen.
It was a rare and euphoric moment. But in the mind of one of the company present there was growing anxiety. How does a house guest go about asking his host to tell about the time he was thrown in the clink for fighting the cops at Bowie?
Courtroom lawyer and football referee; baseball and some famous incidents; a carrot for Sea Charger; an afternoon at Pimlico; what really happened that black day at Bowie.