Former AL president Lee MacPhail dies at 95
Hall of Fame executive integral to success of Orioles, Yankees, ruled in Pine Tar Game
A gentle and distinguished member of one of baseball's foremost families, a widely respected man with palpable wisdom, integrity and prudence, has died. Lee MacPhail, soft-spoken, steadfast, and above all, reasonable, was the primary representative of the second generation of a family that has served the game since the 1930s and remains involved. He died Thursday at age 95 in Delray Beach, Fla., his home in recent years.
MacPhail was baseball's King Solomon; he understood the greater good of the game and worked for it. Neither conservative nor liberal in his baseball politics, he helped usher in the designated-hitter rule, presided over the expansion of the American League, was the integral force in the settlement of the protracted players' strike in 1981 and used his considerable influence to bring Interleague Play to the fore.
Before any of that, he was general manager of the Orioles and Yankees. And he served as the president of the American League, often crossing swords with his one-time boss, George Steinbrenner.
Whatever MacPhail did was done with disarming class and dignity, so much so that Steinbrenner once said, quite uncharacteristically, "You don't want to be against MacPhail on an important issue too many times because you start to look bad if you are."
Moreover, MacPhail's discretion and manner earned him a place in the Hall of Fame, in 1998, and permanent recognition for all he had done for the game. He and his father, Larry, the baseball innovator who guided the Reds, Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, are the lone father-son tandem in Cooperstown.
"Lee MacPhail was one of the great executives in baseball history and a Hall of Famer in every sense, both personally and professionally," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I had great admiration for Lee as American League president, and he was respected and liked by everyone with whom he came in contact. His hallmarks were dignity, common sense and humility.
"He was not only a remarkable league executive, but was a true baseball man as is evidenced by his brilliant leadership of the storied New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles franchises. Lee always put the interests of the sport first and through his love of the game taught all of us to cherish it in every way. Major League Baseball and all of our clubs feel a great sense of loss today, and I send my deepest condolences to one of the first families of the national pastime."
While Lee MacPhail served as league president during Bowie Kuhn's tenure as Commissioner, he was seen by some to be the de facto conscience of the game because of his wisdom, unfailing fairness and balanced outlook.
"Everyone should listen when Mr. MacPhail speaks," then-Rangers owner Eddie Chiles said in 1982. "We all can learn from him."
Oddly, MacPhail's highest profile developed in 1983 when Steinbrenner dragged him into the pine-tar wars. The relentlessness of the Yankees owner made a sticky situation stickier and prolonged it to such a degree that the generic term "pine tar" eventually warranted upper-case treatment, not to mention a roll of the eyes and an incredulous shake of the head.
But countless skirmishes between Steinbrenner and MacPhail about umpires' calls and what-not kept the dignified league president in headlines, a position inconsistent with his low-key nature.
The MacPhail family is the executive-level equivalent of the Bells, Boones and Griffeys, beginning with Lee's father, Larry, and carrying through Larry's grandsons: Andy, who has served the Twins, Cubs and Orioles as general manager, and Lee III, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1969 while he was working as the general manager of the Reading Phillies. Lee IV, Lee's grandson, has worked as the Orioles' director of professional scouting.
In between was Leland Stanford MacPhail Jr., a man you could trust with your watch, your secret or your franchise.
He was a modest and measured man who spoke only after he had studied the circumstances. He smiled gently and, people say, he was quite the opposite of his father, who shared some characteristics -- he was loud, impulsive and domineering -- with Steinbrenner.
"Unfortunately, a person with my father's talent comes along only once every 50 years," Lee said about Larry. "I've never thought of imitating him. I inherited neither his genius nor his temper. I'm just an ordinary person."
Lee MacPhail's seventh year as Yankees general manager was Steinbrenner's first year in the game, 1973. MacPhail left; he had seen enough. Sixteen years after that departure he shared his first impressions of Steinbrenner, ones that had developed in Spring Training 1973.
"We were playing the Mets in Fort Lauderdale, and the game was televised back to New York," he said. "[Manager Ralph] Houk had his pitchers set up so they'd get the right amount of work that day. Ralph wasn't very interested in who won an exhibition game. But later on, we found out George was. He wanted to know why Ralph didn't have [Mel] Stottlemyre ready to pitch ... I think that was the first time each of us -- Ralph and I -- realized what we might be in for. It wasn't much later that we began to make arrangements to leave."
Available, MacPhail was elected American League president, succeeding Joe Cronin and preceding Dr. Bobby Brown. He held position through 1984.
Although his interaction with Steinbrenner made him more prominent, being the target of the Yankees' bully owner was not how MacPhail made his bones in the game. He already had created a resume of significant achievement long before Steinbrenner entered.
He worked for the Dodgers in the early '40s when his father ran the operation and moved to the Yankees in 1945 when Larry MacPhail purchased a share of the club. Lee MacPhail was involved in player development then. Consider the players the Yankees developed in that period: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Gil McDougald, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Jerry Coleman, Jackie Jensen, Lew Burdette, Billy Martin, Gus Triandos and Vic Power.
MacPhail was named Orioles general manager in 1959 and served as club president from 1960-65 while the O's developed the players who would win a pennant in 1966, five American League East championships by 1974 and World Series championships in 1966 and '70.
He engineered one of the most famous trades of all time in December 1965, sending pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldshun and outfielder Dick Simpson to the Reds for future Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson.
Robinson won the Triple Crown in 1966 as the Orioles swept the Dodgers -- beating Don Drysdale twice and Sandy Koufax once -- for the franchise's first-ever World Series title.
The core of that team and the ones that followed consisted of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, Paul Blair, Dave McNally and others.
When baseball neophyte William "Spike" Eckert was elected Commissioner in 1966, MacPhail was named his advisor. He returned to the Yankees to be GM in 1967, the year after the team's ignominious descent to 10th place, and began the restoration process that culminated with a pennant in 1976 and with Thurman Munson, a player MacPhail's organization had developed, emerging as the team's leader. The team's subsequent successes were Steinbrenner's doing.
MacPhail was born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1917 and graduated from Swarthmore College. His upbringing brought him to love baseball, appreciate classical music and develop integrity recognized throughout the game.
That integrity helped find a settlement for the players' strike in 1981. The union mistrusted the club's lead negotiator, Ray Grebey. He was pushed aside shortly before an agreement was reached. "Without making an announcement, they had clearly made Lee the head person," the union's executive director, Marvin Miller, said. Miller trusted MacPhail.
"I am saddened to learn of Lee MacPhail's passing," Miller said Friday. "Lee was a good man, trustworthy and honest, and I had a decent relationship with him over the years. I offer my condolences to his son, Andy, and all his family and friends."
Not long after baseball had begun to heal from the strike, MacPhail began to endorse Interleague Play. "I just think it's great to have the Cubs play the White Sox and the Yankees play the Mets," he said. And to those who pointed to the lackluster matchups -- the Royals vs. the Pirates, for example -- MacPhail applied indisputable logic: "It's just as good as playing the non-contenders in your own league."
His push for Interleague play seldom was recognized because he had removed himself from the game before Interleague games were introduced in 1997. Unfairly perhaps, he was more recognized for the Pine Tar mess that developed in the summer of '83. When the Royals' George Brett was ruled out for having pine tar too far up on his bat, taking away a decisive home run against the Yankees, MacPhail reversed the decision, citing "the spirit of the rule" and reinstating Brett's homer.
Seven years later, just before Steinbrenner was to begin his second suspension -- for his relationship and use of gambler Howie Spira -- MacPhail spoke candidly and forcefully about the Yankees owner.
"The Yankees franchise will be better off," he said. "A little of what went on through the years might have been all right. But enough is enough. Baseball needs a break. The Yankee fans need a break. Everything can be tolerated for just so long." When MacPhail spoke, seldom was heard a disparaging word, which made his harsh comments about Steinbrenner so intriguing.
"You have to balance everything at the end," he said. "And the bad is so much more than the good. I'm sure he's done good in personal ways ... helping Tommy John when his boy was so seriously hurt. But his effect on baseball and the New York Yankees franchise is heavily in favor of the bad."
"Nothing else was anywhere close," MacPhail said. "He would complain about everything. ... He was just compulsive. It was sad. But he couldn't help himself.
"It's sad because he has a good mind; he's bright. He can be charming, and he's done a lot of good, in a personal sense, for many people. But he goes a little batty when things go wrong, and there's no limit to how far he will go to get what he wants."
The words wounded and angered Steinbrenner, and years later after he had been reinstated, he still felt their sting: "I'm not saying he was right," The Boss said. "And a man with that kind of standing in the game should choose his words carefully. But Lee MacPhail always does was he thinks is right. Most of the time, he is. You have to respect his strength. I do."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.