Ever since baseball became our National Pastime, there have been countless innovators that have moved the game forward: Branch Rickey with integration and the farm system; Henry Chadwick’s introduction of the box score; Curt Flood and free agency; Harry M. Stevens’ invention of the ballpark hot dog; Roger Bresnahan’s development of catching equipment. But, perhaps no man had more to do with the advancement of the game and, at the same time, is more overlooked than Larry MacPhail.
Columbus, Ohio 1931.
LARRY MACPHAIL was busted out. After pouring his life’s savings into developing a medical arts building that went under after the stock market crash, he was without a job and available. But that didn’t worry Larry MacPhail: something would turn up, it always did. He lived his life on the edge and had a brilliant mind coupled with a gambler’s wit. He followed genius career accomplishments with avoidable mistakes that destroyed what he had built – and each time he rebounded to greater heights.
LELAND STANFORD MACPHAIL was a banker’s son from Michigan. He started out as a lawyer in Chicago, then quit when he wasn’t offered a partnership in the firm he worked for. He took over as manager of a failing Nashville department store. Rising to the challenge, MacPhail opened a children’s barbershop on the premises. Mothers flocked to the store, where they couldn’t help but stop by MacPhail’s revamped kid’s clothing section. He installed a children’s library so parents could drop their kids off and concentrate on spending money. The store rebounded, but MacPhail was restless.
When the US entered World War I, he wrangled a commission in the army and went to France with an artillery regiment. Six months later he was promoted to captain and was wounded in the war’s final hour. Restless again, MacPhail helped lead a daring and booze-fueled raid to capture the Kaiser who was hiding out in neutral Holland. Causing an international incident but getting away with his life and one of the Kaiser’s ashtrays, MacPhail returned to America and settled in Columbus, Ohio. That’s where he was living when he went bust by constructing that ill-fated medical arts building.
AS SMOOTH A NETWORKER as a Southern senator, MacPhail made friends easily, and it wasn’t long before some of them came through with his next opportunity. The minor league Columbus Senators were hemorrhaging money like water in a bottomless boat. The team hadn’t been above 5th place in decades, and fans stayed away from their dumpy ballpark like it was festering with the plague. There was every reason to expect the team would either fold or move out of Columbus.
However, Larry MacPhail saw opportunity. He assembled a group of local businessmen who wanted pro baseball to stay in town. The group bought the club, and with MacPhail out of a job, he was asked to see what he could do with the Senators.
Like everything in his life, MacPhail threw his entire weight behind his task. Like a whirlwind of action, he was dubbed “Hurricane Larry” and immediately began re-forging the franchise into a success. Within weeks he’d convinced Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey to make the Columbus club part of St. Louis’ growing farm system. MacPhail was able to see that the farm system Rickey was pioneering was the future of minor league baseball, and the constant flow of players made available by being a part of the Cardinals organization would make his team competitive. Before officially agreeing to be part of the Cardinals organization, MacPhail made Branch Rickey understand that Columbus would have full control over which players were promoted to the parent club during the season. MacPhail knew that nothing discouraged fans more than having their team gutted in the heat of a pennant race. Uncharacteristically, the usually autocratic Branch Rickey agreed, and the Senators rebranded to become the Red Birds as a nod to their parent club. Soon, a steady stream of fresh young talent was putting on Red Birds uniforms.
MacPhail slapped new paint on the beat up ballpark, dressed the ushers in colorful uniforms and started fun promotions to lure the fans to the park. At the end of the 1931 season, the Red Birds were perched in 4th place – the highest in the standings that anyone could easily recall.
BEFORE THE 1932 season started, MacPhail was chosen to lead the league’s governing body. He immediately addressed the problem of fans and players losing interest by August when their teams were out of contention. He divided the league into east and west divisions, ensuring two teams would meet for the championship. To incentivize teams to play hard even when their club didn’t make the playoffs, all players on teams finishing in first through fourth places received a bonus ranging from $200 to $1,000. It was all new and brilliant, and by the following season other minor leagues had adapted versions of his plan to help them survive the depression.
To get fans into the ballpark, MacPhail began special days where he admitted unemployed men to see a game for free, held “Ladies Day” games, and started Red Birds fan clubs to get the local kids involved. In addition to wooing the disenchanted fans back, MacPhail’s promotions created new fans who flocked to the ballpark. Paid attendance rose 50 per cent in 1931 and another 75 per cent the next season.
In June of 1932, he put his team in a brand new stadium, which was opened with unprecedented fanfare, even attracting Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Not content with merely a new stadium, MacPhail insisted lights be permanently installed atop the new ballpark. When the company installing the lighting said they needed 4 to 6 weeks to complete the job, MacPhail ignored them and scheduled the first night game in 13 days. Spurred on by Hurricane Larry and working day and night, the installation was completed in time. To match the state of the art home facilities, MacPhail made sure his team stayed in big-league level hotels on the road. Team morale soared. The Red Birds finished second in ’32 and were poised to do even better in ’33.
Columbus finished second in ‘32 and attracted 100,000 more fans than their big league parent Cardinals did in St. Louis! And they did this at a time when the minor leagues were collapsing due to the Depression – from 26 leagues in 1929 to just 14 by 1933. It was a remarkable accomplishment, and MacPhail made headlines from coast-to-coast. But, like every professional achievement in his life, it would come crashing down.
The Red Birds jumped off to a spectacular start in 1933 and were tabbed as the league’s favorite. MacPhail continued to make headlines but not always in a good way. Always a first-class boozer, MacPhail sometimes lost control during a binge, such as the time he accompanied the team on a road trip. Back at the team hotel after a game, a late-night drinking session with the establishment’s manager ended with a heated argument. MacPhail woke up his team and made them hurriedly pack up and move lodgings right then and there. While some laughed it off, in St. Louis someone was paying close attention.
WHILE BRANCH RICKEY found much to admire about Larry MacPhail, he also had much to despise. Rickey was a teetotaler; MacPhail, of course, drank to excess. The Cardinals president was a model of modesty that mirrored his conservative values; the Red Birds’ president dressed in flashy clothes that were as bombastic as his personality. And while Rickey was calculating and rarely showed his emotions, MacPhail was prone to loud outbursts while making rash decisions which he often rescinded after further reflection.
But perhaps worst of all, MacPhail was quickly out-shining Rickey as the leading innovator in the baseball world. Both men had large egos, and as vast as the Cardinal organization was, it was not big enough for Rickey and MacPhail to coexist for long. The situation was primed for conflict, and it would be ignited during the summer of 1933.
There were two things that ended MacPhail’s reign in Columbus. The first was when Rickey saw how well-appointed MacPhail’s office was in the new ballpark: walnut paneled walls and plush oriental carpets. It was more extravagant than any of the major league owners, and Rickey seethed with resentment when he thought of how much club money MacPhail had spent on his own regal comfort. When the Red Birds GM tried to explain that the walnut panels were installed at a discount by a grateful contractor and that the rugs were obtained after a furniture store had a fire-sale, Rickey was too upset to listen. He ratted MacPhail out to the Cardinals owner for good measure.
The second issue that led to MacPhail’s Columbus collapse was the agreement he and Rickey had made about which players were promoted to the Cardinals. The parent club was battling the Giants for the National League pennant and needed an infielder. Columbus had Burgess Whitehead, and Rickey demanded he be sent to St. Louis. MacPhail believed he had a pennant winning team in Columbus and defied Rickey’s demands for Whitehead. In the end, MacPhail reluctantly agreed, but not before Rickey was forced to send five players to the Red Birds as compensation. Rickey perceived MacPhail’s protection of his ballclub as disloyalty to the organization, and by mid-1933, MacPhail was once again unemployed.
And, like every other time he fell off the ladder to his career goals, MacPhail found a way to bounce back higher: 100 miles south of Columbus, a ballclub was in trouble – a Big League ball club.
THE CINCINNATI REDS were a miserable club in 1933. Ever since the early 1920’s, the team had dived deeper and deeper into the second division. Reds owner Sidney Weil loved the team, but he lost all he had trying to build a winner. Broke and with nothing to show but last place in the standings, Weil reluctantly turned the team over to a local bank. Stuck in last place with nowhere else to go, the Reds needed a miracle. They sent for Hurricane Larry.
As he had in Columbus, MacPhail’s first months in Cincinnati was a whirlwind of re-painting and re-thinking. He dressed the ushers in fancy garb, hired pretty girls to roam the stands selling cigarettes and cigars. Promotions abounded – ladies’ nights, kid’s days – but still, he needed a winning team and to do that he needed cash.
MacPhail took stock of his surroundings and set his sights on the richest man in town: Powel Crosley. The local businessman owned a radio and appliance manufacturing company and a brace of powerful radio stations. He took risks, was an innovator in his field, and loved his hometown of Cincinnati. Crosley’s deep wallet was the perfect match for MacPhail’s ideas. After bombarding the businessman for weeks with reasons he should buy the team, Crosley finally gave in and purchased the Reds from the bank. MacPhail now had his bankroll in place.
MacPhail got rid of every malcontent and slacker in a Reds uniform. Good, bad, fan favorite, it didn’t matter; no one’s job was safe. When star outfielder Babe Herman complained he didn’t receive the bonus for hustling that he claimed was in his contract, MacPhail bad mouthed him to the press and kicked him off the team. When he found manager Bob O’Farrell more infatuated with a new golf club than with his team, which was in the midst of a losing streak, MacPhail fired him then and there. Trades were announced on what seemed like a daily basis. He traded a pitcher and catcher to Nashville for their manager, Charlie Dressen. Using St. Louis as a model, MacPhail built the Reds a sprawling farm system from which to harvest new ballplayers at a minimum cost. To stock them, he held massive tryout camps in Cincinnati and locations strategically placed around the country.
The players soon learned that they were playing for a GM that looked out for them. To take a break from the exhaustive train travel, he occasionally put his boys on a pair of Ford Tri-Motors and flew them to far away cities. He clothed his team in a variety of new bright uniforms to further distance his revamped team from their losing predecessors.
As a perennially bad team, the Reds were easy targets for sarcastic and derisive articles and cartoons in the city’s three daily newspapers. MacPhail and Crosley invited the sportswriters to a meeting in which they explained what they were attempting to do for the Reds and, in turn, the city of Cincinnati. The direct approach and peak inside the tent impressed the scribes; ridicule in the three papers stopped. Soon, the beat writers gave their coverage of the Reds a positive spin, and to make sure they continued to do so, MacPhail built a well-stocked open bar lounge in the ballpark just for them.
Utilizing Crosley’s pioneering radio empire, MacPhail hired an unknown college football announcer from Florida named Red Barber and commenced broadcasting every single Reds game. Major league owners resisted broadcasting their games, fearing fans would just stay home instead of journeying to the ballpark. MacPhail knew his contemporaries were wrong: the 500,000 watt station WLW could be heard from Texas to Manhattan and in no time the broadcasts created a whole legion of loyal Reds fans around the country. He then allowed three other stations to carry the games as well – the more broadcasts the more Reds fans – and made sure he charged each station two grand for the right to do so. MacPhail worked with railroad companies for special excursion trains to bring all the new Reds fans created by the radio broadcasts to Cincinnati at a reduced rate.
And then he brought lights to the big leagues. Backed by Crosley’s cash, MacPhail installed lights in the re-named Crosley Field. First, he had to convince the other National League owners who were vehemently against the lights. Through deals, arm twisting and flattery, MacPhail managed to have seven night games for 1935, one with each National League team. It was a smash hit. The first game was linked by a remote hook up to the White House where President Roosevelt threw the switch, lighting up Crosley Field. Every game was a sell-out and, though wary, the other team owners reluctantly agreed to continue the idea.
When Puerto Rico invited the Reds to spend spring training on the island, MacPhail flew the team down there and became the first major league team to train there. And through it all, the Cincinnati Reds started to rise. 8th place in 1934; 6th place in 1935 and then 4th place in 1936.
But then, like every career success in his life, it would come crashing down.
ALWAYS A MAN who enjoyed his liquor and occasionally prone to making a scene, MacPhail was on a collision course with Cincinnati’s Midwestern values. As his grandson Andy famously said about him:
My grandfather was bombastic, flamboyant, a genius when sober, brilliant when he had one drink and a raving lunatic when he had too many.
For a while, everyone looked the other way when MacPhail had one of his excessive episodes, but by 1936 he had reached the level of “too many.” When a drunken MacPhail slugged it out with a police sergeant in the elevator of the Netherland Plaza Hotel, the newspapers splashed it all over Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Post went so far as to keep a running box score of the ongoing MacPhail vs Police “game.”
MacPhail tried playing it off as “any publicity is good publicity,” but Powel Crosley felt humiliated in his hometown and had no choice but to send his GM packing.
It was an inglorious way to exit the big leagues, but to Hurricane Larry, it was the only way. And, like every other time, he bounced back higher: by 1938 he was running the Brooklyn Dodgers.
THAT’S WHERE I’m ending this story. The Reds team MacPhail built went on to win back-to-back pennants and a World Championship in 1940. Meanwhile, his Dodgers went from league laughingstocks to pennant winners in four years. He rejoined the army after Pearl Harbor and, after the war, took control of the Yankees. MacPhail assembled the foundation of a Yankees dynasty that lasted well into the 1960s.
He started his own personal baseball dynasty as his kids and grandkids went on to great heights on the business end of the game, putting the MacPhail stamp on the Cubs, Twins, Orioles, Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers, and Mets franchises. One of his sons, Lee, would ascend to be president of the American League and eventually join his father in the Hall of Fame. But, as far as an innovator, no one could ever come close to matching Hurricane Larry MacPhail.
Inevitably, the baseball world acknowledged his place in history. In 1966, Minor League Baseball introduced the Larry MacPhail Award, given each year to recognize the top promotional effort by a minor league team. He passed away in 1975, but three years later he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, taking his rightful place alongside Branch Rickey, Henry Chadwick and the other innovators who helped advance our National Pastime.
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Special thanks goes out to a long-time supporter (who prefers to remain anonymous) of The Infinite Baseball Card Set for suggesting Larry MacPhail and sending me a copy of The Roaring Redhead: Larry MacPhail: Baseball’s Great Innovator by Don Warfield. I never thought of writing about front office types, but after reading Warfield’s book and researching MacPhail in 1930s Columbus and Cincinnati newspapers, I quickly realized that the game we all love wouldn’t be the same without his contributions. Plus, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to illustrate a great plaid sport coat!
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This week’s story is Number 58 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 5 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 054 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-53 can be purchased as a group, too.