Baseball has lost one of its greats. Lee MacPhail died Thursday evening at age 95. Mr. MacPhail, former general manager of the Yankees and Orioles and president of the American League, was the father of former Cubs president Andy MacPhail. He was the oldest living Hall of Famer at the time of his death.
I had the good fortune of meeting the elder MacPhail a couple of times, courtesy of Andy. Although I can't say I "knew" Lee MacPhail, I always felt that if you knew Andy MacPhail, you were well on your way to knowing Lee MacPhail. The two seemed the same temperamentally: thoughtful, measured and deliberative. And both always had the respect of those with whom they dealt, whether they be baseball executives, umpires, managers or players.
Their personalities were a far cry from that of Lee MacPhail’s father, Larry, the flamboyant and hard-living baseball executive who was an innovator and larger-than-life personality. Back in 1995, shortly after Andy MacPhail came to the Cubs from the Minnesota Twins, he was gracious enough to give me a lengthy interview. Since baseball was in his blood, I asked about his grandfather and father and to which he compared more closely.
“Somewhere between the two,” Andy said. “I think I’m much closer to my father. I don’t really view myself as being quite as flamboyant as my grandfather was. Without being immodest, I think my grandfather really had a certain genius about him. Unfortunately, I don’t think I possess that, either. I think I’m much more comparable to my father, much quieter and have to work at things and don’t have that streak of real imaginative creativity and far-reaching perception that my grandfather had.
“My grandfather really had an ability to look into the future and see it before most of his contemporaries, and that is really quite a unique talent and not one that I think I possess an overabundance of.
“If there were any important lessons I’ve learned in my life, I’ve probably garnered most of them from my father. I think he wanted people to do the best they could and do what they thought was right. Wherever the chips fall after that is where they fall after that. That’s life and you just deal with it. But you should be guided by certain basic principles that are more enduring than doing whatever might make short-term sense at the time. And keeping a perspective on things, not getting so wrapped up in your current circumstances, whether they be good or bad, to lose perspective of the overall picture.”
As GM of the Orioles, Lee MacPhail built the foundation for the great Baltimore teams of the mid- and late-1960s and early 1970s. He was behind the trade that brought Hall of Famer Frank Robinson to Baltimore from Cincinnati. After returning to the Yankees and helping to reshape that franchise’s renaissance in the late 1970s, he moved on to become president of the American League.
If there is one incident that sums up Lee MacPhail’s legacy, it’s the infamous “Pine Tar Incident” of 1983, when umpires ruled Kansas City’s George Brett had too much pine tar on his bat and took away a home run at Yankee Stadium. You’ve seen the video of Brett going wild as he charged the umpires. MacPhail, then AL president, eventually and wisely ruled that Brett had not violated the “spirit” of the rule and that his home run should count. MacPhail stated that the extra pine tar on the bat would not have caused the ball to go farther.
Lee MacPhail also was instrumental in helping to settle labor disputes, including the 1981 players strike, which cut into the middle of that season. As the strike dragged on, MacPhail came in and helped both sides find common ground. He also helped shorten a strike in 1985.
That legacy lived on in 2002, when Andy MacPhail was appointed by Commissioner Bud Selig to lead management’s negotiations with the players on a new collective-bargaining agreement. Although there was talk the players might strike, a settlement was reached late in the season. One of the reasons is that the players implicitly trusted Andy MacPhail to deal with them honestly and fairly, much as his father had done earlier in similar situations. It was uncanny how it played out.
Marty Noble, a longtime baseball writer currently working for mlb.com, described Lee MacPhail as “a gentle and distinguished member of one of baseball’s foremost families.”
“MacPhail was baseball's King Solomon; he understood the greater good of the game and worked for it,” Noble wrote. “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.”
Years ago, when I asked Andy MacPhail how much he tapped into his father’s knowledge and wisdom, he replied: “I would be foolish not to tap that resource as long as it’s available to me, and I often do and often have over the time I’ve been in baseball. I know that he always conducted himself in a manner that would be worthy of anybody to emulate. He was always very considerate and reasoned, and did what he felt was in the best interests of the game at all times, whether he was trying to advance the cause of his club or whatever. He never wavered from that and treated people with a lot of respect.
“He was certainly a very helpful model to me in that respect growing up. He never demeaned anybody. I can never remember him ever saying anybody was stupid or even wrong. The most you could ever get out of him was that we have a difference of opinion.”
Hall of Fame chairman of the board Jane Forbes Clark issued this statement today: “Baseball history has lost a great figure in Lee MacPhail, whose significant impact on the game spanned five decades. As a Hall of Fame executive, Lee developed one of the game’s strongest farm systems for the New York Yankees before serving as American League President for 10 years. He will always be remembered in Cooperstown as a man of exemplary kindness and a man who always looked after the best interests of the game.”
Marvin Miller, founding executive director of the players association, issued this statement: “I am saddened to learn of Lee MacPhail’s passing. 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.”