Lee MacPhail remembered as solid baseball man, consensus-builder
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Lee MacPhail spent nearly five decades in the family business.
The tradition began with his father, Larry, an energetic former executive with the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees. It continues with his son Andy, most recently the general manager of the Orioles, and with two grandsons who work within the game.
Yes, baseball ran in his blood. But MacPhail, who died this past week at age 95, never allowed it to become his entire life. It was perhaps the only way he could have emerged as a peacemaker during baseball's bitter labor wars, when his trusted voice helped usher the game through trying times.
"He had maybe the underrated quality of keeping things in perspective,'' Andy MacPhail said by telephone Saturday. "His interests outside of the game . . . I think that helped him maintain a perspective.''
That perspective -- which made him one of the game's most respected leaders -- stemmed from his appreciation of classical music, his passion for history, his love of art. Before beginning in baseball, MacPhail taught history at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. In his later years, he penned an unpublished manuscript about the Revolutionary War.
As president of the American League, he kept a running tally of which art museums he had visited in each AL city, "often dragging his children with him,'' Andy MacPhail recalled. For years, his father kept shoeboxes filled with postcards of famous artwork. He'd use the postcards later to quiz himself about the artists behind the works.
Even with his outside interests, MacPhail displayed a keen instinct as a baseball man. As a farm director, he sustained a dynasty with the Yankees in the 1950s. As a general manager, he built one from scratch with the Orioles in the 1960s. As league president, he showed a knack for ending conflict with reason. And he did it all in a quiet, low-key style that further enhanced his reputation for being trustworthy.
"It was a byproduct of his personality. He had selflessness and an understanding of the issue of the game, and his ability to look at things from the other guy's point of view,'' Andy MacPhail said. "People trusted him because over time, they realized there wasn't some angle that was going to benefit him.''
That credibility served MacPhail particularly well when he took over as AL president. In that position, he evolved into a critical role as a labor negotiator, working on behalf of the owners in talks with the union. His reserved demeanor brought needed stability.
With players and owners mired in a stalemate that stopped play in the middle of the 1981 season, MacPhail painstakingly crafted a compromise that eventually allowed the games to go on. In 1985, he again intervened to broker a deal that limited the players' strike to two days. He hosted the talks himself, offering his Manhattan apartment as a venue for negotiators to forge the labor truce.
"His hallmarks were dignity, common sense and humility,'' commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "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.''
It hardly mattered that MacPhail lacked a deep background in labor law. By the time he retired from baseball, he had cemented his reputation as a consensus-builder admired by allies and adversaries alike.
"I am saddened to learn of Lee MacPhail's passing,'' former players' union chief Marvin Miller said in a statement. "Lee was a good man, trustworthy and honest, and I had a decent relationship with him over the years.''
MacPhail may be best remembered for feuding with the Yankees, particularly with George Steinbrenner during the 1983 pine tar incident, when he overturned the on-field ruling and allowed a go-ahead home run by the Royals' George Brett to stand up.
But according to his son, it was during MacPhail's time as the Yankees' farm director that he accomplished what he considered his greatest feat in the game. Under his guidance, the Yankees' farm system produced the core pieces of the championship teams that ruled the 1950s.
In statements after MacPhail's death, pitcher Whitey Ford praised him as "a good man'' who "was so talented at building winners'' and catcher Yogi Berra recalled him as "a smart man, a good baseball man . . . one of the best.''
In 1998, MacPhail was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, joining his father, Larry. In his remarks, he stayed true to form, never boasting about all that he had accomplished. It simply was never his style.
"He had many opportunities to do that,'' Andy MacPhail said. "And he never would.''