Monday, June 25, 2007

It remains to be seen whether Andy MacPhail, the Baltimore Orioles’ new president of baseball operations, can rescue this faltering club. For what it’s worth, he certainly has the bloodlines.

MacPhail’s father, Lee, had a long, distinguished career as chief executive of the Orioles and president of the American League. Fortunately or otherwise, neither is anything like patriarch Larry MacPhail, one of the game’s most innovative and unorthodox men in the 1930s and 1940s.

Both Larry and Lee have plaques in the Hall of Fame, and Andy just might join them if he can return to respectability an Orioles franchise that once was the best in baseball. And as long as Peter Angelos owns the team, it won’t be easy.

When Joe Girardi told the O’s what they could do with their vacant managerial job last week, Andy described himself as “disappointed but undaunted.” Then he added, “I need someone excited about the job, someone bullish about the future of the franchise.”

Excited? Bullish? About a club that hasn’t won a pennant in 24 years and hasn’t had a winning season in 10?

Then again, the MacPhails have always been upbeat, if not always rational.

When Larry ran the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, unpredictability was his watchword. Nobody knew what he would do next — including the senior MacPhail himself when he was in his cups.

Leo Durocher, a frequent antagonist when he managed MacPhail’s Dodgers, once said of his boss: “There is a thin line between genius and insanity, and in Larry’s case it was so thin you could see him drifting back and forth.”

Durocher was just as uninhibited as MacPhail, and their battles were the stuff of legend in the 1940s. It’s impossible to know how many times Larry fired Leo — usually Durocher kept right on managing, and by the next day MacPhail had forgotten all about it — but the most famous incident came in September 1941 after the Dodgers clinched their first pennant in 21 years.

More than 30,000 of the faithful were awaiting the Dodgers’ train from Boston at Grand Central Station. Not wishing any of his players to debark early, Durocher ordered the conductor to skip the prior stop at 125th street, where MacPhail planned to board and congratulate his troops. When the train whizzed past his nose, Larry was not amused.

As Durocher told the story in his 1948 book “The Dodgers and Me,” Larry was in fact apoplectic when he and Leo met later that evening at the New Yorker Hotel.

“Didn’t you get my wire that I was going to get aboard there?” MacPhail grunted.

Said Durocher: “No, I didn’t, and besides I’m running a ballclub and not a train anyway.”

MacPhail: “You’re not even running the team now, Durocher. You’re fired!”

The next morning MacPhail summoned Durocher to his office at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. “I guess I got a little out of line last night, didn’t I, Leo?” Larry said. “Now pull up a chair and let’s figure out how we’re going to beat those Yankees in the World Series.” (The Dodgers lost in five games.)

Such wacky behavior was nothing new for MacPhail. He and his Army commander hatched a plot in 1919 to kidnap exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II in the Netherlands and transport him to Paris to be tried for crimes during World War I. For better or worse, the unsanctioned scheme failed.

When he re-entered the Army during World War II, MacPhail was succeeded as Dodgers chief by Branch Rickey. He returned to baseball in 1945 when he joined with Del Webb and Dan Topping to buy the dignified Yankees from the Jacob Ruppert estate.

Soon after, during an evening of heavy drinking, MacPhail and Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey agreed to swap superstars Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams — a deal that would have been baseball’s biggest since the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. The next morning, after sobering up, MacPhail and Yawkey canceled the trade.

On Oct. 7, 1947, MacPhail’s tenure with the Yankees — and his career in baseball — ended after he slugged a sportswriter and then resigned tearfully during a tumultuous victory party following the Yankees’ seven-game World Series win over the Dodgers. Reportedly, he jumped before Webb and Topping could push him out.

Despite his shenanigans, MacPhail was a positive force in a sport that usually resists change. During his career, he experimented with yellow baseballs in spring training long before Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley got the idea, staged pregame fashion shows to boost attendance and ended a three-year ban on baseball broadcasts in New York City by bringing in Red Barber from Cincinnati to do the Dodgers’ games. More importantly, he helped build pennant-winning teams for three franchises.

Of course, MacPhail’s most noteworthy achievement was in bringing night baseball to the big leagues at Cincinnati on May 24, 1935, along with Reds president Powel Crosley. Thirteen years later, every stadium in the majors had lights except the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field.

Former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler once described MacPhail thusly: “When he was sober, he was one of the best baseball men I ever saw. When he drank too much whiskey, he would hit little girls.”

So irascible Larry MacPhail well deserves his niche in Cooperstown — but he certainly didn’t achieve it quietly.

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