Lee MacPhail’s life interwoven in Yankee history

Lee MacPhail passed away today of natural causes at the age of 95. MacPhail’s life work of baseball brought him recognition in the Hall of Fame. But his long legacy also leaves good and bad memories for long-time Yankee fans.

The son of another Hall of Fame executive, Larry MacPhail, Lee MacPhail got his start in baseball working for his father when the elder MacPhail was an executive with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Larry MacPhail became an executive and part owner of the Yankees, Lee followed him there.

Lee MacPhail is given much credit as he rose to become the farm system director of the Yankees in the late 1940s for many of the World Series champions. Larry might have signed the checks, but Lee and his staff found the talent and brought it along.

His success in the Yankees’ organization led to him becoming the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles who took over from the Yankees as the powerhouse of the American League. In a process he started and then Harry Dalton finished, Frank Robinson was brought in and took that team over the top to win the 1966 World Series.

By then, MacPhail had taken over at the Yankees’ general manager in 1966. His tenure in that position through 1974 meant that he presided over one of the darkest eras in Yankee history. No doubt, he was not solely to blame since the team was owned in those days by CBS and run into the ground. But still, it was MacPhail that drew the brunt of the criticism. MacPhail’s tenure as general manager would come to end a season after George Steinbrenner and his partners purchased the team in 1973.

From there, Lee MacPhail moved on to working for Major League Baseball and eventually he became the president of the American League. The two big things that happened during his tenure there was to usher in the Blue Jays and Mariners as expansion teams and the other is helping to end the 1981 strike as he stepped in to represent the owners.

But there was one game that will forever entwine MacPhail in the memory bank of Yankee fans: The Pine Tar Game. It was on July 24, 1983 when George Brett hit a go-ahead homer for the visiting Royals. Billy Martin protested to the umpires that Brett’s bat was illegal since the pine tar went too far up the handle and in to the trade mark area. The umpires sided with Martin and negated the homer. We will never forget the scene that unfolded after with George Brett losing all semblance of sanity as he charged the umpiring staff.

The Royals protested the game of course, and the decision fell to Lee MacPhail to decide the matter. MacPhail upheld the protest and the homer counted and the game would have to be resumed from the batter after Brett to decide the outcome of the game. The Royals would go on to finish the victory. MacPhail would retire from baseball after that season.

But his influence continued. His son, Andy MacPhail, was the president of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles from 2007 to 2011. Where would the Yankees have been without all those wins against the Orioles during those years?

The MacPhail family are a baseball family and Lee MacPhail was a baseball lifer. Whether working for the team or against them, or simply by presiding as the head cop of the league, Lee MacPhail had a profound impact on the team for more than fifty years.

About William Tasker

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

5 thoughts on “Lee MacPhail’s life interwoven in Yankee history

  1. Not to speak ill of the dead, or to minimize the massive contributions to the game that Lee MacPhail made, which deservedly led to his induction in the Hall of Fame, but I've always believed he got the Pine Tar decision wrong, and did so, on purpose, as an "F.U." to Steinbrenner, whom he clearly hated.

    Personal, historical aside: I went to the continuation of the Pine Tar game in August of that year. Martin, to show his disgust at the decision, put a bunch of pitchers on the field (including Ron Guidry, IIRC). I think admission was either free or something like $1, and it was festival seating. There were less than 10,000 people for the weekday afternoon resumption. The Royals went out in the top of the ninth, then the Yanks went quietly in the bottom of the inning — a whimper of an ending.

      • MacPhail hatred for and payback to Steinbrenner, or the events of the Pne Tar Game? Actually, July 1983 was a pretty wild month, what with Righetti's no-hitter on July 4 (which I am still so bitter I missed because I hadn't finished writing a paper for a summer class I was taking a Columbia).

  2. The Pine Tar decision was ill-advised, asthe umpire's call should have caused a rule change going forward, not retroactively. But the ruling on Tim Belcher the following year, when the Yankees lost him as free agent compensation because he was Yankee property even though they signed after the list had been submitted, was clearly biased. The lame assessment that the Yanks should have waited until later to sign Belcher betrayed MacPhail for what he became, a bitter, vindictive man who should have been able to rise able the sewer that was (and always will be) George Steinbrenner.