• U.S.

Sport: Baseball’s Barnum

4 minute read
TIME

Brooklyn had its wind knocked out last week. The Dodgers lost the National League pennant to the smashing St. Louis Cardinals on the last day of the season. But the big loss was the Big Wind: the Dodger president, Leland Stanford (“Larry”) MacPhail. Lieut. Colonel MacPhail, 52, reports next week to the Army, hopeful that his fighting experience (World War I and innumerable bar, hotel-lobby, and press-gallery fisticuffs) will get him combat duty.

In twelve years The MacPhail had built himself one of the gaudiest baseball reputations in all the game’s 103 years. He broke in to baseball in 1930 as owner of the minor-league Columbus Redbirds. Three years later he hit his stride as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He painted the park orange; introduced usherettes and night baseball; groomed a slick radio announcer, Red Barber (TIME, Sept. 28), to sell the club to radio listeners; founded a farm system that brought Cincinnati two pennants and a world championship.

The Beautiful Bums. Then he moved in on Brooklyn, whose seventh-place Dodgers were in hock to the Brooklyn Trust Co., creditor for half a million dollars. MacPhail—who is never better than when talking hardheaded characters out of important sums—actually sweet-talked the Brooklyn Trust Co. into putting up $300,000 more and giving him full authority to spend it. He brought Red Barber on from Cincinnati; he put on all the stunts he had learned in Columbus and Cincinnati and added a superb new one which became the greatest drawing card in baseball history: he got every team in the league gunning for the Dodgers. Every game was a grudge fight.

MacPhail spent half a million dollars for players. Again the MacPhail system paid out. In five years, playing to crowds of 1,000,000 a year in its home park alone, the club paid off all its obligations. And this year a full 45% of all paid admissions to National League games were for Dodger games.

The MacPhail & The Kaiser. Redheaded Larry MacPhail, age 14, played the organ in an Episcopal church in Scottville, Mich. At 16 he passed examinations for the U.S. Naval Academy, and naturally went off at once to college in Beloit, Wis., where he is remembered as one of the loudest debaters in college history. At 20, after graduating from the University of Michigan and getting a law degree at George Washington University, young MacPhail turned down an appointment to the French consular service. At 25 he was president of a Nashville department store. In Nashville, MacPhail met Luke Lea, who, at 38, had already founded the Nashville Tennessean and served as a U.S. Senator. When the U.S. entered World War I, Lea and MacPhail organized a volunteer regiment of back-country Tennessee mountaineers. Accepted by the Army as the 114th Field Artillery, they went to France, where they survived the St. Mihiel and Argonne offensives.

Colonel Lea and Captain MacPhail had a hard time slowing down after the Armistice. On New Year’s Day, 1919, they had a brilliant idea: let’s capture the Kaiser. Taking six of their Tennesseans in two touring cars, they drove to Brussels, where they talked Brand Whitlock, U.S. Minister to Belgium, into giving them a pass into Holland—on a “journalistic investigation.”

With MacPhail’s knowledge of German and Dutch they bulled their way right into the castle at Amerongen where the Kaiser stayed. Three were sitting quietly in the library awaiting an audience when one, stationed outside, burst in to report that Dutch troops were advancing on the castle. The kidnappers straightaway retreated in good order. But The MacPhail’s quick eye was at work—on the way out he pilfered a brass ash tray as a trophy.

As the lieutenant colonel went off to the wars, his friends and foes blessed him alike. The New York Daily Mirror’s Dan Parker, his far-from-ever-loving chronicler, reflected the mood of U.S. sportswriters: “MacPhail has been an inexhaustible well of good copy for me and it will take 16 cross-eyed billy goats, a herd of goofy wildebeest and 42 aardvarks to provide the screwy angles that the Great Man inspired, even without trying. MacPhail has called me everything in the dictionary and several words not in it. . . . I’ve needled him mercilessly and enjoyed watching him squirm. However, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that the fellow has talents that practically amount to genius.” They all knew that if The MacPhail ever gets to Berchtesgaden, Hitler will be in a tough way. With all his combat experience since 1919, he won’t be content with a mere ash tray.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com