75th anniversary: Larry MacPhail joins the Dodgersby Chris Jaffe
January 19, 2013
75 years ago today was a turning point in the history of the Dodgers franchise. On Jan. 19, 1938, they got a new boss to run their baseball operations, a visionary who later ended up in Cooperstown for his ability to understand that game.
No, not that one. Not Branch Rickey. He was still in St. Louis, a few years from sojourning to the Dodgers. The big hire, though, was perhaps the next best executive of the era—Larry MacPhail. On Jan. 19, 1938, he became the executive vice president and general manager for the club.
MacPhail was a rambunctious fellow. While serving in the Army shortly after World War I, he went on an unauthorized expedition to arrest Germany’s former leader Kaiser Wilhelm. He didn’t nab him, but MacPhail did purloin the former world leader’s ashtray.
He still had some of that old spirit in baseball. While running the Dodgers he acquired St. Louis star Joe Medwick. In one of the first games against his old team, Medwick suffered a vicious beaning that left him lying in a daze. An irate MacPhail ran onto the field and began screaming at the Cardinals. When was the last time you saw a front office executive do that?
His spirit isn’t what got him into Cooperstown, though. MacPhail was an innovator. While running his first club, the Reds, he introduced night baseball to the major leagues. He also brought along broadcaster Red Barber to call games in Cincinnati. When MacPhail moved to Brooklyn, he brought Barber along.
More importantly, MacPhail was an astute judge of baseball talent. He came to the Reds when they were a sad sack cellar dweller. While they were still a bad team when MacPhail left at the end of 1937, he’d established a core that would turn them into a contender in 1938, the pennant winner in 1939, and world champs in 1940.
MacPhail would have much more success in Brooklyn. Upon his arrival there 75 years ago, the team had gone nearly 20 years without a pennant, and a half-dozen campaigns without a winning season.
MacPhail turned the team around. Less than two months into the job, he acquired slugging first baseman Dolph Camilli, who would be a fixture in the team’s lineup. Shortly after that, MacPhail signed highly touted young talent Pete Reiser, a fantastic presence in those too-brief periods of health. MacPhail kept adding talent to his roster—catcher Mickey Owen, outfielder Dixie Walker, veteran second base star Billy Herman—and soon had a formidable lineup. Last but not least, MacPhail tapped brainy shortstop Leo Durocher to manage his team. It was the first team Durocher ever managed.
In 1938, the Dodgers remained in the second division, but in 1939 they roared back to life with a 84-69 record. After a slight improvement in 1940, they won 100 games and the pennant in 1941—Brooklyn’s first since 1920. The Dodgers were bums no more. They won 104 games in 1942, but missed the pennant in one of the toughest pennant races ever.
MacPhail was on top of the baseball world in late 1942, but by October he was no longer with the Dodgers. With America at war, the World War I veteran resigned to serve in the Army again. He later came back—but as a Yankees executive. He finally won the World Series with them in 1947, in what turned out to be his swan song. After 1947, he was out of baseball for life.
But the new life MacPhail breathed into the Dodgers stayed. Branch Rickey replaced MacPhail and kept the success going, as did the O’Malley family after Rickey. As it happens, those six straight losing seasons the Dodgers had just before MacPhail are the last time the team has had that many consecutive second division efforts.
Thus it’s fair to call MacPhail’s arrival in Brooklyn a turning point in Dodgers history—and that turning point was 75 years ago today.
Aside from that, many other events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you wish to just skim the list.
2,000 days since the Reds trade Kyle Lohse to the Phillies.
2,000 days since the Twins trade Luis Castillo to the Mets.
3,000 days since a mystery that hasn’t really been solved occurs. A Cubs groundskeeper finds a grenade in the grass of Wrigley Field. It’s a rusty, hollowed out, and harmless shell of a grenade—and no one knows what it was doing there or how it got there.
5,000 days since the Mexico City Tigers crack three grand slams in one game in a 16-5 victory. Julio Franco hits one of the slams.
6,000 days since the first-ever major league baseball game in Mexico. The Padres top the Mets a 15-10 slugfest in the first game of a doubleheader before 23,669 fans in Monterrey. In the second game, the Mets win 7-3 in front of 20,873.
6,000 days since Andruw Jones smacks his first home run.
9,000 days since Tim Raines has his greatest game ever according to WPA: 0.773. He’s 2-for-5 with a pair or RBIs.
10,000 days since Gary Carter hits three homers in one game for the second time in his career.
10,000 days since Paul O’Neill’s big league debut.
20,000 days since the first Giants-Dodgers game in Los Angeles, when 78,672 see them face off in the Coliseum.
25,000 days since Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn suffers his 10th straight loss, a career-worst slump.
40,000 days since the Red Sox score seven runs in the first—all runs coming after the third out. Well, it would’ve been the third out but the umpire disallowed it because he was facing the bench asking for new balls when the pitch was thrown. That disallowed out becomes huge, because Boston’s seven runs are the difference in an 11-4 victory over Cleveland.
1888 Chick Gandil, ringleader of the Black Sox, is born.
1900 Baseball player Marty Bergen axes his family to death before committing suicide.
1903 After some acrimonious debating, NL owners agree to ratify their peace deal with the AL.
1906 Rip Radcliff, outfielder, is born. He will twice record 200 hits in a season, and lead the 1940 AL with exactly 200 hits.
1909 Charlie Comiskey, Chicago White Sox owner, purchases some land at 35th and Shields to build a ballpark.
1931 The Oakland Oaks franchise in the Pacific Coast League trades catcher Ernie Lombardi to Brooklyn for two players.
1934 Judge Kenesaw Landis denies the reinstatement bid made by Shoeless Joe Jackson.
1935 Washington trades Luke Sewell to the Browns for Bump Hadley. St. Louis flips Sewell to the White Sox that same day.
1943 The Boston Braves release Paul Waner.
1950 Jon Matlack, Mets/Rangers pitcher, is born. He will twice lead the league in shutouts: 1974 and 1976.
1953 The Augusta Tigers of the South Atlantic League announce they’re changing their name to the Augusta Ikes, in honor of Dwight Eisenhower, who will take the oath of office the next day. Augusta will change the nickname to the Rams three weeks later.
1956 Hoboken, N.J. officials dedicate a plaque honoring the achievement of Alexander Cartwright at Elysian Fields.
1961 Cleveland releases Don Newcombe.
1962 Chris Sabo is born—and not yet wearing his trademark goggles. He’ll win the 1988 Rookie of the Year Award, but then fizzle from there.
1971 Phil Nevin, Padres third baseman, is born.
1979 Boston signs free agent Steve Renko.
1979 Byung-Hyun Kim, Diamondbacks reliever who had a terrible time of it in the 2001 World Series, is born.
1979 Montreal signs amateur free agent Andres Galarraga.
1987 Former 1930s Yankees outfielder George Selkirk dies at age 79. He probably would’ve been a starter on any other team, but he played on the club with the most depth.
1988 Texas releases reliever Steve Howe.
1990 San Francisco signs free agent catcher Gary Carter.
1994 Baseball owners amend their proposed collective bargaining agreement to give the commissioner complete power in labor negotiations, and say that three-fourths of all owners will need to okay a different collective bargaining agreement if the players strike against this one.
1995 Former labor attorney and current Orioles owner Peter Angelos affirms that the club will not use replacement players.
2000 Owners approve the sale of the Indians for $320 million to Larry Dolan and his family trusts.
2004 Houston signs free agent pitcher Roger Clemens, bringing him into the NL.
2005 Texas signs free agent infielder Mark DeRosa.
2010 Cleveland signs surprisingly long-lasting infielder Mark Grudzielanek.
2011 Colorado signs former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede.
2011 The Cubs trade Tom Gorzelanny to Washington.
2011 Minnesota signs Carl Pavano.
2012 A story breaks: Indians pitcher Fausto Carmona has been playing his entire career with a false identity. Carmona isn’t his real name - it's Roberto Hernandez—and he’s three years older than previously believed: 31, not 28.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.