Forward-thinking MacPhail lit up big-league parks
JOHNNY Vander Meer's feat of pitching two straight no-hitters a half-century ago is being recalled to a new generation of fans this year. The big celebration occurred in Cincinnati on June 15th, the actual 50th anniversary of the historic second effort. Now this week the former star left-hander is being honored again as part of the All-Star Game festivities in the same city. And no wonder. Vander Meer's accomplishment was truly a remarkable one. It remains the only time such an event happened. The usually staid, quiet, calm city of Cincinnati, for whose Reds Vander Meer pitched, went wild at the news of that second no-hitter.
It was also a wild night in Brooklyn. The game was at Ebbets Field, and history was made over and above the game itself. This was the first night game in New York City, which then had three big-league teams. Nobody knows exactly how many people jammed into Ebbets Field to see this first night game. When the gates were finally shut the estimates of people turned away ranged well above 10,000.
Yes, Vander Meer pitched and set a record that still stands. But who arranged to have the lights in the park, who built the pre-game show, featuring the great runner Jesse Owens, that drew the overflow crowd? Nobody could have known beforehand that Vander Meer would come up with such an encore.
Larry MacPhail was the man behind that first night game at Brooklyn. He was the man behind the first night game in the major leagues, Cincinnati 1935. He was the man behind the first night game at Yankee Stadium.
MacPhail did more to change baseball, bring it into the modern era, in 11 years, than anyone else except Branch Rickey, who was in the game all his life. MacPhail spent three years at Cincinnati, five at Brooklyn, and three at Yankee Stadium. He was a genius, a shooting star, a shaker, a builder, and an unafraid visionary.
Let me outline MacPhail's almost incredible record. The Reds were broke, in the hands of a bank in 1934. The Depression was raging. The bank wanted out and brought in MacPhail, who sold Powell Crosley the majority of the team's stock.
MacPhail laid the foundations for the farm system that led to pennants in 1939-40 and the world championship in 1940. He created the first season-ticket plan. He brought Charley Dressen in as manager. In 1934 he was the first to fly his ball club. He put in the first lights in 1935, against the resistance of the rest of the National League. He had to appeal to Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis to secure permission for seven games. He cleaned up and painted the old park. He put fresh uniforms on the ushers. He installed clean restrooms. He put his games on radio. I know these things because I was there at the microphone.
He differed with Crosley and was out of baseball in 1937. The Brooklyn Dodgers were in the hands of a bank. MacPhail was brought in to run them in 1938. Immediately he had the old park painted, new restrooms, and fresh uniforms for the ushers. He ordered the lights that were used 50 years ago June 15. He got $50,000 from the bank to purchase Dolf Camilli's rights from the Phillies. He started a productive farm system.
Vander Meer's game wasn't broadcast anywhere by anyone. By 1938, the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees were into the fifth year of an anti-radio contract. The Giants and Yankees wanted to renew this agreement for another five years. MacPhail said no, that he was going to broadcast all his games. I know this because he brought me to Brooklyn. In 1939 he made history by putting one of his games on television. He gave Leo Durocher his first job as manager.
MacPhail brought in not only Camilli but also Dixie Walker, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Herman, Whitlow Wyatt, Mickey Owen, Kirby Higbe, Pete Reiser, Hugh Casey, Joe Medwick, Arky Vaughan, Carl Furillo. He won the pennant in 1941 and barely lost it in 1942. Then he went into the Army as a lieutenant colonel.
In 1945 MacPhail formed a partnership with Dan Topping and Del Webb and bought the Yankees. He painted the stadium, installed the Stadium Club, installed lights, and in 1946 was the first owner to sell his season rights to television. He stopped sharing the radio home-and-home coverage with the Giants in 1946, and in that year was the first to have all his team's road games broadcast live. He traded for Allie Reynolds. The night the Yankees won the 1947 World Series, MacPhail sold his shares to Topping and Webb, became a rich man, and began breeding and racing horses.
Al Smith, former governor of New York and Democratic presidential candidate, used to say, ``Let's look at the record.'' Larry MacPhail's record, in just 11 years certainly bears inspection.