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Pioneers/Executives

GM Update #7: Larry MacPhail

Larry MacPhail is best remembered today as:

  • a Hall of Famer
  • the father of Lee MacPhail and grandfather of Andy MacPhail
  • the guy who got night baseball started in the big leagues
  • and who got Red Barber started in Cincy then Brooklyn
  • a bad drunk who got canned for his behavior at the 1947 World Series afterparty.

With a resume as interesting as that, it’s easy to overlook the work he did to build some impressive teams. His first job, with the Reds wasn’t especially impressive, but in 1938, he accepted the invitation of financial company to take over the Dodgers. The team needed financial help as well as a rebuilding roster wise. He did both so that by the time Branch Rickey took over in 1943 (after MacPhail resigned to join the war effort), the remains of the goofball Wilbert Robinson Dodgers had been jettisoned, replaced by a World Series entrant that paved the way for the Boys of Summer teams.

After returning from the service, MacPhail put together a group that bought the Yankees from Jacob Ruppert’s family, installed himself as GM, and in three years won a World Series. Yet, this World Champion bore little of his mark despite his association with it. So let’s look at this complicate man’s complicated resume to see how his front-office work will support the innovations he brought to the game.

Team Performance

  • W/L : Won-Loss record while GM was in office
  • PCT: Winning percentage
  • vs EXP: An adaptation of the expected wins formula Bill James introduced in his managers book. Except we use pythagenpat records instead of actual records to calculate it.
  • OCT: Postseason apperances (starting in 1969).
  • OCT v EXP: Measures postseason appearances against the basic probability of any random team making it.
  • WS APP: World Series appearances
  • WS APP v EXP: Similar to OCT v EXP
  • WS WINS: Championships won
  • WS WINS v EXP: Ditto
  • MGR PYTH: This is the team’s variance against its Pythagenpat record as a measure of how much value the GM’s manager brought to the team.
TEAM PERFORMANCE
NAME RECORD PCT. VS EXP OCT OCT VS EXP WS APP WS APP VS EXP WS WINS WS WINS VS EXP MGR PYTH
BAVASI 1 2386-2166 .524 +54 2 +0.2 8 +5.1 4 +2.5 +42
BROWN 1816-1625 .524 +48 4 +2.5 2 -0.2 2 +0.9 -5
CAMPANIS 1576-1280 .552 +44 6 +4.9 4 +2.5 1 +0.2 +8
GILLICK 2276-1993 .533 +95 11 +5.7 3 +1.0 3 +2.1 +23
HOWSAM 1331-1049 .559 +63 5 +3.3 4 +2.8  2 +1.4 +44
MACPHAIL 904-777 .538 +69 N/A N/A 2 +0.6 1 +0.3 +6
QUINN 2147-2126 .502 +17 0 -0.7 3 -0.3 1 -0.5 -9
RICKEY 3265-3015 .520 +87 N/A N/A 8 +2.7 4 +1.5 +46
SCHUERHOLZ 2348-1794 .567 +140 16 +10.8 6 +3.4 2 +1.1 +69
BAVASI 2 756-869 .465 -41 0 -2.9 0 -0.6 0 -0.3 -6
ROBINSON 683-772 .469 -6 0 -1.5 0 -0.5 0 -0.3 -5
SEGHI 883-989 .472 -11 0 -2.0 0 -0.9 0 -0.5 -4
SMITH 566-776 .422 -49 0 -2.1 0 -0.6 0 -0.3 -38

 

MacPhail’s record by itself would not merit inclusion in the Hall of Miller and Eric or any other Hall for that matter. It has some good highlights, like going +69 against expectation, but for the brevity of his career, just 11 seasons, he didn’t get to the World Series annually and won just one of them. His work with the Dodgers, when disaggregated shows that his career, like his personality, was up and down. Here’s the record and performance against expectations for each of the three teams he led:

  • Reds (1934–1936): 196-264, .424, -3 vs. expected
  • Dodgers (1938–1942): 445-318, .583, +57 vs. expected
  • Yankees (1945-1947): 265-195, .576, +15 vs. expected

The implication is pretty clear. The Dodgers went from the second division to the World Series, while the Yanks already had a lot of talent on hand.

GM Performance

  • Now let’s look at how the GMs themselves did at constructing competitive clubs. BASE: Talent in WAR that a GM inherited
  • GM: Talent in WAR that a GM acquired
  • CONT GOAL: The amount of talent the GM needed to acquire to field a contender, a .550 team
  • %GOAL: How close he got, a career average of the seasonal averages
  • med%GOAL: Median seasonal %GOAL
  • WS GOAL: The amount of talent the GM needed to acquire to field a typical WS entrant in his era
  • %GOAL: How close he got, a career average if the seasonal averages
  • med%GOAL: Median seasonal %GOAL
GM PERFORMANCE
NAME BASE GM CONT GOAL avg%GOAL med%GOAL WS GOAL avg%GOAL med%GOAL
BAVASI 1 373 690 791 91% 100% 972 71% 88%
BROWN 281 552 557 97% 101% 696 76% 81%
CAMPANIS 342 407 364 128% 119% 469 87% 90%
GILLICK 385 684 671 108% 107% 807 88% 91%
HOWSAM 338 229 243 83% 81% 350 60% 53%
MACPHAIL 183 193 257 69% 46% 356 46% 36%
QUINN 222 729 824 92% 97% 1066 68% 72%
RICKEY 428 879 1132 73% 78% 1584 52% 58%
SCHUERHOLZ 487 576 539 116% 105% 667 87% 88%
BAVASI 2 191 128 234 63% 52% 282 48% 47%
ROBINSON 124 183 260 74% 73% 315 58% 60%
SEGHI 115 239 350 63% 72% 420 53% 60%
SMITH 97 114 247 46% 55% 293 41% 47%

The shape of MacPhai’s career comes into play here. None of his Cincy teams got close to contending. His first Dodgers team was the beginning of a rebuild. But in his second year in Brooklyn, the team had enough talent to post a contending record, and they would until he left after 1942. In fact, during his final two season, he assembled more talent than a team typically needed to reach the big October dance. On the other hand, MacPhail’s 1945 Yankees succumbed to the wartime drain, and he contributed very, very little to the cause making only five transactions from the time he took over until October. Why bother, the war was almost over and the regulars would return for 1946. Sadly for MacPhail, however, despite more activity in 1946, he contributed virtually nothing to the ’46 team’s talent base. He added only three major league players to the system and released, sold, or took waivers on 15. Instead, he binged on amateur talent, buying 12 of them, including Hank Bauer. He waited until after the season to pounce, swapping Allie Reynolds for Joe Gordon on October 11th and signing George McQuinn in January. Despite a couple other smaller trades, though, it was a quiet winter. The Yanks, after all, were stocked. He continued to add amateurs in 1947, including Whitey Ford and Lew Burdette. Once the season started, he tacked on a couple vets (Lonny Frey and Bob Newsom) who were minor contributors down the stretch, but the Yanks didn’t really need them, winning the pennant by 12 games. Hard to see where MacPhail added substantial value during his term in the Bronx.

[MacPhail’s avg%WS and med%WS have been corrected, reducing MacPhail’s performance slightly in these categories.]

Transactions Detail

OK, let’s see what MacPhail actually did.

  • AM FA: Amateur free agent
  • PUR: Purchased from another pro team
  • FA: Free agent (includes the short-lived free-agent compensation picks of the early 1980s)
  • AM DF: Amateur draft (any time of year, only players who signed with the team and played in MLB)
  • R5 DF: Rule 5 Draft
  • ML DF: Minor League Draft and First Year Draft
  • TR: Trade
  • WV: Waivers
  • SLD: Players sold to other teams
  • REL: Players released
TRANSACTION DETAILS: NUMBER OF INBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME AM FA PUR FA AM DFT R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 101 50 48 69 6 15 29 135 2 455
BROWN 93 33 20 49 7 7 0 85 3 294
CAMPANIS 40 12 38 79 5 2 0 69 2 247
GILLICK 71 49 207 148 19 8 0 130 31 663
HOWSAM 33 27 14 50 7 1 0 95 1 228
MACPHAIL 45 115 18 N/A 10 1 N/A 43 14 246
QUINN 137 95 33 25 16 12 0 113 8 441
RICKEY 174 78 49 N/A 24 11 N/A 108 24 748
SCHUERHOLZ  62 17 265 142  7 1 0 150 17 659
BAVASI 2 16 15 157 43 4 0 0 69 16 322
ROBINSON 11 15 130 70 4 1 0 58 15 309
SEGHI 10 15 33 38 4 1 0 106 5 212
SMITH 11 8 103 34 9 2 0 65 22 254

Prior to 1950, many transactions aren’t known or accounted for. We code anything that isn’t accounted for that’s between a professional team and the acquiring team as a purchase. Same for anything that’s described as an “unknown” transaction. Ditto also for “working agreements” or “conditional deals,” which basically function as a purchase of some sort. Even if we remove those, MacPhail is documented as buying 73 players. Only Quinn and Rickey (who themselves have many purchases of murky origin) have more, and their careers lasted more than twice as long. Nearly half of MacPhail’s transactions fall into the purchasing bucket. In this regard, he most closely resembles Swappin’ Phil Seghi for whom trades represented exactly one half his transactions. Or Bill Bavasi in the free agent market. Also, MacPhail has just one fewer transaction than Al Campanis in a much shorter career. Not all of MacPhail’s moves led to value. Many were cut or traded or sold before they ever donned a jersey. He was a mover/shaker type.

TRANSACTION DETAILS: NUMBER OF OUTBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME SOLD REL R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 58 59 27 13 6 135 10 308
BROWN 54 51 14 15 12 85 6 218
CAMPANIS 17 63 12 5 0 69 8 179
GILLICK 30 127 22 2 6 130 20 337
HOWSAM 25 24 11 3 5 95 1 164
MACPHAIL 50 27 3 0 N/A 43 6 129
QUINN 8 55 25 4 0 113 3 231
RICKEY 111 68 36 8 N/A 108 34 388
SCHUERHOLZ 9 170 11 2 6 150 18 366
BAVASI 2 12 83 0 0 2 69 3 169
ROBINSON 9 66 3 1 5 58 13 155
SEGHI 12 39 2 0 0 106 1 165
SMITH 8 55 5 3 0 65 15 151

MacPhail is a tad more restrained in the outbound department, but we again see the purchase-and-sale motif at play. One transaction we haven’t shown here is returning a player to a team he was bought or drafted from. BBREF’s transaction data show that MacPhail returned three players of note. Two before they ever suited up in the majors and one veteran. If you can believe it, in 1935 MacPhail returned Johnny Mize to the Cardinals. Then in 1942, he returned a young Andy Seminick to a minor league team on the basis of a working agreement. That left the door open for the Phillies to nab him. Lastly, MacPhail returned Danny MacFayden to the Yanks in the middle of 1935. These three players alone represent 104 lost WAR. You’ll see that represented in the outbound WAR table below.

TRANSACTION DETAILS: VALUE IN WAR TO TEAM OF INBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME AM FA PUR FA AM DFT R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 430 94 36 235 1 0 54 257 -1 1106
BROWN 313 1 3 228 2 4 0 216 -2 765
CAMPANIS 48 40 2 171 -1 1 0 257 0 518
GILLICK 132 62 194 295 60 -1 0 228 -2 978
HOWSAM 98 7 2 104 6 0 0 228 0 445
MACPHAIL 116 192 38 N/A 19 0 N/A 219 48 632
QUINN 443 45 182 141 25 3 0 480 1 1320
RICKEY 805 118 268 N/A 121 1 N/A 261 0 1947
SCHUERHOLZ 117 9 142 298 -1 0 0 246 7 818
BAVASI 2 27 8 96 131 0 0 0 24 5 290
ROBINSON 7 17 69 98 6 0 0 59 8 264
SEGHI -4 13 4 32 2 2 0 275 -1 323
SMITH 3 -2 27 36 -2 3 0 140 10 215

MacPhail got very good value out of his moves. Most impressively, you’ll see in conjunction with the table just below that he wound up on the plus side in trades, which so far only Phil Seghi has managed. But MacPhail creams them all by being more than 60 WAR in the black. He also got a lot out of purchasing players and snagging them on waivers. His big waiver moment was getting Dixie Walker in 1939, which was worth 34 WAR to the Dodgers. Vito Tamulis (6) and Larry French (4) were both worth more than all the other good GMs’ waiver activity combined.

 

TRANSACTION DETAILS: VALUE IN WAR OF PLAYERS IN OUTBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME SOLD REL R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 17 20 129 20 30 438 19 674
BROWN 28 10 4 29 59 343 -2 471
CAMPANIS 38 13 4 23 0 298 17 374
GILLICK 16 20 25 0 -2 285 10 357
HOWSAM 8 4 27 -1 -3 251 0 286
MACPHAIL 93 39 9 0 N/A 146 4 396
QUINN 2 1 3 78 0 496 24 600
RICKEY 337 16 64 -3 N/A 574 8 1030
SCHUERHOLZ 7 46 2 -1 26 246 6 332
BAVASI 2 0 8 0 0 -1 147 0 154
ROBINSON 2 10 2 3 12 92 8 129
SEGHI 2 3 16 -2 0 253 0 272
SMITH 2 1 0 0 0 141 0 144

We already discussed MacPhail’s poor record in returning players, but he had some trouble recognizing which sales and releases would come back to bite him. More than half those 93 WAR he let go of came from sales of George McQuinn (23), Wally Westlake (15), and Hank Majeski (13). Worse yet, 37 of those 39 WAR he released came in the person of George Kell. The guy is a terrible Hall of Fame selection, but he was a wonderful ballplayer whom MacPhail plain missed on.

So let’s peek inside MacPhail’s genius for trading and see what his big wins and losses were. Here’s every trade where he went plus or minus 10 WAR:

Won

  • 7/5/39 (+66): Received Pee Wee Reese (66) for Red Evans, Art Parks, three unknown players (one of whom might have been Yank Terry), and $35,000
  • 3/6/38 (+29): Received Dolph Camilli (29) for Eddie Morgan and $45,000 (0 WAR + $45,000)
  • 8/26/41 (+21): Received Augie Galan (21) for Mace Brown and cash (0 + cash)
  • 6/12/40 (+18): Received Curt Davis and Joe Medick (22) for Carl Doyle, Bert Haas, Ernie Koy, San Nahem, and $125,000 (4 + $125,000)
  • 5/6/41 (+15): Received Billy Herman (13) for Charlie Gilbert, Johnny Hudson, and $65,000 (-2 + $65,000)
  • 12/14/34 (+14): Received Billy Myers and cash (14 + cash) for Mark Koenig and Allyn Stout (0)

Lost

  • 5/27/40 (-37): Received Joe Gallagher (0) for Roy Cullenbine (37)
  • 5/16/34 (-23): Received Ted Kleinhans, Art Ruble, and Wes Schulmer (-1) for Syl Johnson and Johnny Moore (22)
  • 8/8/38 (-17): Received Wayne LaMaster (0) for Max Butcher (17)
  • 11/17/33 (-13): Received Adam Comorosky and Tony Piet (-2) for Red Lucas and Wally Roettger (12)

MacPhail wasn’t afraid to make moves for big-name players, and he splashed money around to swing the deal he wanted. All of the good moves above came during his Dodgers’ period except the Myers swap. He spent nearly $200,000 in pre-War dollars and got 151 WAR out of it. Who knows what WAR/$ looked like back then, but you have to say it was worth it. Reese, Camilli, Galan, Davis, Medick, and Herman boosted the team into the elite of the NL.

On the downside, MacPhail’s bad trades are pretty standard in so far as such things go. It’s hard to blame him for Cullenbine who changed hands several times in the 1940s. He sort of like Ken Phelps before there was Ken Phelps, except that he was a lot better than Phelps.

Notice there’s no Yankees activity here. MacPhail had a roster full of studs. His biggest move, Reynolds for Gordon, was a need-for-need trade, and both players returned about 20 WAR. He was uncharacteristically inactive outside of the amateur market.

So taken as a whole, MacPhail’s case comes down to simply his Dodgers years and his innovations. That Yankee World Series belonged to Barrow and McCarthy more than MacPhail and Harris, and the years in Cincinnati do nothing to burnish his GMing reputation. What we’ll need to decide is whether the whole package, as brief as it is, merits a plaque.

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