World War II was a transitional period in Yankee history. From 1936 to 1943, the Yankees won six World Series as well as the pennant in all but one season. However, the full outbreak of war, and the subsequent draft and enlistment of more than 350 major league ballplayers, significantly altered the landscape of the game. So, while America was helping to win a word war, the Yankees were treading water in the American League, finishing six games off the lead in both 1944 and 1945.
By 1946, World War II was over and the country was desperate for a return to normalcy. A big part of that effort included baseball, and a big part of baseball involved the Yankees. However, things were far from normal for the Yankees in 1946. Over the winter, the team had been sold by the estate of long-time owner Jacob Ruppert, who had passed away in 1939, to a trio of new owners: Del Webb, Dan Topping and veteran business/baseball man Larry McPhail. In his book Yankees Century, author Glenn Stout referred to McPhail as a cross between Frank Farrell (for his drinking and carousing), Bill Veeck (for his “creative” promotions) and George Steinbrenner (for his meddlesome bullying). Such a personality was a major break from the Yankees more dignified, family approach that put winning above all else. With McPhail as both a co-owner and general manager, however, the team was now much more beholden to its bottom line.
The Yankees won their fair share of games during the 1946 season, but simply couldn’t keep up with the powerhouse Boston Red Sox. Still, the team drew an astounding 2.3 million fans, which more than doubled its previous record attendance and nearly tripled the number of fans who turned out during the last year of the war. Although the season wasn’t a success by the Yankees’ old standards, it was cork popping by MacPhail’s new criteria.
In addition to a nation that was hungry for baseball, MacPhail’s frequent promotions also helped drive fans to the ballpark. On May 28, 1946, one of the larger crowds of the 1946 season turned out for one such novelty: night baseball. Way back in 1935, MacPhail first introduced baseball under the lights while with the Cincinnati Reds, but the more traditional Yankees had resisted the trend, even despite the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who looked at night baseball as a reward for those working long hours during the day to support the war effort.
On a Tuesday no less, nearly 50,000 fans poured through the turnstiles to witness the historic occasion of night baseball at Yankee Stadium, which would be the first of 14 scheduled night games that season. The Yankees wound up losing the contest 2-1 to the Washington Senators, but by all accounts (especially McPhail’s adding machine), the night and the lights were a success.
Larry MacPhail outdid himself with the finest lighting plant in baseball floodlights, but the Yankees still couldn’t see [Dutch] Leonard’s flitting ‘dipsy doodles’” – AP, May 29, 1946
Interestingly, the May 28 game against the Senators was also Bill Dickey’s debut as Yankee manager. Dickey took control of the club after Joe McCarthy, who had managed the team to seven championships since 1931, resigned because of health concerns. The real problem, however, was too much drinking, and at least part of that was the result of too much meddling by Larry MacPhail. Dickey himself would wind up becoming fed up with MacPhail and resign before the end of the 1946 season, giving way to Johnny Neun, who also parted company with the Yankees so he could become manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
Gone were the days of the stable, traditional and respectable Yankees. MacPhail had not only brought about such innovations as night baseball, but he also ushered in a period of rashness and lack of accountability. During the off season, the newspapers were filled with stories of numerous managers turning down the once plum Yankee managerial job as well as rumored trades sending Joe DiMaggio to the hated Red Sox. The Yankees would wind up winning the 1947 World Series in spite of the discord created by MacPhail, but that victory would actually turn out to be his undoing. After imbibing too much during the post series celebration, MacPhail launched into a tirade that culminated with his tearful resignation.
Larry MacPhail’s time with the Yankees was brief, but impactful. Despite his own lack of self discipline, he forced the Yankees to accept and embrace the business realities of the post war era (although, it should be noted his opposition to integration contradicted his more progressive personality), and, in doing so, helped lay the foundation for another dynasty. In many ways, MacPhail’s whirlwind two seasons with the Yankees foreshadowed the future ownership of George M. Steinbrenner III, who would also use a similar brash style (without the drinking) to both restore the Yankees to greatness, but also occasionally tarnish their image with impetuous behavior.
For all his faults, MacPhail’s contribution to the game of baseball can not be denied. So, when you settle down to watch tonight’s game, played under a ring of lights that we now take for granted, don’t be afraid to offer a toast to Larry MacPhail. If still alive, he’d undoubtedly cover the next round.