Lee MacPhail holds three big league records that may never be broken. He has visited at least two art museums in every major league city. He has been to the symphony in all of them, too. And, while on airplanes between those towns, he has read at least one biography of every American president, two on most.
Who knew Seattle had two galleries, Dallas a symphony or Polk a biographer? And you thought Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was safe.
Once, on an all-star tour of Japan when he was American League president, MacPhail got wind of a Rubens exhibit. "Bet we won't see any ballplayers here," MacPhail joked to a friend. The next thing MacPhail knew, 6-foot-5, 240-pound Jim Bibby of the Pittsburgh Pirates was tapping him on the shoulder to exchange notes on the use of chiaroscuro.
MacPhail likes to tell the Bibby story because he prefers that the laugh be on him. It's part of a modesty that runs so deep and is so genuine that MacPhail has become a kind of Teflon Man. Public praise won't stick to him. In fact, if he's famous for anything, it's the pine tar bat decision that left him so reviled in Yankee Stadium that he now feels "uncomfortable" about returning to the park where he was once general manager. Talk about backward.
For 45 years, gentle, unpretentious, upright little Lee MacPhail has changed and improved everything in baseball that he has touched; his fingerprints are everywhere these days. Find some boring, tiresome and enormously important area of the old game that's in decent working order, or headed that way, and it probably bears MacPhail's stamp.
Look at issues as diverse as drug testing, salary arbitration, long-term contracts, free agent signings or last-second labor settlements, and MacPhail has played the role of the creative conciliatory conservative.
Last week at a testimonial dinner in Dallas, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth called MacPhail "the best man in the game." Nobody disagreed. "You've had a lot of the good things in life, so we're not giving you anything," teased Ueberroth. Then MacPhail learned that a $100,000 academic scholarship in his name would be established at his alma mater, Swarthmore.
"We had to find things to give him that he couldn't refuse to take," said Ueberroth. "When he retired as AL president, they tried to give him a very expensive watch. He said, 'I already have a watch my father gave me.' "
MacPhail's father Larry is in the Hall of Fame, and it's a safe bet the son will be, too, someday. There the similarities end. The controversial old man, who brought night baseball to the major leagues and was president of the Reds, Dodgers and Yankees, was sarcastic, rough, abusive and brilliant. The camouflaged son, who ran the Yankees and Orioles and has taught the ropes to three grateful commissioners, is refined, wise and so calm that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
Now that he's retired, credit has started to catch up with him. Not that he would care. Or even accept it if it were forced upon him. This is a man who was so embarrassed at getting credit for settling the strike of 1981 that when everybody said he "won" the '85 strike for the owners, he called the settlement a personal failure and apologized.
Let's pin down this MacPhail guy.
Whose idea was it, anyway, to start negotiating drug-testing clauses into individual player contracts? At the moment, that's the only drug policy baseball has, and it's one that may accidentally work. If players wish to sign away their civil liberties for a few more dollars, that's their business. About 350 have. This way, however, the union has saved embarrassment. Who'd want to bargain away constitutional rights?
MacPhail can't remember the source of this idea. Of course, it came out of the Player Relations Committee, which he ran in 1984-85. Probably coincidence.
How come baseball's owners finally stopped bidding like crazy for mediocre free agents this winter? Why did they stop offering long-term contracts of more than three years? Why did they decide it was time to let players know they weren't afraid of arbitration?
Could it be because, in his farewell speech, MacPhail begged the owners to follow his advice in these three areas? Maybe the reams of statistical evidence his Player Relations Committee gave to document these points had some slight effect.
"I emphasized that long-term deals had proved to be a disaster," he said. "In '85 we paid almost $30 million salary to men who didn't play a game. Also, long-term contracts were cited in arbitration. We were building up a record against ourselves."
Speaking of arbitration, it will change significantly next year, thanks to MacPhail. That's when the new criteria for eligibility -- the core of the labor battle last summer -- kick in.
Of the 160 players who could have filed this year, 55 wouldn't be eligible under the new rules. Some of last month's biggest winners -- young Orel ($1 million) Hershiser and Bret ($925,000) Saberhagen and Steve Balboni, Ron Darling, Alvin Davis and eight others who went all the way to the arbitrator -- would not have had that huge leverage in their dealings.
How much will the new MacPhail guidelines save the owners? Probably at least $5 million a year immediately, not counting long-range ripple effects. "Or $10 million?" said MacPhail's successor at the PRC, Barry Rona, mischievously. "Because of Lee, the days of knee-jerk capitulation are over. The owners are no longer afraid of the process."
MacPhail "can choose any role he wants in baseball anytime he wants as long as I have anything to say about it," said Ueberroth. "Everything he touches goes well. The man has integrity. I came into this game trying to find out who the competent people were. He's the top."
MacPhail, 68, tried to retire once before, after a decade as AL president during which that league went from second-rate to top dog once more. MacPhail was implored to return as PRC chief for the '85 labor battle. He scoffed, saying the post was too controversial for an old softy like him, more the sort of job for his dad. He'd go to the symphony and the art gallery while the battle raged.
"I wouldn't take that job unless all 26 teams asked me; and I've never seen all 26 agree on anything in my whole life in baseball," he joked.
Two days later, 26 telegrams were put on Lee MacPhail's desk. They all began: "Dear Lee, please . . . "