Memories & Dreams: Larry MacPhail – WW I

By Marty Appel

Larry MacPhail was the bombastic top executive of the Dodgers, Reds, and Yankees, who brought air travel to teams and night games to Major League Baseball.

His creative mind was always ticking. He didn’t procrastinate, he acted. For example, in his brief tenure as one of three co-owners of the Yankees (1945-47), he created a public restaurant in Yankee Stadium, had lights installed to bring night baseball to the Bronx, built a new Yankee clubhouse and moved the team to the first base dugout, created an annual Old Timers Day, commissioned the famous top hat logo, hired Russ Hodges as Mel Allen’s broadcast partner, opened a press dining room, sent the team on road trips by air, and then, as a final act, punched out his general manager George Weiss at a World Series victory party and sold his one-third ownership to Dan Topping and Del Webb the next day.

So his World War I exploits, three decades earlier, should not surprise those who followed his career.

MacPhail, a lawyer who had just turned 24, had not yet entered baseball and was a department store executive in Nashville when the Lusitania was sunk and President Wilson declared war on Germany . The day Congress certified the war, Larry enlisted in the first Tennessee Field Artillery, a volunteer unit from the “ Volunteer State.” His commander was Lt. Col. Luke Lea, who in civilian life, was the U.S. Senator from the state, and like MacPhail, on the flamboyant side.

Larry became a captain, was in command of Battery B, and fought at St. Mihiel and in the Argonne, famous battle sites of the Great War. He suffered a minor wound on the last day of fighting before the armistice of November 11, 1918.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had led Germany , took refuge in Holland. There was much sentiment for bringing him to trial for war crimes, and he was as reviled as Hitler would be during World War II in the minds of Allied nations.

This was where Lea and MacPhail came up with a plan. Taking a five-day leave from their unit, borrowing a few additional soldiers from Tennessee, they commandeered a car (later adding a second), and set out for the chateau in Amerongen, Holland, where the Kaiser was hiding out.

Despite some weather setbacks, and the breakdown of one of their cars, Lea and MacPhail reached the chateau, gained entry and asked to see the Kaiser. Just like that. Their intent was clear – they were going to kidnap him and bring him to trial, acting on no one’s orders by their own, imagining that they would return as heroes.

The Dutch Count who owned the chateau was suspicious of these Americans who insisted they could only discuss the purpose of their visit with the Kaiser himself. Much discussion was held outside their presence. The courtyard began to fill with Dutch solders. Sensing their mission was not going to be successful, the party of eight decided to make a run for it. Their leave from their regiment had already expired anyway and they would be in trouble for such a mission of folly.

Without the Kaiser, off they went. MacPhail however, paused long enough to snatch an ashtray from the chateau. It would be proof that they had gotten in.

The Dutch filed a protest; the U.S. Army would investigate the stolen ashtray, but no discipline was enacted. And General John Pershing was heard to say, “As crazy as it was, I would have given a year’s pay to have been with those boys in Holland.”

So MacPhail returned to civilian life and eventually made his way into He was named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1978, three years after his death.

And the ashtray, the only thing he did manage to kidnap that day? It remains in the possession of his son Lee, also a Hall of Famer – the only father/son tandem in the Hall.