Monday, February 05, 2007

Bill Veeck, Baseball Genius

I

If you have ever attended a professional baseball game, be it in the major or minor leagues, chances are you have encountered an innovation originally conceived and executed by Bill Veeck. Veeck, a lifelong baseball man who saw before most of his peers the need to market the sport beyond the on-field product, was the game’s original and most memorable showman. His greatest stunt, in which he dared threaten the baseball establishment by signing a midget and sending him to bat, earned him the derision of his peers at the time, but is still remembered by even casual fans more than fifty years later. Other feats of his imagination include introducing the famous exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, planting the ivy on Wrigley Field’s walls and allowing fans to determine game strategy for the St. Louis Browns in a 1951 contest.

But Veeck’s contributions to baseball were not entirely frivolous. It was his decision in July 1947, with Jackie Robinson already making a fine showing in Brooklyn as the 20th century’s first black player, to sign Negro League infielder Larry Doby, who went directly to the Cleveland Indians, thus integrating the American League. He also proposed a number of other ideas that he envisioned as strengthening the game he loved, including inter-league play, revenue sharing and expansion into the West Coast (specifically Los Angeles). It is a monument to his intelligence and foresight that all were eventually enacted in some form by major league baseball; it is also indicative of his overall poor reputation amongst his contemporaries that it took so long for seemingly obvious changes to take place.

Any project regarding Bill Veeck needs to begin with the understanding that he was first and foremost a baseball man, someone who did what he did not because it was a job or because it was easy, but because he was truly in love with the game. His career in baseball often resembled a tempestuous love affair – years of intense involvement marked by long periods of separation. This passion led to the breakup of Veeck’s first marriage in the late 1940s and required his second wife to be as much an accomplice in his exploits as a spouse. Most of his nine children seem to have met the same fate as his first wife, assuming secondary status as baseball consumed his life. Of the nine (three from his first marriage, six from the second), only his son Mike, who later succeeded his father as a baseball innovator, figured prominently in Veeck’s autobiographical writings, and only then because Mike followed Bill into the family business.

Discussing Bill Veeck’s family life extensively is not necessary when considering his career in baseball. Such an examination only serves to reveal moral qualities and personal ethics, both of which can be seen in abundance in Veeck’s decades of major league ownership. His family does come into play, however, to the extent that the two forces essentially coexisted during his time in St. Louis (this is his “second” family with wife Mary Frances Ackerman; Veeck’s three children and first wife play virtually no role in his baseball story).

If we decide to begin the Bill Veeck story with the understanding that baseball was life and vice versa, the follow-up question is where exactly to begin. Do we start with his greatest promotion, the 1951 “incident” which saw him send a midget up to bat in a major league game? Or should it be his most serious contribution to baseball, the 1947 signing of 23-year old Larry Doby as the first black player in the American League? Or perhaps begin a great success story with a great failure, the 1979 disaster that was Disco Demolition Night? Maybe, in the end, the best way to understand who Bill Veeck was and why he became so important is to back to the beginning, before he was THE Bill Veeck, and bring it forward from there.

II

Bill Veeck’s baseball career was set in motion on February 21, 1914, when he was just twelve days old. On that day, Cincinnati-based newspaper owner Charles P. Taft purchased the Chicago Cubs from controversial owner Charles W. Murphy, who had already been the recipient of Taft’s financial backing for nearly a decade. Two years later, on January 5, 1916, the team was sold again, this time to Charles W. Weeghman, president of the Federal League’s Chicago Whales franchise. Weeghman’s partners in his $500,000 syndicate included a minority stockholder named William Wrigley, Jr., who later acquired majority ownership and became the namesake of the Whales ballpark on the north side of Chicago, which had opened in 1914 as a Federal League facility but would gain lasting fame as a National League venue.

William Veeck, Sr., a baseball writer for the Chicago American under the paper’s standard “Bill Bailey” byline, entered the picture in 1917, opining on a number of ways that the Cubs could return to their winning ways (the team had taken four National League pennants between 1906 and 1910, but was flagless since and on its way to a third consecutive sub-.500 season). Wrigley called Veeck on the carpet for a face to face meeting, reportedly telling the writer, “All right, if you’re so smart why don’t you come and (run the team)?” Veeck took him up on the unlikely offer, accepting a position as vice-president of the Cubs. The team won the pennant in 1918 and Veeck was promoted to president in July 1919, but the Cubs would not return to the World Series again until 1929, when they lost to the Philadelphia Athletics. Three years later, they again represented the National League in the Fall Classic, but once again were defeated, this time by Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. It was the last World Series for Veeck, who lost a brief battle with leukemia the following October.

William Veeck, Sr. was a well-liked individual who enjoyed reasonable success as a baseball executive, but he would have been no better remembered than Murphy, Taft or Weeghman if not for his son. Bill Veeck, Jr. had worked for his father in various capacities over the years, but his baseball career began in earnest with the elder Veeck’s death. Shortly thereafter, he left school at Kenyon College and approached Phil Wrigley, who had taken over the Cubs following his own father’s passing the previous year and would continue to run the club into the 1970s, and asked for a job.

III

Over the next several years, Veeck continued to learn the business side of the game, attending night school classes and eventually earning the position of team treasurer with the Cubs. The situation was a necessary learning experience for the young man, but he knew that the position would not be long term. Wrigley was not afraid to take some risks as an owner – he okayed a plan to plant the now famous ivy on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls and later used a team of coaches in lieu of an everyday manager – but Veeck knew that if he wanted to be a successful baseball operator, he had to have the freedom to attempt innovative and controversial promotional ideas without having to answer to anyone. The only solution was to buy a ball club of his own.

The team that became Veeck’s first stop as an owner was the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, which he built from a last place disaster with a nonexistent fan base into a consistent pennant winner during his five year tenure simply by giving the fans what they wanted: the highest value for their entertainment dollar. Arriving in town in 1941 with $11 in his pocket and co-owner/manager Charlie Grimm in tow, Veeck immediately set the baseball world on its ear. He gave away prizes at the gate, put circus acts on the field, staged morning games for wartime third shift workers and presented Grimm with a much-needed left-handed pitcher on his birthday. These promotions, which were rarely announced in advance, combined with a newly successful on-field product (a second place finish in 1942 preceded three consecutive pennant winners from 1943 – 45) to drive attendance levels to new highs, thus proving to Veeck what he had known all along – that promotion and baseball could coexist successfully.

A noteworthy result of the Milwaukee years was the lifelong relationship that developed between Veeck and Rudie Schaffer, a “volunteer” accountant who had spent the several years prior to Veeck’s arrival working for the Brewers. Schaffer played the role of Veeck’s right-hand man for the next several decades, sharing the successes in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago along with the overall failure in St. Louis. His importance to Veeck’s professional career cannot be overstated – Veeck once wrote, “Rudie and I complement each other perfectly. I’m the one who takes the bows, and he’s the one who does the work.” While this reads in part as typical Veeck hyperbole, the fact remains that Schaffer was perhaps the most important character to wander into Bill Veeck’s life story.

Veeck left the Brewers in Schaffer’s capable hands while serving a twenty-two month stint with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Eighteen of those months were spent in the hospital, however, following an incident at Bougainville in which the recoil of an anti-aircraft gun seriously injured his right leg, leading to an amputation nine inches below the knee in November 1946. The injury failed to respond to treatment with various infections leading to several more operations and the loss of virtually the entire leg by the early 1960s. Veeck took the situation in stride, throwing a party for his first wooden leg and later building an ashtray into the hollow extremity. “I am absolutely convinced of one thing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A cripple cannot coddle himself. Once you coddle yourself, you’re admitting you can’t do what anybody else can do and then you’re through.”

Prior to entering the military at the conclusion of the 1943 season, Veeck allegedly considered purchasing the Philadelphia Phillies and loading the team with top-notch Negro League talent. Veeck believed the move, which would have taken place nearly three seasons before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, would be sufficient to catapult the moribund Phillies from seventh place in 1942 to the National League pennant in 1944. According to the popular story, the plan was undermined when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis learned of Veeck’s tentative deal with Philadelphia owner Gerry Nugent and quickly forced the sale of the team first to the National League, then to lumber baron William Cox for a lower price (Cox didn’t last long in the major leagues, earning a lifetime ban less than a year later for betting on baseball).

The story is flattering to Veeck’s image as a maverick owner who was willing to buck established tradition, but it is probably untrue. In reality, while it is possible that Veeck considered integration imminent in the early 1940s, it is highly unlikely that he would have been able to secure the financial backing needed to buy the Phillies, especially with the United States fully involved in World War II and the Brewers not yet at the peak of their success. More likely, Veeck fabricated the story at a later date for a variety of reasons.

Following his return to Milwaukee six weeks before the end of the 1945 season, Veeck sold the Brewers for a $275,000 profit and retired to the Lazy Vee ranch in Arizona for some much needed rest and relaxation with his wife Eleanor and their three children. In addition to Veeck’s worsening leg trouble, things had been difficult between the couple for some time and this was seen as a final attempt to repair the relationship and save their eleven-year marriage. It didn’t work. Barely weeks had passed before Veeck was itching to get back into action and actively looking for a venue in which to make his return.

IV

As he considered his reentry, Veeck was certain of one thing: having proved the validity of his promotional methods in the minors, he wanted to take his knowledge to the major league level, where he was certain that more readily available funds would make things easier. Casting a covert glance around at the sixteen teams, he learned of potential opportunities in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. After conducting preliminary market research on the Pirates and finding the situation not to his liking, he set his sights on the Indians, gaining control of the team in 1946 just ahead of team president and minority owner Alva Bradley, who held the second option.

The Indians made history in June 1947 when Larry Doby became the first African-American player in American League history (he was preceded in the major leagues by Robinson, who debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15). Doby, a talented player who twice hit over thirty homeruns in a season for Cleveland, struggled as a part-time infielder in his first season after being purchased from the Negro League’s Newark franchise for $10,000 but moved to the outfield in 1948 and rebounded to bat over .300 for Cleveland’s first world championship team since 1920.

The club continued to rewrite history in 1948, when Negro League legend Satchel Paige, officially listed as 42 years old but rumored to be as old as 48, became the oldest rookie in league history. Although initially derided as a ridiculous publicity stunt by the baseball establishment, Paige ended up winning six games for the Indians following his July 9th debut, playing an instrumental role down the stretch as Cleveland fought for the American League pennant. His presence also helped the Indians set an American League attendance record with 2.6 million fans, a mark that stood until 1980.

One of Veeck’s few public relations mistakes in Cleveland was a botched attempt to trade popular player-manager Lou Boudreau in 1947. Concerned with Boudreau’s managerial ability, Veeck put together a deal that would have swapped the star shortstop with “half the St. Louis Browns ballclub.” The trade fell through but word leaked to the public during the World Series, leading to an outcry that was soothed only by Veeck’s apologetic appearances in gathering places around Cleveland.

Boudreau responded to the proposed trade with the best season of his career, playing and managing his club to a World Series victory in 1948. The Indians reached the Fall Classic following a one-game playoff victory over the Boston Red Sox in which Boudreau went 4-for-4 with two homeruns before continuing on to overwhelm the Boston Braves in six games. It remains Cleveland’s only world championship since 1920.

V

Despite the success of the Cleveland years – the attendance records, the World Series win, the crossing of the color line, the continued validation of promotional efforts (including “Good Ol’ Joe Early Day, a precursor to the now common Fan Appreciation celebrations) – Veeck sold his stake in the team to Ellis Ryan in 1949, partly due to impending divorce proceedings with Eleanor. With those proceedings underway, he met Mary Frances Ackerman, a press agent for the Ice Capades who soon became his second wife, mother of six of his children and an instrumental cog in his next major challenge: taking over the hapless St. Louis Browns, winners of just one pennant in half a century and owners of one of the worst attendance records in baseball.

It was in St. Louis, Veeck wrote ten years later, that he did the best promotional work of his career, combining innovative in-stadium promotion with an ambitious speaking schedule in an attempt to create fan interest in the team. Considering the situation he bought into, he had to be at the top of his game just to survive. Noted primarily for decades of futility and low attendance (the team had drawn just over 80,000 fans for the entire 1935 season, an average of 1,044 per game), the Browns lost ninety games or more all three years that Veeck owned the club, surpassing the century mark in 1951 and 1953.

When taking over a team of questionable ability and potential, as had been the case in Cleveland and again in St. Louis, Veeck’s first order of promotion was to find a player he could spotlight to draw immediate fan interest. Cleveland’s focus in 1946 had been placed on pitcher Bob Feller, who was within reach of the single season strikeout record when Veeck bought the team. The Browns didn’t possess a player of Feller’s caliber but they were fortunate to have Ned Garver, a right-handed hurler who at times seemed to be the only Browns pitcher capable of winning a ball game. Noting this, Veeck immediately used Garver in the same way he had used Feller, directing interest on the fact that Garver had a chance to become the first pitcher since 1924 to win twenty games for a last place team. The marketing campaign worked so well as to be historically unique: more than fifty years later, Ned Garver remains the only American League pitcher to win twenty games for a team with one hundred losses.

Fueled by the publicity from Garver’s success, Veeck delivered a pair of promotions that ensured his reputation as an executive willing to do anything to put fans in the seats. The first took place on August 19, 1951 and centered on Eddie Gaedel, a local entertainer who remains, at 3’7” and 65 pounds, the smallest player in major league history. During a birthday celebration for the American League and team sponsor Falstaff Brewery between games of a doubleheader on that date, Gaedel popped out of a cake wearing a Browns uniform with the number 1/8 on the back. The move delighted the crowd but angered Falstaff representatives, who had been expecting something grander than Veeck’s time honored cake gag, which he had used at virtually every prior stop as an owner. What they didn’t know was that Gaedel was actually a member of the Browns, signed to a legitimate contract that would pay him $100 for the day’s work. When the bottom of the first inning rolled around, the 18,000 fans in attendance, said to be the largest Browns crowd in four seasons, were shocked to see Gaedel pop out of the dugout, bat in hand, to pinch hit for leadoff man Frank Saucier. Huddled into a crouch that virtually eliminated the threat of a called strike and under strict orders from Veeck not to swing under any circumstances, Gaedel watched four balls pass by somewhere in the vicinity of his forehead before showboating his way down to first, where he was replaced by pinch-runner Jim Delsing. (Fun fact: Delsing’s grandson is New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman.)

“Traditional” baseball was outraged that Veeck would dare demean the game by sending a midget to bat. American League president William Harridge, who had learned of the planned promotion that morning but had been unable to take any immediate action, decreed that Gaedel’s base on balls be stricken from the baseball record books. Veeck argued against such an action on the grounds that removing Gaedel’s appearance would throw the baseball record book out of whack. Harridge had little choice but to back down and allow the walk to remain on the books but guaranteed that such a farcical event would not be repeated by announcing that the league office must approve all future player transactions. The new rule came too late to get in Veeck’s way, however, as the stunt earned the Browns and Falstaff national coverage and ensured baseball immortality for both Gaedel and Veeck.

Veeck’s second major St. Louis promotion, Grandstand Manager Day, was held five days after Gaedel’s appearance. This idea required more planning and was less controversial, but earned its fair share of publicity for the struggling Browns (the team’s record on the morning of August 24 stood at 37-81, 39.5 games behind first place Cleveland). The concept for the promotion was ingenious: Browns fans were invited, through a special newspaper advertisement, to send in a lineup for the team’s game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Fans who completed that task were then given a ticket to that contest, grouped into a special section behind the home dugout and allowed to make strategic decisions such as working a hit and run or warming up a relief pitcher. The idea worked to perfection, with Ned Garver earning his 15th victory in the Browns 5-3 win.

Under Veeck’s leadership, attendance leapt nearly 60% from 1951 to 1952, but the Browns and Veeck were ultimately an unhappy mix in St. Louis for two reasons. First, the team was, it warrants mentioning again, awful, with little outlook for improvement, and no fan base will support a terrible team in great numbers for any length of time, no matter how good the promotional efforts. Second, the rival Cardinals were too much to overcome. The same franchise that defeated the Browns in the 1944 World Series had won its sixth Fall Classic in 1946 and, while the Brownies were losing ninety games a year from 1951 – 53, finished third in the National League all three seasons.

Despite Veeck’s best efforts, which included the aforementioned promotions, various attempts to draw Cardinals owner Fred Saigh into a public relations battle and the hiring Cardinals legend Rogers Hornsby to manage the Browns, the Browns never seriously challenged the Cardinals for domination of St. Louis. They might have held on longer, however, had August Busch not purchased the Redbirds from Saigh in 1952. The transaction was a stake in the heart for Veeck and the Browns. “I decided I had better get out of town back in 1952, after Gussie bought the Cardinals, because he was smarter, handsomer and he had better posture,” Veeck wrote with characteristic humor in 1965. “He was also richer, wealthier and he had more money.” With the Anheuser-Busch brewery and its resources at his disposal, Busch could pour virtually unlimited funds, which Veeck and his shoestring budget could not match, into the Cardinals without blinking an eye, effectively ending any potential competition between the two organizations.

Realizing that his days in St. Louis were numbered, Veeck began seriously planning a move. His first choice was Milwaukee, but the rights to the city belonged to Boston Braves owner Lou Perini, who was considering a move there himself. Unable to part Perini from the rights, Veeck shifted the focus to his second option, Baltimore. This looked feasible for a time, but Veeck’s lack of popularity among his fellow owners and the impending start of the 1953 season led to the failure of the proposed move to gain the necessary approval, leaving Veeck in a no win situation for the foreseeable future. (That same off-season, the National League owners approved Perini’s move to Milwaukee, just weeks before the start of the regular season. The team set attendance records there for the next several years.) The Browns move to Baltimore was finally approved for the 1954 season, but only on the condition that Veeck sell his interests in the team. He eventually did so, bringing about his first period of sustained time away from daily operation of a baseball team since his teenage years.

VI

Veeck spent the next several years working in broadcasting, running the Miami Marlins minor league club for a friend, attempting to purchase the Ringling Brothers Circus and seeking a route back to the major leagues. Bids to gain control of the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers were unsuccessful, a fact that seems almost preordained in retrospect because there was really only one logical place for a Veeck to reenter the baseball scene.

VII

The place Bill Veeck belonged was Chicago, where his father had enjoyed success with the Cubs and the Comiskey family had owned the White Sox since 1900. Following patriarch Charles Comiskey’s death in 1931, the team continued to be run by the family, with son Lou handling operations until 1939 and daughter-in-law Grace taking over in 1941. It was Grace’s death in 1956 that provided Veeck with his opening. In her will, Grace left control of the White Sox in the hands of her daughter, Dorothy Comiskey Rigney instead of her son, Charles Comiskey II. Because Charles II considered his rightful place to be at the head of the franchise, he set out to gain control from his sister through a series of legal maneuvers.

Tired of fighting by 1958, Dorothy made the decision to sell her shares and controlling interest in the White Sox and Veeck was there to capitalize. He negotiated with Dorothy for her shares with the understanding that his involvement was only to set a legitimate purchase price for her brother, but when Charles came in with a significantly lower offer, Veeck and his partners were able to purchase Dorothy’s shares, amounting to a 54% controlling interest, and return to the major leagues in 1959.

The White Sox, which had been on the verge of success with two consecutive second place finishes, finally made the jump to the next level, reaching the World Series in 1959 before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games. Veeck set out that season to surpass the all-time Chicago baseball attendance record of 1,485,166 that had been set by his father’s Cubs in 1929. He fell just short of the goal with a White Sox record 1,423,144 but broke the city mark the next season, when 1,644,460 fans passed through the Comiskey Park turnstiles.

The fans were coming to the park in those record numbers for two reasons: the team was winning and Veeck was innovating. The best and most lasting idea proved to be Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard, which erupted in various light configurations every time a White Sox player hit a home run. For a time, the game was fun again, but Veeck’s health had continued to decline since the St. Louis days, forcing him to sell his interests in the team to Arthur Allyn midway through the 1961 season.

VIII

When Veeck left the White Sox, he wasn’t sure how much time he had left. His health was not only in steep decline but had in fact reached an all-time low. “I had my choice, it seemed, between dying from cancer, from a tumor of the brain, or from the somewhat more leisurely debilitations of a stroke,” he wrote in 1972. In 1962 a trip to the Mayo Clinic finally provided a diagnosis: a brain aneurysm that could be treated with rest and an improved diet.

Recovered from his brush with death, Veeck did what came naturally: he attempted to buy a baseball team. This time around, the available club was the Washington Senators, a franchise that had made back-to-back World Series appearances in the 1920’s and once boasted one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers in Walter Johnson but had not added an American League pennant to its collection since 1933. Veeck threw his hat into the ring as early as 1963, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he made an official offer for the club. There were other suitors for the team by that time, however, and another group outbid his price by several million dollars.

Following the failure to purchase the Senators, Veeck undertook a new challenge: horse racing at Boston’s Suffolk Downs. His two years in Massachusetts were marked by legal and political battles at the end of which he was knocked out of the box by the same type of personalities that had sent him packing from the American League in the early 1950s.

During his lengthening absence from baseball, Veeck coauthored three books with sportswriter Ed Linn: 1962’s Veeck As In Wreck, an autobiographical tome that recounted his life up to the departure from Chicago; 1965’s The Hustler’s Handbook, a monologue on various baseball topics from the sale of the New York Yankees to racial issues in the sport; and 1972’ s Thirty Tons A Day, an account of the trials and tribulations experienced at Suffolk Downs.

A major component of Veeck As In Wreck was the mutual distaste that existed between Veeck, commissioner Ford Frick and the other owners in the American League. Although he had had run-ins with authority for years, the major problem centered on St. Louis, when he had been forced to choose between selling the team or continuing to absorb serious operating losses.

A conspiracy might have existed, but Veeck’s relationship with other owners was also hindered by the fact that he was never the type of person to idly go along with the crowd. His son Mike, a successful minor league operator who was a toddler during the St. Louis days, later told ESPN, “Bill Veeck was born on the right side of the tracks. And as soon as he was capable, dragged himself to the other side.” He was never one to surround himself with “yes-men” or stuffed shirts, but rather associated with those who were willing to take risks and unafraid to test established thinking. With such a mentality, it’s little surprise that Veeck identified with his blue-collar fans and clashed with his conservative white-collar fellow owners.

On the last page of The Hustler’s Handbook, Veeck concluded a discussion on the exclusion of the individual from major league baseball ownership by writing,”(W)hile the opportunities in baseball are, at the moment, negligible, the future is not wholly without hope.” In 1975, that hope was realized when Veeck burst back onto the scene with the purchase of the White Sox.

IX

Veeck’s return coincided with the impending move of the White Sox from Chicago to Seattle. Team owner Arthur Allyn had been unable to meet his payroll and was therefore on the verge of turning his club over to the league, with the shift to Seattle intended to appease the city for the loss of the Pilots franchise after the 1969 season. The conditions are superficially ironic given Veeck’s role in the unprecedented franchise shifts of the 1950s, when he had helped force the Braves move to Milwaukee, laid the groundwork for the Browns exit from St. Louis and announced an intention to take the Athletics from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

His actions in the Chicago situation make sense, however, when all his moves are placed in the context of their times and places. Veeck believed that only two cities (New York and Chicago) possessed the resources to support two major league franchises, meaning that, in a perfect world, all other cities would eventually end up with a single representative team. This was precisely the case in St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia, where the Browns, Braves and Athletics were not able to overtake the Cardinals, Red Sox and Phillies in terms of popularity and fan support.

Ten years later, two of the same teams were again on the move, but the circumstances and Veeck’s opinion had both changed. While the former St. Louis Browns were on the verge of tremendous success as the Baltimore Orioles, the Milwaukee Braves and Kansas City Athletics had each fallen on hard times, with their respective owners anxious to leave town as a result. To Bill Veeck, this situation threatened a dangerous precedent. The franchise shifts of the early 1950s had been made out of necessity; each of the teams had been forced to make the move from a competitive standpoint. These moves, however, would leave the two cities in question – as well as Cleveland, which was also in danger of losing its team but escaped the bulk of Veeck’s ire, possibly due to his friendly relationship with Frank Lane – without major league baseball.

The inevitable franchise shifts took place. The Braves went to Atlanta, where they experienced periodic attendance issues even while winning fourteen consecutive division titles, and the Athletics went to Oakland, where they have won four World Series in six appearances but have raised questions of the Bay Area’s ability to sustain two major league teams.

The Braves and A’s were replaced relatively quickly. The expansion Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots began play in 1969, with the Pilots transferring to Milwaukee the following season. It was this move that left Seattle in the lurch and threatened the White Sox before Veeck jumped back into the mix.

The excitement from his unexpected return was short-lived. Just two weeks later, the historic Messersmith - McNally decision was handed down by arbitrator Peter Seitz, essentially nullifying the reserve clause and sparking the dawn of free agency. With an open market forthcoming, rising player salaries were virtually guaranteed, a bad omen for an operator like Veeck, who never had a deep-pocketed financial backer to cover the expenses. To cover himself, he developed the “rent-a-player” model that has become prevalent in the modern game, signing quality players at reasonable prices for a year or two before letting them leave if they received a substantially better offer.

Veeck treaded water in Chicago for five years, building solid teams from a combination of spare parts, low external expectations and blind faith. And, of course, he still had that bottomless imagination. Players were given Bermuda shorts in lieu of standard uniform pants, homeruns and big plays were followed by “curtain calls” and announcer Harry Caray began his daily routine of leading the crowd in “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.

But it was July 12, 1979 that saw Veeck showcase his most controversial promotion since Eddie Gaedel donned number 1/8 way back in 1951. The theme, conceived by Veeck’s son Mike, was Disco Demolition Night, with the concept being that fans who brought disco records to a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers were allowed in for a discounted price and the records would be destroyed in a bonfire between games. The event was immediately and intensely popular, with a packed house in the stadium and tens of thousands reportedly waiting outside for tickets. Everything went as well as could be expected until the actual detonation. When the smoke cleared, fans were streaming across the field, ultimately resulting in a forfeit. Years afterward, the story was that Veeck had fired his son over the debacle, but Mike denied the story. His father was the only one who understood the true issue at hand: the promotion had worked a little too well.

X

Veeck sold the White Sox early in 1981 and spent his last years living in Maryland and making appearances in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. His lifetime of poor health finally caught up to him on January 2, 1986, when a pulmonary embolism took his life five weeks before his 72nd birthday. He was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1991 as a member of the Pioneer and Executive wing, one of only twenty-three men to be so honored.

XI


Baseball men have come and gone throughout the years, but few have matched the impact of Bill Veeck. Although his time as an owner was spread out and limited by poor health (four stints with three major league teams over fifteen seasons, plus several more seasons with two minor league clubs), his innovations live on today. From door prizes to fan appreciations, fireworks to Bermuda shorts and Eddie Gaedel to Disco Demolition, Veeck showed an uncommon ability to understand exactly what would spark the interest and excitement of the everyday individuals who comprised baseball’s fan base.

Sources

Veeck, Bill with Ed Linn. Veeck As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. 398 pgs.

Veeck, Bill with Ed Linn. The Hustler’s Handbook. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965. 286 pgs.

Veeck, Bill with Ed Linn. Thirty Tons A Day: The Rough-Riding Education of a Neophyte Racetrack Operator. New York: The Viking Press, 1972. 296 pgs.

Pietrusz, David, Matthew Silverman and Michael Gershman, eds. Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: Total/Sports Illustrated, 2000. 1298 pgs.
“Bill Veeck, Jr.” – p. 1165 – 67
“Bill Veeck, Sr.” – p. 1167 – 68
“Phil Wrigley” – p. 1258 – 59

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-reference.com

Baseballlibrary.com
Baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/V/Veeck_Bill.stm
Baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/M/Murphy_Charles_W.stm

Wttw.com/chicagostories/Veeck.html
Acocella, Nick. “Baseball’s Showman.” ESPN Classic. 11/19/2003.
espn.go.com/classic/s/Veeck_Bill.html.

4 Comments:

Signal to Noise said...

I just wonder where you get the time to write these entries. Great stuff.

Mini Me said...

Wow. I think you just set the record for longest blog post of all-time! Great read.

in which he dared threaten the baseball establishment by signing a midget and sending him to bat

I remember reading about this a long time ago. What a comedic story.

Mike D. said...

Outstanding piece. Thank you for doing the heavy lifting and informing the public about Veeck, a man who is still sorely missed.

One More Dying Quail said...

STN - In the interest of full disclosure, this was something I wrote last year, with the thought of one day turning it into a full-scale biography. It's sat in my My Documents folder since, but I wanted to do something with it, see what people thought.

mini me - Thought about breaking it down into separate parts, then said the hell with it. I knew my three regular readers would appreciate it regardless of length.

mike - I love Veeck. Not the greatest father or husband in the world, but when it came to baseball...the man was years ahead of his time.