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“Bill Veeck” adds depth to achievements of baseball’s top maverick

Posted Apr 22, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Apr 22, 2012 at 10:55 PM

“I only fear one thing,” Bill Veeck once told first baseman Jim Spencer. “Termites.”

That was Veeck’s self-deprecating humor about his artificial wooden leg shining through, but there was plenty of truth in his philosophy — the man acknowledged as the greatest showman in baseball history had no fear when it came to promoting his baseball team.

It’s true, Veeck once sent up a midget (Eddie Gaedel) to pinch hit in a major-league game in 1951 and he gave his blessing to the riotous, out-of-control Disco Demolition Night conceived by his son Mike in 1979. But to define Veeck by those two events misses the point.

Paul Dickson gives both incidents plenty of attention, but he writes a fair, balanced and intimate biography in “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick” (Walker & Company, $28, hardback, 438 pages). Dickson, a thorough writer whose works include “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball” and “The Joy of Keeping Score,” has 34 pages of footnote references and a 13-page bibliography that includes information gleaned from books, magazines and newspaper articles.

Veeck was a showman who enjoyed a circus atmosphere at times, but he was never a clown. He owned the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox (on two separate occasions). He had an astute eye for talent and built one World Series champion (the 1948 Indians), certainly laid the groundwork for the 1954 Cleveland American League champions that won 111 games, and cajoled the 1959 “Go-Go” White Sox managed by Tampa native Al Lopez to an A.L. pennant in 1959.

Veeck believed in a high level of customer service, reasoning that if you make a baseball game a fun experience, fans will return. He insisted on clean bathrooms with large mirrors, presented orchids to women on Mother’s Day, and wanted — no, craved — the opinions of the paying customer.
Even though he owned his teams, Veeck could be found sitting in the bleachers with fans, drinking beer and listening to their concerns. He helped pass out programs. And most importantly, if a fan had a concern, he could call Veeck’s office and speak with him directly. His home telephone number also was listed in the city directory.

“Veeck was an everyman who believed his common touch was the secret of his success,” Dickson writes.

It was Veeck who integrated the American League, signing Larry Doby to a contract in 1947, several weeks after Jackie Robinson’s major-league debut. Doby also became the second black manager in major-league history when Veeck hired him 31 years later to manage the White Sox.

The following year, Veeck signed pitcher Satchel Paige. While some of his fellow owners called it a publicity stunt to sign a 42-year-old pitcher, Veeck knew what he was doing. Paige, used as a spot starter and reliever, went 6-1 and drew large crowds as the Indians won the pennant. Veeck also brought Paige to St. Louis when he bought the Browns, and also made sure the right-hander was able to qualify for a pension by pushing him as a coach for the Atlanta Braves in the 1960s.

Veeck also toyed with the idea of buying the Philadelphia Phillies in late 1942 and stocking it with stars from the Negro Leagues, but the team was sold to another group.

Dickson digs deep and presents Veeck as a child and as an aspiring young man who worked for the Chicago Cubs during the 1930s. Veeck helped plant the ivy at Wrigley Field and he supervised the construction of the scoreboard that still stands at the back of the center-field bleachers. He also conceived the idea of an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, which erupted whenever a White Sox player hit a home run.

Taking over a minor-league franchise in Milwaukee during the 1940s, Veeck wheeled and dealed, and through savvy promotions and player acquisitions made the Brewers a contender.

The attention to detail Veeck brought to his teams are documented by Dickson. For example, in Cleveland Veeck and concessionaire Max Axelrod each week “would review the mustard to make sure it was just right — a little on the dark side with a touch of horseradish.” He decided to put players’ names on the backs of uniforms starting with the 1959 White Sox, a tradition that has caught on with most teams today.

He also was ahead of his time, noting that baseball should expand to three divisions and advocated interleague play.

I found two episodes especially intriguing in Dickson’s book. Granted, both have been publicized before, but not to the extent that Dickson does in “Bill Veeck.”

After being out of baseball for several years in the 1960s, Veeck made a strong push to buy the Washington Senators. Although he failed, his plan was intriguing. Veeck met with former catcher Elston Howard during the 1968 World Series and told him that if he was approved as the Senators’ owner, he would hire the ex-New York Yankees star as manager — the first black manager in major-league history.

But Bob Short won the bidding war and installed Hall of Famer Ted Williams instead, delaying managerial integration until Frank Robinson broke the barrier in 1975.

The second episode concerned the Indians stealing signs during the 1948 pennant race thanks to a telescope Bob Feller had mounted inside the scoreboard in Cleveland. The incident came to light during Eddie Robinson’s recent biography but was only mentioned in passing. Dickson does not dwell too deeply upon it either, but the skullduggery is certainly intriguing, particularly in light of the New York Giants’ sign-stealing during the 1951 “Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff” season that was revealed a few years ago.

While Veeck may have given only passive consent about the sign stealing, there was no doubt he was heavily involved in “creative groundskeeping” and attempting to install temporary wire fences in the outfield to prevent home runs by the opposing team.

Considering the kind of showmanship Pat Williams exhibited while he was active with the NBA’s Orlando Magic, it is not surprising that he was a Veeck protégé. Veeck took Williams under his wing during the 1960s, and the former minor-league catcher applied what he learned to pro basketball, promoting with great success.

Veeck was never afraid to tweak the baseball establishment for what he perceived as their stuffed-shirt attitude toward the game and its fans. He also fought for the underdog, testifying on behalf of Curt Flood during the outfielder’s antitrust trial against MLB.

On a serious note, he marched in the funeral procession for Martin Luther King Jr. on his peg leg. On Opening Day for the White Sox in 1976, he donned a Revolutionary War costume and played a fife, hobbling onto the field as manager Paul Richards carried an American flag.

When Vince Naimoli ran the Tampa Bay franchise, there was a mural near the escalators at Tropicana Field. Naimoli was depicted sitting in the stands among the fans, blending in as they enjoyed that night’s game. Even though Naimoli could not pull off the “common man” image, I always thought the mural had been nod toward Veeck. It makes sense: Mike Veeck worked for the Devil Rays for seven months during the team’s inaugural 1998 season.

Mike Veeck, who dreamed up the Disco Demolition stunt, picked up where his father left off, admitting pregnant women free on Labor Day, for example. However, his attempt at “Vasectomy Night” on Father’s Day in Charleston, S.C., several years ago was nixed before it happened. Too much needling, so to speak, from the local Catholic church about the appropriateness of such a promotion.

Bill Veeck would have been proud.

Dickson brings the larger-than-life presence of Veeck into sharper focus, and re-introduces his innovative baseball mind in a fresh light. It’s a smart, detailed and precise read, showing the same delightful candor that Veeck displayed during his heyday.

Reader Comments

Por (nohit9) on April 23, 2012 (Suggest removal)

If this book is as good as “Veeck As In Wreck” then it’s on my TO READ list. Bob, your reviews have gotten me to visit my local book store and library again. Thanks for the great reviews.

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