Book Review: Bill Veeck - Baseball's Greatest Maverick

Bill_veeck_final_medium Bill Veeck - written by Paul Dickson

Baseball owners have never been the most loveable of creatures. They are usually men of immense wealth and ego, for whom the ownership of a team is a cynical cash cow or a lavish vehicle for self promotion. Ban Johnson, the President of the American League, once bemoaned the owners of the rival National League, saying “What a shame it is that the greatest of sports should be in the hands of such a malodorous gang as these magnates have proven themselves to be on more than one occasion”. It is because of this company that Bill Veeck stands out.

Veeck was a pioneering baseball owner, happily dragging the rest of baseball along with his relentless drive to make baseball games an event to attend. A masterful showman, a relentless publicity hound, and an unrepentant scourge of tradition, Veeck would be the last man to own a baseball team without a significant personal fortune of his own. Alone amongst his fellow owners, he spent his entire career supporting the racial integration of the game, testified in support of Curt Flood against the Reserve Clause, and brought the aging Satchel Paige to the Major Leagues. Veeck’s ability to challenge the established order and expectations were not limited to baseball. He lost a leg due to injuries in the Pacific, spending the rest of his life on a wooden leg and in constant pain. He owned three different major league teams – the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox (twice), as well as the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, which would eventually be used as the template for the MLB expansion Brewers in 1970.

Paul Dickson shows obvious affection for Veeck’s story. The book largely steers clear of editorializing praise for Veeck’s unique accomplishments, but he’s not shy about salting his prose with positive quotes from his associates and the baseball community. More than anything, he’s able to effectively capture the almost impossible scope of frenetic energy with which Veeck propelled his improbable career, from baseball heir to impresario.

BASEBALL ROYALTY

1. Take your work very seriously. Go for broke and give it your all. 2. Never ever take yourself seriously - Bill’s Veeck’s ’12 Commandments of Baseball Ownership’

William Veeck’s story starts predictably intertwined with his father, William Veeck Sr. Veeck was a noted Chicago baseball columnist working under the name Bill Bailey. As Bailey, he was a keen observer of the game, noted for his lack of sentimentality regarding both Chicago teams. The elder Veeck was also one of the first columnists to openly charge gamblers and players with influencing key games through the 1910s. He was a close friend of William Wrigley, and when Wrigley bought the controlling share of the Chicago Cubs in the fall of 1918, he installed Veeck first as the Vice President of Baseball Operations, and later as the team President. Bill Veeck grew up in the confines of the Chicago Cubs organization, working in virtually every aspect of the team operations at one point or another.

The elder Veeck did a tremendous amount to help turn around the Chicago Cubs, starting with a stadium refurbishment that would become Bill Veeck’s calling card. He proposed expanded interleague play during the Depression – called the ‘Veeck Plan’ – which failed in the face of American League resistance. When Veeck died of leukaemia in October of 1933, some thought that Wrigley might divest himself of the Cubs, speaking strongly to the close relationship between the two.

Despite the loss of his father, Veeck remained working for the Cubs organization, under the tutelage of Charles Weber. Only 22 in 1936, he was entrusted with the redevelopment of Wrigley Park, creating much of the iconic park’s current configuration. It was his idea to plant ivy along the brick outfield, catering to Wrigley’s passion for gardens. He also erected a massive automated scoreboard at the cost of $100,000 – an impossibly large sum at the time. The Cubs floundered for several seasons, eventually leading to the appointment of Jim Gallagher – another sports writer – as President in 1940. Veeck had been promoted to team treasurer but denied the top slot. By June of 1941, Veeck had decided his future rested outside of the Cubs organization and gambled everything on a new business venture – saving the Milwaukee Brewers.

HEADY DAYS

" The athlete who catches the imagination is the individualist, the free soul who challenges not only the opposition but the generally accepted rule of behaviour. Essentially, he should be uncivilized. Untamed." - Bill Veeck

One of Dickson’s real strengths is his ability to create the existing context for the events he describes. When dealing with Veeck’s acquisition of the Brewers, he crafts a picture of both Chicago and Milwaukee in the pre-War days; their populations, relationships with their ballclubs, and the strange sports industry where everything overlapped in terms of facilities and fans. One of Veeck’s main revenue streams while in Milwaukee came from an agreement with Abe Saperstein to market the Harlem Globetrotters through-out the Midwest, allowing him to survive long enough for his efforts with the Brewers to pay off.

Veeck’s first move after assembling a consortium of investors to buy the Milwaukee Brewers from the American Association, whom the title at reverted to, was to personally take out a $50,000 loan to refurbish the old Borchert Field. It would become his hallmark when acquiring a team to repaint and re-organize the ballpark to ensure fans came into a clean, bright experience. He focused on facilities for women and tailored promotions to them; a trick learned from his father. Veeck Sr had instituted the first regular Ladies Days at the ballpark, and within a few years, women made up almost 25% of Cubs ticket holders. Veeck also shuttled players in and out of the team at a breakneck pace, scouring local independent leagues for cheap young talent. In less than three months, he bought, sold or traded 51 players, which remains a minor league record for an executive which stands to this day.

The Brewers attendance soared and under Charlie Grimm as manager, the relentless drive for new talent began to pay off. While hopeless through 1941, the Brewers finished second in 1942. In 1942, Veeck made a move to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies with the intention of playing an entirely black roster. Veeck’s reasoning was that if integration was the issue, playing an all black roster would fulfil the requirements of segregation. The veracity of this story was challenged in 1998 in The National Pastime by David Jordan, Larry Gerlach and John Rossi. Dickson demolishes the arguments, building on other rebuttals by writers like Rob Neyer with his own research for the biography. In terms of both the personality of Veeck and supporting evidence Dickson builds, it becomes increasingly likely that Veeck’s original claim is the truth.

SALAD DAYS

"Hating the Yankees isn't part of my act. It is one of those exquisite times when life and art are in perfect conjunction." - Bill Veeck

Veeck spent the remainder of WWII in the Pacific, serving with the Marines. He had his foot crushed during an accident with an artillery piece and suffered badly from sores and infection from the hostile Guadalcanal jungle environs. He returned to the States in 1945, but spent most of it in traction, trying to save his legs from infection. Eventually, he’d have 35 separate surgeries and lose his right leg as a result. It was during this time that he forged a lifelong friendship with Casey Stengal. In 1946, an ownership group fronted by Veeck purchased the lackluster Cleveland Indians. Veeck’s moves quickly rallied Cleveland fans, and in his first year, he shattered the long standing attendance record held by the Yankees. Veeck especially targeted the Yankees and their new owners, Del Webb and Dan Topping, singling them out as his rivals. It was in part due to the Yankees owners penchant for bullying the American League owners in order to win concessions for their club and in part that it guaranteed Cleveland press in the biggest baseball market in America. Webb and Topping would become implacable opponents of Veeck and his ideas, and nearly succeeded in blacklisting him from the game. They had good reason to want him gone. From 1946 to 1964, the Yankees were denied the American League pennant only three times - two by a Veeck-owned team and once by a team built and staffed heavily with players of colour by Veeck.

In 1947, Veeck integrated the American League ten weeks after the Dodgers started Jackie Robinson. Larry Doby, a future Hall of Fame outfielder, had a very rough rookie year, but would quickly establish himself as one of the best hitters in the game through the 50s. Veeck would also sign Satchel Paige in 1948 to the wide derision of the league. Dickson digs deeply into the relationship between Veeck and Paige, countering the claim that his signing was simply a publicity stunt. Veeck’s own scouting notes underline that he firmly believed that Paige was still a highly effective pitcher and undervalued due to his nebulous age. Paige would play five years in the integrated MLB, following Veeck to the St. Louis Browns, accumulating over 10 WAR in five years, believed to be almost 50 in his final year.

The Indians would win the World Series in 1948, their last to date, and continued to add talent from the Negro leagues. By the end of his tenure, the Indians had 14 African-American players in their system, leading the Sporting News to opine that ‘Abraham Lincoln freed the Negros, Bill Veeck gives them baseball jobs’. Veeck would be forced to sell the Indians in 1949 in order to finalize the divorce settlement with his first wife, and then seemed to retire from baseball. It wouldn’t last.

ST.LOUIS TO BASEBALL VAGRANCY

"If Bill Veeck was a rebel, his most substantial rebellions were against an establishment that was clannish, racist and smug. His brightest ideas bettered the game, and he brought a pure joy to his work in baseball that most men and women who own ballclubs today will ever know." - Bill Littlefield, NPR's Only a Game

In 1951, Veeck returned to baseball by putting together an ownership group to buy the St. Louis Browns. The National League Cardinals were in serious trouble, and Dickson outlines that Veeck’s plan involved driving the Cardinals to another market and claiming all St. Louis. The Browns were a notoriously inept team, which wasn’t helped by the hiring of Rogers Hornsby to manage them. One of the best hitters in the history of baseball, Hornsby was also grim, unbending and rigid as a manager, unable to connect with his team. He even tried to block the hiring of Paige for the rotation, although backed off when it was clear he’d lose both the contest and his job if he persisted. The Browns, mired in last, were the scene of one of Veeck’s most memorable stunts. Eddie Gaedel, a 3’7 midget wearing the number 1/8 came to the plate against Bob Cain. Veeck had warned Gaedel that he had a sniper trained on him with orders to shoot if he swung his bat (a fairly obvious lie). Gaedel walked on four straight pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner. Ironically, Gaedel’s grandnephew would be drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and remains in their minor league system.

Unfortunately for Veeck, the Anheuser-Busch company bought the rival Cardinals and their deep pockets ensured that for all Veeck’s promotional ability, they could not be moved from St. Louis. Veeck pushed to move the team to Milwaukee first and then later Baltimore. Despite the political backing of Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., the well connected Mayor of Baltimore, the move was blocked by the other owners, led by Topping and Webb. They wanted Veeck out of baseball, and he was forced to sell his stock. While the sale earned a reasonable profit for Veeck and his partners, it was the only team that he ran which failed to improve much. Soon after Veeck’s departure, the league approved the move of the team to Balitmore where it was renamed the Orioles. In a weird bit of symmetry, Baltimore’s NFL team, the Ravens, were originally the Cleveland Browns before being relocated.

Veeck spent the next several years in a number of capacities; scouting the development of baseball on the West Coast, writing several articles on baseball, and bidding to acquire Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He made a bid for the Detroit Tigers in 1956, but was blocked by ownership again. It wasn’t until 1958 that his hometown finally had a place for him, with the opportunity to buy his old rivals, the Chicago White Sox.

HOME AT LAST

"When we rode out to the ballpark on the South Side, people recognized him all the way. When we were stopped for a light, people called out to him, shouted at him that his Sox would beat the Yankees. He laughed and smiled with them. He was the Pied Piper of joy. He owned the city." Stan Issacs, Newsday

Veeck would own the White Sox twice; 1959-1961 and 1975-1980. His first run ended due to poor health, forcing him to sell the team and head into a lengthy period of rehabilitation. However, the changes he wrought on the team in just three years were immense. Comiskey Park was extensively renovated and Veeck used every trick in his book to draw crowds of female fans and families to the park. He had the first ‘exploding’ scoreboard installed, that fired fireworks off for every home run. The White Sox made their first World Series since the Black Sox scandal in 1959, losing to the relocated Dodgers. While Veeck’s time with the team was relatively short, his rebuilt minor league system and renewed fanbase kept the White Sox a contending team for most of the following decade.

Dickson moves quickly over the next fifteen years, largely focused on Veeck’s appearance as a witness supporting Curt Flood in his attempts to have the Reserve Clause overturned and his three year venture running the Suffolk Downs racetrack in Boston. Veeck’s health was turning into a regular issue, as years of punishment on his upper body required regular surgeries to keep him mobile.

Finally in 1975, Veeck would form his last ownership group and return to Chicago by buying the White Sox again. His promise to keep the team in Chicago and not move it to Seattle was the clincher. Veeck’s final run as an owner came at the dawn of free agency. Veeck had been one of the few owners who opposed the Reserve Clause and had been outspoken against it. Other owners enjoyed Veeck’s attempts to keep up with much richer ownership groups like Steinbrenner’s Yankees with fewer resources. Veeck’s knack for promotion helped, as did his audacious ‘rent a player’ plan that targeted good players in their final option year – essentially paying for the last and most expensive year of a controlled player from another club before they hit free agency. The trick allowed the White Sox to contend in 1977, winning 90 games and finishing third. Veeck was also aggressive recruiting for his farm system, discovering Harold Baines and moving him up aggressively.

There was a limit to what Veeck’s promotions and scouting could do, and the White Sox remained mired in fifth for the rest of his tenure. In 1979, a promotion suggested by his son – the Disco Demolition Night – was scheduled in concert with a local radio station. The idea was to have fans bring disco albums to the field to be blown up between games during a doubleheader. Steve Dahl, the DJ who inspired the promotion, misled Veeck regarding the destruction of the records, having used too large a charge and not setting down a protective screen as had been agreed. When the explosion when off, setting fire to the centre field grass, a riot was touched off and thousands poured on to the field, all but destroying the grounds and forcing the forfeit of the second game. Veeck was criticized around the country and the negative publicity badly hurt attendance for the remainder of the season. Without the means to compete and once again suffering from ill health, Veeck agreed to sell the club during the start of 1981. He would remain mostly retired, although less than two weeks before his death, he told his long time friends and business partner, Hank Greenberg, that he thought he had a shot of re-buying the Cleveland Indians. Veeck died just after New Years Day in 1986.

A LEGION OF LEGACY

"Somehow, we will have to muddle through Opening Day with [Veeck]. And we will have to adjust to a few sad facts: the gross national consumption of beer has diminished, some say measurably. Every day now one good book goes unread. And marches against handguns and for peace and civil rights have one fewer peg-leg pounding the pavement... But the arc lights must still be turned on, boys. Let us wander over to the ballpark, lift a sign heavenward, and laugh some more." - William Brashler, Chicago Magazine

Dickson spends his epilogue waxing positive about Veeck and it is easy to see why. For all of Veeck’s various faults, he was not only far ahead of his fellow owners with his image of what a day at the baseball park could be, but also maintained a fan-first, player-first executive stance. His normal seat as an owner was in the left field bleachers, talking to fans about their experience. He was adamant that baseball could appeal to men and women, and demolished the ‘boy’s club’ atmosphere of most ballparks. Like his father, he chafed against segregation and discrimination in baseball and in the nation. Veeck was an active civil rights activist and marched in the funeral procession of Martin Luther King. He integrated the American League and ensured an income for Satchel Paige until the end of his life. His automated and later ‘exploding’ scoreboards would become standard in every park, before the advent of modern jumbotrons. The very model of modern ballpark promotions, from bobbleheads to free hats, owes their modern forms to Veeck, as other owners scrambled to copy his methods in self preservation for their own fanbases.

Most importantly, Veeck remains the last baseball owner to have neither been independently wealthy or a major corporation. His ownership group model has long been studied by advocates of community ownership consortiums as sports teams continue to aggressively use their fanbases as leverage to extort tax concessions and expensive stadiums. Dickson brushes on it only briefly, but notes that much of Veeck’s innovations came from his view from the top of the organization as a business, as opposed to an investment or expression of personal ego.

In 1991, Veeck joined his friend Hank Greenberg in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps the greatest irony that he’d appreciate would be his plaque on the wall, surrounded by the other executives who hated his innovations and his ideas, who blocked him every chance they got, and wanted nothing more than him to just go away for good. There’s something Veeck-ian in that idea that in the end, it would be his view of the game that would prove to endure.

“It’s just a game. Life’s hard. Just watch the game.” – Bill Veeck

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