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Bill Veeck: The Maverick Who Changed Baseball on the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

February 9, 2014, would have been Bill Veeck’s 100th birthday. Bill died in 1986 after leaving many marks on the game. His most visible contribution was his impact on the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field in Chicago, where his handiwork can be seen in the ivy-covered outfield brick wall, a field of view dominated by a traditional manually operated scoreboard and an overall scale and proportion that seem perfect for the game.

This was Veeck’s earliest influence on baseball. Bill’s father, William Veeck, had been president of the Cubs, and young Bill grew up working for and with the Cubs during school vacations. When his father died unexpectedly in 1933, Bill dropped out of college and was hired by Phil Wrigley, who had taken over the club after his father, William Wrigley, died in 1932. 

Bill Veeck was only four years old when his father became President of the Chicago Cubs.  William Veeck Sr., shown here with teammates Joe Kelly, Tony Kaufmann and Jimmy Cooney, built several pennant-winning teams while running the Cubs’ front office.

Veeck began work as an office boy but quickly took on more responsibility. His role with the Cubs was more and more directed at putting fans in the seats and making them happy. One of his early jobs was to roam the stands and talk with fans to determine their wishes and bring back suggestions that would make coming to the ballpark more enjoyable. This assignment gained him a feature article in The Sporting News in early 1935, which pointed out: “Contacting the public is the duty of every official of every club, but Veeck is the first to have such a full time assignment.”

Using Veeck as his roaming fan ambassador was part of a larger Wrigley marketing scheme. Among other things, Wrigley had his staff promoting the Cubs in the dead of winter. In 1936 Veeck was given the assignment of renovating the ballpark as a bucolic surcease from the urban world around the stadium. Veeck redesigned the bleachers, added concession stands, and in the process learned to listen to and cater to the needs of the fans who paid for the tickets.

He installed new bleachers, wider seats, concession stands, and new brick outfield walls, under which he planted the ivy that has come to define Wrigley Field. When the basic renovation was done he took on the job of erecting a new scoreboard above the bleachers, replacing the old scoreboard that sat at the base of the center-field wall. The state-of-the-art scoreboard was first put on public view on October 1, 1937, and employed a system of lights and flags to allow elevated railroad passengers passing by the field on their way home to know whether the Cubs won or lost.

Today, more than 75 years after the fact, the scoreboard, the configuration of the bleachers, the inner dimensions of the park, and the brick ivy-covered walls are just as they were when Bill Veeck finished his first big assignment as a baseball innovator. His rich baseball career extended until 1980.

As a team owner Veeck had a transformational influence on baseball and on how Americans view and enjoy the National Pastime. He promoted baseball like nobody else before or since and did it with an iconoclastic flourish. Veeck’s life, from his internship with the Cubs to his final days, was the story of modern baseball. Veeck went from Chicago to own the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and then successively owned three Major League baseball teams—the Cleveland Indians from 1946 through 1950, the St. Louis Browns from 1951 to 1953, and the Chicago White Sox from 1959 to 1961 and for a second time between 1975 and 1980. 

Bill Veeck enjoyed roaming the stands and mingling with fans. Here he is shown passing out free drinks during the first St. Louis Browns games played under his ownership in 1951.

He loved the game—both the one on the field and the hardball played outside the lines by his fellow owners. Although he probably did as much or more than any other individual to change the nature of the game in the decades following World War II, he did it as an outcast. He baited and berated those in power, especially baseball commissioners and many of the other owners. They hated him in return and at critical junctures tried to keep him out of the game, but he kept coming back.

A larger-than-life figure, Veeck emerged as a chain-smoking, charismatic, photogenic redhead with a big open face who spoke with a deep compelling voice that writer Dave Kindred later said, “Came as a train in the night.” Compulsively informal, he never wore a necktie (except when forced to in the Marine Corps) and turned a wide-open collar into a trademark. He could usually be found sitting shirtless among the fans with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. He sat in the bleachers, in part because of his belief that one’s knowledge of baseball is in inverse proportion to the price of one’s seat but mainly because of his genuine affinity for the folks in the cheap seats. Making the fans happy was his trump card and “having fun” was a sacrament.

Alternatively playing the role of innovator, catalyst, and gadfly, he pushed for many of the major changes that took place in the game in the last two thirds of the twentieth century. The designated hitter, interleague play, a system of playoffs, free agency, and expansion of the league were all things that Veeck advocated for and worked to achieve many years before they went into effect.

Veeck’s role as baseball’s greatest promoter began in 1941 when he left the Cubs and bought his first baseball team, the bankrupt and mismanaged minor league Milwaukee Brewers. He turned the once-hapless team into a success not only on the field but at the box office by including all sorts of fan-pleasing extras such as boogie-woogie bands, pig races, and tightrope walkers. In addition, he gave away prizes with a kick to the fans, like a hundred silver dollars embedded in a gigantic block of ice. Once he put on a “swing shift” ball game at 8 a.m. for night workers in war plants and served the fans breakfast cereal himself, dressed in pajamas. Having a game at that hour did not sit well with either the commissioner or the owners of other teams, but it made headlines and contributed to Veeck earning a reputation as the man who was going to put a new face on baseball.

The national media embraced him, and within months of taking over in Milwaukee he was featured in profiles in the leading magazines of the day, including Colliers and Look. From this point forward, Bill Veeck was deemed “great copy” by writers who tripped over each other for profiles and interviews—for which he was a most willing subject.            

He used the most colorful managers and set a demonic pace as a trader of talent. Ballplayers came in and out of Milwaukee so fast that Veeck boasted of “three teams—the one that left yesterday, the one playing today, the one coming in tomorrow.”

In 1942, after his second season with the Brewers, Veeck came up with a bold plan to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and have a full roster of African-American players from the Negro Leagues who were excluded from the Majors by an unwritten and but rigidly enforced color barrier. The deal fell through when National League owners made certain that another buyer would be found for the Phillies, but Veeck was primed to become a mover in the integration of baseball after World War II.

In 1943, at the age of 29, Veeck chose not to accept a deferment from military service. Instead, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and demanded to be sent to a war zone. After basic training, he was shipped to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he still played a role trading players for his team by using war correspondents to get his thoughts and ideas back to Milwaukee. The fact that Veeck was conducting baseball business from a war zone was newsworthy and contributed to his nascent reputation as a man who did things differently. 

In November of 1943, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bill Veeck enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

During his service in World War II, however, he contracted a serious tropical skin infection and was wounded in Bougainville, New Guinea. An antiaircraft gun he was firing recoiled, seriously injuring his right leg, which then became infected, resulting in his return to a hospital in the United States.

After spending 15 of the 21 months he was in uniform in hospitals, part of his leg was amputated in 1946. Never one to wallow in self-pity, he threw a party for himself and danced the night away on his new prosthetic limb. From this point forward Veeck had to deal with dozens of small amputations and skin grafts. He dealt with the incessant pain with a singular sense of humor. “Suffering is overrated. It doesn’t teach you anything,” was his mantra, and he turned his missing leg into a sight gag. He took great glee in lighting up a cigarette, pulling up his pants leg, and using the ashtray he had carved into his wooden leg. It also gave him some great punch lines. When he took a bad fall at the Baltimore airport decades later, he was asked, “Can I call you a doctor?” “No,” he shot back, “it’s the wooden leg, get me a carpenter.” His children report that when the family lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland he kept various shades of tan deck paint on hand in a shed behind the house so that the tan on his wooden leg could deepen as the summer progressed.

Veeck returned to Milwaukee after the war and soon thereafter sold the team. In late 1946, with some of the money he had made from the sale of the Brewers, he bought the Cleveland Indians with a group of partners that included comedian Bob Hope. His public face was that of the outrageous “Sportshirt Bill,” who limped along on his artificial leg—with its built-in ashtray—dreaming up zany stunts to lure fans to the ballpark. His formula for success was simple: create a great team and pack the stadium with loyal, happy fans. 

Veeck sold the team to Cleveland and in the process changed the way baseball was marketed. He was the first to allow fans to buy tickets over the phone, the first to sell season-ticket plans, and the first to stage special appreciation nights for various groups of fans. Veeck went everywhere to sell the Indians, including underground in a Pennsylvania coal mine.

Veeck also worked to incorporate women and children into his fan base. He came into the game when women and children were tolerated at the ballpark but not catered to. He marketed the game to women, children, and families with a special zest, doing everything he could to create these new fans. In Cleveland just after the war, he gave away nylon stockings when they were in extremely short supply. He built professionally staffed nurseries to attract women with infants. These efforts not only helped him to break attendance records, often even when his teams were losing, but they also created a much broader fan base that has stayed loyal to the game.

Whenever Veeck took over a new team, one of his first acts was to rip out the existing ladies room and replace it with a clean, carpeted oasis with soft lighting. (He was so proud of a woman’s restroom he built in the old Comiskey Park in Chicago that he staged a contest to name it. The winning entry: The Hall of Femme.) He staged Mother’s Day promotions with free orchids to any woman with a child.

The highlight of his baseball career came in 1948 when his Indians won both the American League pennant and the World Series. It was one of the most exciting—if not the most exciting—single season of the postwar Golden Age of the game. Veeck did it with an integrated team. Though foiled in his earlier plan to bring Negro League players to the Majors, in the summer of 1947, Veeck integrated his team on-field and off, signing Larry Doby—the American League’s first black player—eleven weeks after the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Veeck also hired the first black public relations officer, trainer, and scout. A year later, he signed the legendary black pitcher Satchel Paige, who helped win the 1948 World Series—Cleveland’s last championship to this day. 

Satchel Paige became the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948. (Photo by Bob Lerner for Look magazine, courtesy of the Library of Congress with permission of Bob Lerner.)

In 1949 Veeck brought fourteen African-Americans to Cleveland’s spring training. The passionate liberalism that he espoused, and was never afraid to give voice to on social issues raging in the country, cleared a path for many African-Americans to display their talents in the Major Leagues and earned him the title “Abe Lincoln of Baseball” by The Sporting News. Going forward, Veeck also worked hard for greater racial integration, especially in the American League, where it was a long time coming, especially in New York, Detroit, and Boston.

Veeck’s next stop was St. Louis, where he bought the American League Browns, a terrible team—so bad that their owner Veeck insisted were even “hard to look at.” The most common complaint was that the team lacked a leadoff hitter who could get on base with regularity. Veeck decided to stage a promotional stunt that would please the fans by giving the team a leadoff batter who would be sure to get on base—albeit just once. In deepest secrecy, Veeck signed 3-foot, 7-inch actor Eddie Gaedel with a plan to send him to the plate to open the second game of a doubleheader.

At the appointed time, brandishing a toy bat, Gaedel stepped up to the plate and immediately crouched so low that his strike zone was only about an inch and a half high. Before the Tigers could protest, the Browns produced a bona fide contract, and the baffled umpire said, “Play ball.” Tiger pitcher Bob Cain, obviously afraid of hitting the batter with a fast pitch and knowing there was no way to pitch to his strike zone, admitted defeat by giving Gaedel an intentional walk. Fortunately, Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was brought in on Veeck’s plan, and a news photographer was on hand to capture the whole event.

The incident showed Veeck at his most flamboyant. Even before Gaedel got to the plate he emerged from a huge cake, which was then served to the crowd with free beer. The game’s festivities also included the antics of the legendary Satchel Paige, who was leading a band, and Max Patkin, the reigning Clown Prince of baseball.

American League President Will Harridge immediately voided Gaedel’s contract and banned “midget” players from the game, obviously with the full support and collusion of the commissioner, so Veeck responded to the horrified poo bahs of baseball as only he could, by demanding a ruling on whether New York Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, at 5-feet, 6-inches, was a short ballplayer or a tall midget. He then protested that 6-foot, 5-inch Walt Dropo of the Boston Red Sox, who were to follow the Tigers into St. Louis, was “too tall.”

The stunt managed to attract national attention and decades of notoriety. Veeck lived with the story for the rest of his life and embellished the tale with mock regrets. “Were it in my power to turn back the clock,” he intoned on occasion, “I’d never send a midget to bat,” he declared two decades after the fact. “No, I’d use nine of the little fellows, including the designated hitter.” Veeck often quipped that his tombstone would read HE SENT A MIDGET UP TO BAT and then asked that the epitaph be cleaned up a bit to read, more piously, HE HELPED THE LITTLE MAN.

Ironically, despite the negative reaction of the commissioner and other team owners to the stunt, at a time when they feared losing their audience to the new medium of television, baseball was given a shot in the arm by this great moment of frivolity, which had tremendous visual impact, and got everybody talking about baseball as the country was entering the television age.

Veeck held onto the Browns until 1953 when he sold the team to a coalition representing interests in Baltimore, and the Browns became the Orioles. He had tried to move the team himself, but his fellow American League owners wanted him out of baseball. Veeck was pushing hard for reforms like shared television revenues, which he championed because he reasoned that it would allow for a parity between the large- and small-market teams.

To others Veeck had assaulted the dignity of the game by using clowns as base coaches, putting strolling minstrels in the grandstands, and having raffles with outrageous door prizes, including bags of live eels, homing pigeons, old work horses, and massive cakes of ice. He held fan appreciation nights for every group that could be imagined.

Veeck was an early advocate for expanding baseball to the West Coast and within weeks of selling the Browns undertook a two-year study of westward migration for the National League, which paved the way for the Dodgers and Giants to move from Brooklyn and New York to their present locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Veeck’s next ownership was the Chicago White Sox in 1959, when the team won its first pennant in forty years. He held the team until he was forced to sell it in 1961 due to ill health and what his doctors felt was a very short time to live. He moved his family to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where he not only survived but also wrote three books, including Veeck: As in Wreck, which sixty years later remains one of the most important baseball books ever written. 

On the advice of his physicians to rest, relax, and avoid excitement, Bill Veeck and his family set out for their new home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in August of 1961.

During this hiatus Veeck took a position motivated by his deep sense of fairness that helped usher in free agency, breaking the stranglehold owners had on players. He was the only owner to testify in support of Curt Flood during his landmark reserve clause challenge—even though he knew it would lead to the end of “mom and pop” owners like himself who would be priced out of the game.

Perhaps, his greatest achievement came in 1975 when he led a group of investors who bought the then nearly bankrupt, cellar-dwelling Chicago White Sox as they were about to leave the city. Within two seasons, he rebuilt the team to a third-place finish in the AL West. In 1976 he installed the first exploding scoreboard in the Majors. When a White Sox batter hit a home run, fireworks, sound effects, and 10 electric pinwheels went off. The exploding scoreboard is pure Veeck, even down to its literary roots. Veeck read constantly—an average of five books a week—and was informed by literature. The Eddie Gaedel stunt was inspired by a James Thurber short story and the exploding scoreboard by a giant pinball machine in the William Saroyan play, The Time of Your Life.

During his interrupted years as White Sox owner, Veeck continued to innovate. He became the first owner to put players’ names on the backs of their uniforms, induced the late Harry Caray to first sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as a ritual of the seventh-inning stretch, and was the first to bring relief pitchers in from the bullpen in golf carts—one of the rare Veeckian touches which did not make it out of the twentieth century.

In 1980 he got out of baseball for the last time. For one thing the very reserve clause that he had championed was now putting him out of the market for the prime players. One of his last promotions, the ill-conceived Disco Demolition Night, ended in a riot.

Bill Veeck died on January 2, 1986, at which time his close friend and sometimes business partner, the great slugger Hank Greenberg, told The New York Times: “Bill brought baseball into the 20th century. Before Bill, baseball was just win or lose. But he made it fun to be at the ballpark.” His combination of financial creativity and marketing genius was unlike anything in the history of sports. His financial innovations were deplored initially by the other owners but were eventually adopted. He stunned the baseball world when he announced that he would depreciate players for tax purposes, thereby treating them like depleting oil wells. He saved other owners, who were originally aghast at the idea, millions. Today he is seen as a man decades ahead of his time. In 2004, Business Week picked him as one of the great business innovators of the previous 75 years.

At the heart of Veeck’s life story is the conflict between a stubborn, iconoclastic individual and the entrenched status quo. Veeck once said: “The athlete who catches the imagination is the individualist, the free soul who challenges not only the opposition but the generally accepted rules of behavior. Essentially, he should be uncivilized. Untamed.” He was talking about men like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb but, of course, was also describing himself.           

Veeck was a maverick, visionary, and showman extraordinaire who spent a lifetime challenging and bringing change to the business of baseball. Even today—more than a quarter of a century after his death—his influence is still felt.

Bill Veeck was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

(Photo by the late Jim Hansen for Look magazine, courtesy of the Library of Congress with permission of Mrs. Hansen.)

 


Paul Dickson’s book Baseball’s Greatest Maverick won the 2012 Jerome Holtzman Award from the Chicago Baseball Museum, the Reader’s Choice Award from the Special Library Association for the best baseball book of 2012 as well as the 2012 Casey Award from Spitball Magazine.


 

 

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