Bill Veeck

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William Louis Veeck, Jr. (IPA: [vɛk], rhymes with "wreck"; February 9, 1914 – January 2, 1986), also known as "Sport Shirt Bill," was a native of Chicago, Illinois, and franchise owner and promoter in Major League Baseball. He was best known for his flamboyant publicity stunts, and the innovations he brought to the league during his ownership of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox. Veeck was the last owner to purchase a baseball franchise without an independent fortune, and is responsible for many significant innovations and contributions to baseball. Ultimately, the rise in popularity of the game and the important role of the ballpark promotions were deeply influenced by the outrageous showmanship of Veeck.

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Early life

While Veeck was growing up in Hinsdale, Illinois, his father, William Veeck Sr., was a sportswriter for the Chicago Cubs organization. In 1918, while Bill Veeck was a mere four years old, his father became the President of the Chicago Cubs. Growing up in the business, Bill Veeck worked as a vendor, ticket seller and junior groundskeeper. Veeck attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1933, when his father died, Veeck left Kenyon College, and eventually became club treasurer for the Cubs. In 1937, Veeck planted the ivy that is on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field and was responsible for the construction of the hand-operated center field scoreboard that is still in use. He married Eleanor Raymond in 1935. One can truly say that Veeck's one love was baseball, and everything else, including his family, came second. His marriage with Raymond took a turn for the worse, as she could not tolerate his being so absorbed with the game. Veeck fathered three children with Eleanor, but seemingly wanted nothing to do with them. He remarried soon thereafter, as Mary Frances Ackerman bore Veeck six children, making it a total of nine children. Essentially, Veeck was so consumed by baseball that of all his family, he only kept strong ties with his son Mike, who would continue the family business as the "baseball innovator."

Milwaukee Brewers

In 1941, Veeck left Chicago and purchased the American Association Milwaukee Brewers, in a partnership with former Cubs star and manager Charlie Grimm. This left him with a mere eleven dollars in his pocket. After winning three pennants in five years, Veeck sold his Milwaukee franchise in 1945 for a $275,000 profit. During this time, he put a stamp on Major League Baseball with his showmanship to attract a wider audience. During his tenure with the Brewers, he gave away live pigs, beer, cases of food; he put on fireworks displays, staged weddings at home plate, and played morning games for wartime swing shift workers en route to setting minor league attendance records. While many may have thought that these theatrics were simply for financial reasons, Veeck's sole purpose was to provide entertainment for the audience; many of them were produced unannounced.

While a half-owner of the Brewers, Veeck served for nearly three years in the Marines during World War II in an artillery unit. During this time, a recoiling artillery piece crushed his leg, requiring amputation first of the foot, and later of the entire leg.

According to his own autobiography, Veeck - As in Wreck, he claimed to have installed a screen to make the right field target a little more difficult for left-handed pull hitters of the opposing team. The screen was on wheels, so any given day it might be in place or not, depending on the batting strength of the opposing team. There was no rule against that activity as such, so he got away with it… until one day when he took it to an extreme, rolling it out when the opponents batted, and pulling it back when the Brewers batted. Veeck reported that the league passed a rule against it the very next day. However, in all likelihood, this story was pure invention on Veeck's part. Extensive research by two members of the Society for American Baseball Research has revealed no reference to a movable fence or any reference of the gear required for a movable fence to work.

Philadelphia Phillies

According to Veeck's memoirs, in 1942, before entering the military, he acquired backing to purchase the financially strapped Philadelphia Phillies, planning to stock the club with stars from the Negro Leagues. He then claimed that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a virulent racist, vetoed the sale and arranged for the National League to take over the team.[1] Although this story has long been part of accepted baseball lore, in recent years, its accuracy has been challenged by researchers[2].

Cleveland Indians

In 1946, Veeck finally became the owner of a major league team, the Cleveland Indians, using a debenture-common stock group making remuneration to his partners non-taxable loan payments instead of taxable income. He immediately put the team's games on radio, and set about to put his own indelible stamp on the franchise.

The following year, he signed Larry Doby as the first African-American player in the American League, then followed that one year later by inking Satchel Paige to a contract, making the hurler the oldest rookie in major league history; there was much speculation at the time about Paige's true age, with most sources stating that he was 42 when he joined the Indians.

When the Indians moved to cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium for good in 1947, Veeck had a movable fence installed in the outfield that moved as much as 15 feet between series, depending on how the distance helped or hurt the Indians against a particular opponent. The American League soon passed a new rule fixing the outfield fences during any given season.

Although Veeck's image has long been considered fan-friendly, his actions during the early part of the 1947 season briefly gave a different view. When the city of Cleveland began renting Cleveland Stadium for midget auto racing, an activity that often left the field in shambles, Veeck hinted that he might consider moving the team to the then-virgin territory of Los Angeles. However, after the two sides discussed the issue, the matter was settled.

As in Milwaukee, Veeck took a whimsical approach to promotions, hiring rubber-faced Max Patkin, the "Clown Prince of Baseball" as a coach. Patkin's appearance in the coaching box delighted fans and infuriated the front office of the American League.

Although he had become extremely popular, an attempt to trade the popular shortstop, [Lou Boudreau]], to the Browns led to mass protests and petitions supporting Boudreau. Veeck, in response, visited every bar in Cleveland apologizing for his mistake, and reassuring fans that the trade would not occur. By 1948, Cleveland won its first pennant and World Series since 1920. Famously, Veeck buried the 1948 flag, once it became obvious the team could not repeat its championship in 1949. Later that year, Veeck's first wife divorced him. Most of his money was tied up in the Indians, forcing him to sell the team.

St. Louis Browns

After marrying Mary Frances Ackerman, Veeck returned as the owner of the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Hoping to force the St. Louis Cardinals out of town, Veeck spited Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, hiring Cardinal greats Rogers Hornsby and Marty Marion as managers, and Dizzy Dean as an announcer; and he decorated their shared home park, Sportsman's Park, exclusively with Browns memorabilia. Ironically, the Cardinals had been the Browns' tenants since 1920, even though they had long since passed the Browns as St. Louis' favorite team.

Some of Veeck's most memorable publicity stunts occurred during his tenure with the Browns, including the famous appearance on August 19, 1951, by midget Eddie Gaedel. Standing 3'4 Veeck signed Gaedel and sent him to the plate with strict instructions not to swing. Predictably, he walked on four pitches and was replaced with a pinch-runner. It would be his only plate appearance, as the American League would void the contract, claiming it made a mockery of the game. It was for this incident which Veeck predicted he'd be most remembered, together with Grandstand Manager's Day which involved Veeck, Connie Mack, Bob Fishel, and thousands of regular fans, directing the entirety of the game via placards: the Browns won, 5-3, snapping a four-game losing streak.

After the 1952 season, Veeck suggested that the American League clubs share radio and television revenue with visiting clubs. Outvoted, he refused to allow the Browns' opponents to broadcast games played against his team on the road. The league responded by eliminating the lucrative Friday night games in St. Louis. A year later, Saigh was convicted of tax evasion. Facing certain banishment from baseball, Saigh sold the Cardinals to Anheuser-Busch. Veeck was unable to afford renovations necessary to bring Sportsman's Park up to code, and was forced to sell it to the Cardinals–thus removing his only bargaining chip. This and other factors made Veeck realize that he could not hope to compete against the Cardinals and their far superior resources. He began looking for another place to play.

At first, Veeck considered moving the Browns back to Milwaukee (where they had played their inaugural season in 1901). He was denied permission by the other American League owners. He also wanted to move his club to the lucrative-yet-still untapped Los Angeles market, but was denied as well. Faced with the threat of having his franchise revoked, Veeck was forced to sell the Browns, who then moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

Chicago White Sox

In 1959, Veeck became head of a group that purchased a controlling interest in the Chicago White Sox, who went on to win their first pennant in 40 years, breaking a team attendance record for home games of 1.4 million. The next year, the team broke the same record with 1.6 million visitors to Comiskey Park with the addition of the first "exploding scoreboard" in the major leagues–producing electrical and sound effects, and shooting fireworks whenever the White Sox hit a home run. Veeck also began adding player's surnames on the back of their uniform, a practice now standard by 25 of 30 clubs on all jerseys, and by three more clubs on road jerseys.

According to Lee Allen in The American League Story (1961), After the Yankees watched the exploding scoreboard a few times, Clete Boyer, the weak-hitting third baseman, hit the ball over the outfield fence and Mickey Mantle and several other Yankee players came out of the dugout waving sparklers. The point was not lost on Veeck.

In 1961, due to poor health, Veeck sold his share of the team. Soon afterward, former Detroit Tigers great Hank Greenberg, his former partner with the Indians, persuaded him to join his group pursuing an American League franchise in Los Angeles as a minority partner. However, when Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley got wind of the deal, he brought it to a halt by invoking his exclusive right to operate a major league team in Southern California. In truth, O'Malley wasn't about to compete with a master promoter such as Veeck. Rather than persuade his friend to back out, Greenberg abandoned his bid for what became the Los Angeles Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).

Veeck wasn't heard from again in baseball circles until 1975, when he returned as the owner of the White Sox. Veeck's return rankled baseball's owner establishment, most of the old guard viewing him as a pariah after both exposing most of his peers in his 1961 book Veeck As In Wreck and for testifying against the reserve clause in the Curt Flood case.

Almost immediately after taking control of the Sox for a second time, Veeck unleashed another publicity stunt designed to irritate his fellow owners. He and general manager Roland Hemond conducted four trades in a hotel lobby, in full view of the public. Two weeks later, however, Peter Seitz ruled in favor of free agency, and Veeck's power as an owner began to wane as he could not compete with the richer owners for top talent. Ironically, Veeck had been the only baseball owner to testify in support of Curt Flood during his famous court case, where Flood had attempted to gain free agency after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Veeck presented a Bicentennial-themed Spirit of '76 parade on opening day in 1976, casting himself as the peg-legged fifer bringing up the rear. The same year, he reactivated Minnie Miñoso for eight at-bats, in order to give Miñoso a claim towards playing in four decades; he did so again in 1980, to expand the claim to five. In addition, he also had the team play in shorts for one contest.

In an attempt to adapt to free agency, he developed a rent-a-player model, centering on the acquisition of other clubs' stars in their option years. The gambit was moderately successful: in 1977, the White Sox won 90 games, and finished third behind Oscar Gamble and Richie Zisk.

During this last run, Veeck decided to have announcer Harry Caray sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch, a tradition that he would continue until his death in 1998.

The 1979 season was arguably Veeck's most colorful and controversial. On April 10, he offered fans free admission the day after a 10-2 Opening Day shellacking by the Toronto Blue Jays. Then on July 12, Veeck, with an assist from son Mike and radio host Steve Dahl, held one of his most infamous promotion nights, Disco Demolition Night, a promotion which resulted in a near riot between games of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park. Those who brought old records received discounted admission, and the records were destroyed during a bonfire in between games. The end result was disastrous as Veeck's plan worked a bit too well. The White Sox were forced to forfeit the game, as many fans stormed the field amidst the smoke of the burning records. The second game was forfeited to the visiting Tigers.

Finding himself no longer able to financially compete in the free agent era, Veeck sold the White Sox in January 1981. He retired to his home in St. Michaels, Maryland, where he had earlier discovered White Sox star Harold Baines while Baines was in high school there.

Veeck, weak from emphysema and having had a cancerous lung removed in 1984, died of a pulmonary embolism at age 71. His health had begun to fail after decades of smoking 3-4 packs of cigarettes a day. He was elected five years later to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Legacy

The individual fan is indebted to Bill Veeck for his contribution to the game of baseball. He essentially took this game, a game for purists and "stats junkies," whose main entertainment feature for the average fan was the "peanuts and crackerjacks," and filled it with energy and life. He was the first to propose the idea of interleague play, fan-appreciation night, and much more.

"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." [3]

Although Veeck's ideas made marketing much easier for the remaining major league teams, including modern day major league baseball organizations, his use of a midget and his "Disco Demolition Promotion" were pure Veeck. However, his contributions were not limited to his famous and infamous promotions.

"Veeck wasn't just a promoter. His "firsts" included signing the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby, just a few months after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. He also signed Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro League pitcher, to hurl for both Milwaukee and Cleveland. Later, he and his wife, Mary Frances, were active in civil rights, even hosting movement leaders at their Maryland home during marches in Washington, D.C."[4]

Ultimately, Bill Veeck was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, forever engraving his legacy in baseball lore.

Books by Veeck

Veeck wrote three autobiographical works, each a collaboration with journalist Ed Linn:

  • Veeck As In Wreck - a straightforward autobiography
  • The Hustler's Handbook - divulging his experience in operating as an outsider in major leagues
  • Thirty Tons A Day - chronicling the time he spent running Suffolk Downs racetrack. The title refers to the quantity of horse excrement that had to be disposed of.

Notes

  1. Bill Veeck with Ed Linn. Veeck - as in Wreck. (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962), 171
  2. David M. Jordan, Larry R. Gerlach, and John P. Rossi. A Baseball Myth Explodedwww.sabr. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  3. anonymous blog Bill Veeck, Baseball Genius Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  4. Mike Brewster Bill Veeck: A Baseball Mastermind. October 27, 2004, Businessweek.Retrieved November 24, 2007.

References

  • Eskenazi, Gerald. Bill Veeck: a baseball legend. New York: McGraw-Hill, Copyright 1988. ISBN 9780070195998
  • Veeck, Bill, Veeck—as in wreck; the autobiography of Bill Veeck with Ed Linn. New York, Putnam. Copyright 1962. OCLC: 486617
  • Williams, Pat and Weinreb, Michael. Marketing your dreams: business and life lessons from Bill Veeck, baseball's marketing genius. Champaign, IL: Sports Pub. Copyright 2000. ISBN 9781582611822
  • Baseball Library Retrieved November 23, 2007
  • Veeck the Businessman Retrieved November 23, 2007
  • Tootle, Jim. "Bill Veeck and James Thurber: the literary origins of the midget pinch hitter." Nine 10.2 (Spring 2002): 110(11). General OneFile. Gale. BUENA PARK LIBRARY DISTRICT. 23 Nov. 2007. ISSN 1188-9330
  • Bill Veeck in His Own Words Retrieved November 23, 2007
  • Bill Veeck Legacy November 23, 2007

External links

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