Veeck…as in wreck
A self-proclaimed hustler, Bill Veeck was the greatest public relations man and promotional genius the game of baseball has ever seen. Over the course of a fifty-year love affair with baseball, Bill would establish himself as the game’s most incorrigible maverick. He owned four baseball teams and brought increased attendance and big victories to almost all of them. Known for his outrageous stunts, Bill could always be found scurrying around the ballpark on his wooden leg willing to listen to any fan that wanted to talk to him.
Bill Veeck, Jr. was born on February 9, 1914 in Chicago. He was named after his father, a sportswriter who was eventually made president of the Chicago Cubs after writing a column detailing what he would do if he ran the team. By the time he was 11 years old, Bill Jr. was selling peanuts and hot dogs at Wrigley Field and later on in life was fond of saying that he was "the only human being ever raised in a ballpark." When he was fifteen, Bill graduated to carousing the local speakeasies making sure Hack Wilson and other Cubs didn’t get too drunk to play the next day.
During the school year, Bill attended the prestigious Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, one of the most expensive private schools in the country. A regular kid who grew up in the streets and back alleys of Chicago, he didn’t get along well with his classmates, “not because they were wealthy, but because they felt that out of some divine ordering of the universe they had been created from finer clay.” Bill was eventually kicked out of school due to numerous fights he had started, but he still did well on enough entrance exams to make it into Kenyon College. Just before his sophomore year began, Bill’s father died of leukemia and he had to quit school to support the rest of the family.
Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley gave Bill a series of jobs where he was able to learn almost every aspect of running a baseball organization. He ran the commissary, worked with the ushers, worked the ticket windows, was in charge of park maintenance when the field was being rebuilt, and was the club treasurer and assistant secretary. Because the Cubs as a baseball team stunk, Bill worked with Phil Wrigley to sell “a fun night at the ol’ ballpark” as the main draw of going to a Cubs game. A wonderful day at “beautiful Wrigley Field” was the reason to go out. As a means to help achieve this, Bill was the one who planted ivy along the outfield walls in 1939. He also bought the unique scoreboard that is still used today, staying up all night to help assemble it in time because the original contractor had run out on them. This campaign worked so well that it is still the main selling point that the Cubs use today.
Bill soon itched to run a team of his own. The minor-league Milwaukee Brewers had fallen into bankruptcy in the middle of the season and the bank was willing to sell the team to Bill for $25,000. Through a series of personal favors and outright lying to loan officers, Bill managed to scrape together enough money to buy the team. He was twenty-eight years old, with a wife and two kids, and had literally $1 to his name. But he owned his own baseball team. What more could any man ask?
The most beautiful thing in the world is a ballpark filled with people.
Bill bought a baseball team that was 19-43 and had 22 fans in the ramshackle old stadium for his first game. He somehow managed to secure another loan for $50,000 and used the money to clean up and refurbish the stadium during an off weekend. The flurry of activity at the formerly moribund ballpark, combined with several newspaper articles planted by Bill himself, resulted in an attendance of 4,800 at his second game.
Milwaukee was where Bill first started his series of wacky gimmicks and give-aways that would typify the rest of his life. He gave away horses, squab, live lobsters, ladders, a 200-lb. cake, anything weird or crazy that would draw attention. Something huge or squirmy would always be given out just before the game began, forcing the poor “winner” to wrestle and try to deal with his newfound bounty for the rest of the game, much to the delight of the rest of the crowd. Since there were many fans that worked the overnight shift in the wartime factories, Bill scheduled several “Rosie the Riveter” morning games for all the night-shift workers. All women wearing welding masks were admitted free and the concession stands served everybody breakfast.
We were all one big family. During the games I wandered around, second–guessing our manager’s strategy with the fans and inciting them against the umpires. “Look at that bum!” I’d yell. “Can you imagine anyone calling one like that against us?” Moving around the way I did, I could have the whole park ready to march by the time the game was over. Many a time in Milwaukee I had to escort the umpires off the field to keep them from being bombarded with bottles. “I don’t know,” I’d tell them, shaking my head sadly. “You’d better call them better next time or I won’t help you get off.”
Bill left his team in 1944 to go fight in WWII. He returned at the end of 1945, leaving his left leg behind on the Pacific island of Bougainville. He also returned to a marriage that was falling apart, it was obvious that baseball was his only lady and his wife gave him the ultimatum to either sell the team or get a divorce. He sold the team for a profit of $275,000 and moved with his family to Arizona.
The Arizona trip and Bill’s marriage were not to be and he used his personal connections, affable demeanor, and ability to outright bullshit loan officers, to put together a syndicate that bought the Cleveland Indians for $2.2 million in 1946. Bill bought the team midway through the season and they had only drawn 289,000 people. In Bill’s half they drew 763,289. In 1947 attendance hit 1.5 million; a year later they drew an AL-record 2,620,627 while winning Cleveland its first pennant and world championship since 1920. In 1947 he hired Larry Doby, the American League’s first black player, and a year later bought 42-year-old Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige, making him the oldest rookie ever to play professional baseball.
Bill loved special nights for certain groups of people, anything that could get extra crowds to the ballpark. One time, a man named Joe Early wrote a letter to the local newspaper complaining about how Bill had honored every possible group except “the average Joe.” A few weeks later the Cleveland Indians held “Joe Early Night” and Joe was given several fabulous prizes.
I have never operated on the theory that a city owes anything to the owner of a baseball franchise out of civic pride, patriotic fervor, or compelling national interest. Baseball has sold itself as a civic monument for so long that it has come to believe its own propaganda. There is nothing owed to you.
After turning around Cleveland, Bill sold the team for a massive profit and bought the St. Louis Browns (possibly the worst team in baseball history) in 1951. Bill literally moved into the ballpark and could be found there day or night. He took the door off of his office and invited anyone with a gripe to come talk to him personally.
You call the ballpark and ask for Bill Veeck and the switchboard operator isn’t going to ask who you are or what you want; the next voice you hear is going to be mine.
While running the Browns, not only did Bill send 3’ 7" midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate for his single career at bat, but perhaps even more daring was staging "Grandstand Managers’ Day," in which the fans actually managed the team. Everyone in the park was given large placards marked with a green "YES" on one side and a red "NO" on the other. The team manager would hold up a card asking whether the team should bunt, steal a base, change pitchers, etc. St. Louis won the game 5-3.
Bill couldn’t get the team to work in St. Louis, where they were dominated by the Cardinals, so he tried to move the team to Baltimore. This move was blocked by the other baseball owners. Reasons given for the turndown were too many debts, not enough money, and too little time before the season was to open. He had failed to confer with the president of the International League over the Baltimore territory and had not contacted Washington and Philadelphia officials personally. Bill said, "I am the victim of duplicity by a lot of lying so-and-sos. Every reason they give for voting me down is either silly or malicious, and I prefer to think they were malicious.” Bill was forced to sell the team and the Browns were moved to Baltimore a year later.
Out of baseball, he tried to buy Ringling Brothers circus, researched the Pacific coast for major league possibilities for Phil Wrigley, publicized a passenger ship in Cleveland, worked for ABC sports and NBC’s game of the week, tried to buy the Tigers in 1957, and went after an NBA franchise for Cleveland. He was back in the game in 1959, heading a group that bought the Chicago White Sox. Under his tutelage the team won their first pennant in 40 years and drew a club-record 1,423,000. In 1960 he unveiled the exploding scoreboard and drew 1,644,460 for a club record that still stands. It was also this time that Bill’s health began to decline and his doctors told him to sell the team and he retired to Maryland.
Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off.
Bill bought the White Sox again in 1975 and set up a table in the hotel lobby at the winter owners meetings with a sign saying "Open for Business." He declared that his team would “operate in the open like honest men” and put together seven major trades in two days in front of a crowd of spectators. Milwaukee owner Bud Selig called it a "meat market" and a "disgrace." It was during this stint with the Sox that Bill held the infamous Disco Demolition Night.
Unable to deal with baseball’s newly inflated free agent economy, Bill was forced to sell the Sox in 1980. His health quickly declined and he was stricken with lung cancer. In his final years Bill returned to his favored Chicago Cubs and could often be found sitting, without a shirt, in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, where baseball remained a game played only under the sunlight. Although he carried a lifetime pass in his wallet to any ballpark in the major leagues, he preferred to pay his own way. "I pay for my tickets so I can complain," he remarked.
Bill died of an embolism in his lung on January 2, 1986. It seemed appropriate that a lone trumpeter opened his funeral services by playing Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man."
Bill Veeck was a man that had two great loves in his life: baseball and bringing fun to all people. He used what talents he had to combine his two loves and to live out his dreams. He took delight in deflating the pompous and those that took life too seriously. He didn’t care whether you were rich or poor, black or white, Muslim, Christian or Jew. All he wanted was for you to sit back with him, drink a beer, and laugh.
In the end, Bill’s plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame sums it up the best.
OWNER OF INDIANS, BROWNS AND WHITE SOX.
CREATED HEIGHTENED FAN INTEREST AT EVERY STOP
WITH INGENIOUS PROMOTIONAL SCHEMES, FAN
PARTICIPATION, EXPLODING SCOREBOARD, OUTRAGEOUS
DOOR PRIZES, NAMES ON UNIFORMS. SET M.L.
ATTENDANCE RECORD WITH PENNANT-WINNER AT
CLEVELAND IN 1948; WON AGAIN WITH 'GO-GO'
SOX IN 1959. SIGNED A.L.'S FIRST BLACK PLAYER,
LARRY DOBY IN 1947 AND OLDEST ROOKIE, 42 YEAR
OLD SATCHEL PAIGE IN 1948
A CHAMPION OF THE LITTLE GUY.
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