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Bill Veeck

Bill Veeck

William Louis Veeck Jr. (/ˈvɛk/; February 9, 1914 – January 2, 1986), also known as "Sport Shirt",[1] was an American Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter. Veeck was at various times the owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox. As owner and team president of the Indians in 1947, Veeck signed Larry Doby, thus beginning the integration of the American League, and the following year won a World Series title as Cleveland's owner/president.

Veeck was the last owner to purchase a baseball franchise without an independent fortune, and is responsible for many innovations and contributions to baseball.[2]

Unable to compete in the new era of salary escalation ignited by arbitration and free agency, Veeck sold his ownership interests after the 1980 Chicago White Sox season. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Bill Veeck
Principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox
Born:(1914-02-09)February 9, 1914
Chicago, Illinois
Died: January 2, 1986(1986-01-02)(aged 71)
Illinois Masonic Medical Center, Chicago, U.S.
Career highlights and awards
  • 1948 World Series champion
Member of the National
Empty Star.svgEmpty Star.svgEmpty Star.svgBaseball Hall of FameEmpty Star.svgEmpty Star.svgEmpty Star.svg

Early life

Bill Veeck was born on February 9, 1914, in Chicago, Illinois. While Veeck was growing up in Hinsdale, Illinois, his father, William Veeck Sr., became president of the Chicago Cubs. Veeck Sr. was a local sports writer who wrote numerous columns about how he would run the Cubs differently, and the team's owner, William Wrigley Jr., took him up on the implied offer. While growing up, the younger Veeck worked as a popcorn vendor for the Cubs and also as a part-time concession salesman for the crosstown Chicago White Sox. Later, in 1937, he came up with the idea of planting ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field.[3] 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 1935, he married his first wife, Eleanor.[4]

Franchise owner

Minor League Baseball

Milwaukee Brewers

In 1940, Veeck left Chicago and, in a syndicate with former Cubs star and manager Charlie Grimm, purchased the American Association Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers. After winning three pennants in five years Veeck sold his Milwaukee franchise in 1945 for a $275,000 profit.[5]

According to his autobiography Veeck – As in Wreck, Veeck 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, but Veeck then 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, extensive research by two members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) suggests that this story was made up by Veeck. The two researchers could not find any references to a moveable fence or any reference to the gear required for a moveable fence to work.[6]

While a co-owner of the Brewers, Veeck served for nearly three years in the United States Marine Corps during World War II in an artillery unit. During this time a recoiling artillery piece crushed his right leg, requiring amputation first of the foot, and shortly after of the leg above the knee. Over the course of his life he had 36 operations on the leg.[2] He had a series of wooden legs and, as an inveterate smoker, cut holes in them to use as an ashtray.

Major League Baseball

Philadelphia Phillies

Veeck had been a fan of the Negro Leagues since his early teens. He had also admired Abe Saperstein's Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, which was based in Chicago. Saperstein saved Veeck from financial disaster early on in Milwaukee by giving him the right to promote the Globetrotters in the upper Midwest in the winter of 1941–42.

In the fall of 1942, Veeck met with Gerry Nugent, president of the Philadelphia Phillies, to discuss the possibility of buying the struggling National League team. He later wrote in his memoirs that he intended to buy the Phillies and stock the team's roster with stars from the Negro Leagues. Although no formal rules barred African-American players from the majors, none had appeared in organized baseball since the 1890s.

Veeck quickly secured financing to buy the Phillies, and agreed in principle to buy the team from Nugent. While on his way to Philadelphia to close on the purchase, Veeck decided to alert MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his intentions.

Although Veeck knew Landis was an ardent segregationist, he did not believe Landis would dare say black players were unwelcome while blacks were fighting in World War II. However, when Veeck arrived in Philadelphia, he was surprised to discover that the National League had taken over the Phillies and was seeking a new owner (the Phillies were ultimately sold to lumber baron William D. Cox).

The authors of a controversial article in the 1998 issue of SABR's The National Pastime argued that Veeck invented the story of buying the Phillies and filling their roster with Negro leaguers, claiming Philadelphia's black press made no mention of a prospective sale to Veeck.

Subsequently, the article was strongly challenged by historian Jules Tygiel, who refuted it point-by-point in an article in the 2006 issue of SABR's The Baseball Research Journal,[7] and in an appendix, entitled "Did Bill Veeck Lie About His Plan to Purchase the '43 Phillies?", published in Paul Dickson's biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick.[8] Joseph Thomas Moore wrote in his biography of Larry Doby, "Bill Veeck planned to buy the Philadelphia Phillies with the as yet unannounced intention of breaking that color line."[9]

Cleveland Indians

In 1946, Veeck became the owner of a major league team, the Cleveland Indians. He immediately put the team's games on radio. He also moved the team to Cleveland Municipal Stadium permanently in 1947. The team had split their games between the larger Municipal Stadium and the smaller League Park since the 1930s, but Veeck concluded that League Park was far too small and deteriorated to be viable.[10]

In July of that year he signed Larry Doby, the first black player to play in the American League.[11] Doby's first game was on July 5 and before the game, Doby was introduced to his teammates by player-manager Lou Boudreau. "One by one, Lou introduced me to each player. 'This is Joe Gordon,' and Gordon put his hand out. 'This is Bob Lemon,' and Lemon put his hand out. 'This is Jim Hegan,' and Hegan put his hand out. All the guys put their hand out, all but three. As soon as he could, Bill Veeck got rid of those three", Doby said.[12] The following year Veeck signed Satchel Paige to a contract, making the hurler the oldest rookie in major league history.[13][14]

To take advantage of the large size of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Veeck had a portable center field fence installed in 1947, which he could move in or out depending on how the distance favored the Indians against their opponents in a given series.[15] The fence moved as much as 15 feet (5 m) between series opponents. Following the 1947 season, the American League countered with a rule change that fixed the distance of an outfield wall for the duration of a season.

As in Milwaukee, Veeck took a unique approach to promotions, hiring 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.[16] Although Veeck had become extremely popular, an attempt in 1947 to trade Boudreau to the St. Louis Browns led to mass protests and petitions supporting Boudreau. Veeck, in response, said he would listen to the fans, and re-signed Boudreau to a new two-year contract.[17]

By 1948, led by Boudreau's .355 batting average, Cleveland won its first pennant and World Series since 1920.[18] Famously, the following season 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, so he was forced to sell the team to fund the divorce settlement.[19] One year later, Veeck married his second wife Mary Frances Ackerman in 1950. He had met her the previous year while in Cleveland.[20]

St. Louis Browns

After marrying Mary Frances Ackerman, Veeck bought an 80% stake in the St. Louis Browns in 1951.[21] Hoping to force the NL's St. Louis Cardinals out of town, Veeck hired 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.[2] Ironically the Cardinals had been the Browns' tenants since 1920, even though they had long since passed the Browns as St. Louis' favorite team. Nonetheless, Veeck made a concerted effort to drive the Cardinals out of town.

Some of Veeck's most memorable publicity stunts occurred during his tenure with the Browns, including the appearance on August 19, 1951, by Eddie Gaedel, who stood 3 feet 7 inches (1.09 m) tall and is the shortest person to appear in a Major League Baseball game. Veeck sent Gaedel to pinch hit in the bottom of the first of the game. Wearing "1/8" as his uniform number, Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches and then was pulled for a pinch runner.[22]

Shortly afterwards "Grandstand Manager's Day" – involving Veeck, Connie Mack, and thousands of regular fans, enabled the crowd to vote on various in-game strategic decisions by holding up placards: the Browns won, 5–3, snapping a four-game losing streak.[23]

After the 1952 season, Veeck suggested that the American League clubs share radio and television revenue with visiting clubs, a proposal anathema to the powerful Yankees, whose broadcasting revenues dwarfed all the other AL franchises.

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, Cardinals owner Fred Saigh was convicted of tax evasion. Facing certain banishment from baseball, he was forced to put the Cardinals up for sale. Most of the bids came from out-of-town interests, and it appeared that Veeck would succeed in driving the Cardinals out of town.

However, just as Saigh was about to sell the Cardinals to interests who would have moved them to Houston, Texas, he instead accepted a much lower bid from St. Louis-based brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, who entered the picture with the specific intent of keeping the Cardinals in town.[24]

Veeck quickly realized that with Anheuser-Busch's wealth behind them, the Cardinals now had more financial resources than he could even begin to match, especially since he had no other source of income. Reluctantly, he decided to cede St. Louis to the Cardinals and move the Browns elsewhere. As a preliminary step, he sold Sportsman's Park to the Cardinals.[25]

At first Veeck considered moving the Browns back to Milwaukee (where they had played their inaugural season in 1901). Milwaukee used recently-built Milwaukee County Stadium in an attempt to entice the Browns.

However, the decision was in the hands of the Boston Braves, the parent team of the Brewers. Under major league rules of the time, the Braves held the major league rights to Milwaukee. The Braves wanted another team with the same talent if the Brewers were shut down, and an agreement was not made in time for the start of the 1953 season. Ironically, a few weeks later, the Braves themselves moved to Milwaukee.[26] St. Louis was known to want the team to stay, so some in St. Louis campaigned for the removal of Veeck.[27]

Undaunted, Veeck got in touch with a group that was looking to bring a Major League franchise to Baltimore, Maryland. After the 1953 season, Veeck agreed in principle to sell half his stock to Baltimore attorney Clarence Miles, the front man of the Baltimore group, and his other partners. He would have remained the principal owner, with approximately a 40% interest. Even though league president Will Harridge told him approval was certain, only four owners—two short of the necessary six for passage—supported it. Realizing the other owners simply wanted him out of the picture (indeed, he was facing threats of having his franchise canceled), Veeck agreed to sell his entire stake to Miles' group, who then moved the Browns to Baltimore, where they were renamed as the Orioles, which has been their name ever since.[28]

Chicago White Sox

Veeck being interviewed by Jim McKay for Wide World of Sports in 1964.

Veeck being interviewed by Jim McKay for Wide World of Sports in 1964.

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.[29][30] That year the White Sox broke a team attendance record for home games with 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, and also began adding players' 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.[2] The "exploding scoreboard" itself was carried over to the "new" Comiskey Park (now Guaranteed Rate Field) when it opened in 1991.

One year later in 1960, Veeck and former Detroit Tigers great Hank Greenberg, his partner with the Indians and White Sox, reportedly made a strong bid for the American League expansion franchise in Los Angeles. Greenberg would have been the principal owner, with Veeck as a minority partner.[31] However Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley was not willing to compete with a team owned by Veeck, even if he would only be a minority partner. When O'Malley heard of the deal, he invoked his exclusive franchise rights for Southern California. Any potential owner of an American League team in the area would have had to have O'Malley's blessing, and it was apparent that O'Malley would not allow any team to set up shop with Veeck as a major shareholder. Rather than try to persuade his friend to back out, Greenberg abandoned his bid for what became the Los Angeles Angels.[31]

In 1961, due to poor health, Veeck sold his share of the White Sox to John and Arthur Allyn for $2.5 million.[32] After selling the White Sox, Veeck spent a short time working as a television commentator for ABC.[33] Veeck then moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland with his family to convalesce.

When his health improved, Veeck made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Washington Senators, then operated the Suffolk Downs race track in Boston in 1969–70. Veeck was not heard from again in baseball ownership circles until 1975, when he repurchased the White Sox from John Allyn (sole owner since 1969).[2] Veeck's return rankled baseball's establishment, most owners viewing him as a pariah after exposing industry politics and maneuvering in his 1961 book Veeck As In Wreck. The owners were also unhappy with Veeck's extensive unfavorable discussion of the 1964 purchase of the New York Yankees by CBS in The Hustler's Handbook (a move Veeck felt exposed MLB to dangerous antitrust liabilities).

However, he was the only potential buyer willing to keep the White Sox in Chicago after an offer was made to buy the team and move it to Seattle, Washington. After an initial vote by AL owners rejected his White Sox bid, Veeck discussed a possible lawsuit; another vote was taken and Veeck was approved by one vote.

Almost immediately after reassuming control of the Sox, Veeck unleashed another publicity stunt. He and general manager Roland Hemond conducted four trades in a hotel lobby, in full view of the public; other owners considered this undignified. Two weeks later, however, arbitrator Peter Seitz's ruling struck down the reserve clause and ushered in the era of free agency, leading to dramatic increases in player salaries. Ironically Veeck had been the only baseball owner to testify in support of Curt Flood during his landmark court case, at which Flood had attempted to gain free agency after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.[2] Veeck had proposed a gradual transition to a free-agent system in which players would gain free agency rights after a certain amount of service time. The owners gambled that Seitz would rule in their favor and maintain the reserve clause; he did not.

On the field, 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.[2] In 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.[34] He also unveiled radically altered uniforms for the players, including clamdigger pants and even shorts, which the Sox wore for the first time against the Kansas City Royals on August 8, 1976.

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 in third place with additions like Oscar Gamble and Richie Zisk.[35]

During this last run, Veeck decided to have announcer Harry Caray sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Veeck asked Caray to sing for the entire park, but he refused. Veeck replied that he already had a recording, so Caray would be heard either way. Caray reluctantly agreed to sing it live, accompanied by White Sox organist Nancy Faust, and went on to become famous for singing the tune, continuing to do so at Wrigley Field after becoming the broadcaster of the Chicago Cubs.[36]

The 1979 season was filled with more promotions. On April 10 he offered fans free admission the day after a 10–2 Opening Day defeat by the Toronto Blue Jays. On July 12, Veeck, with assistance from son Mike and radio personality Steve Dahl, held one of his most infamous promotions, Disco Demolition Night, between games of a scheduled doubleheader, which resulted in a riot at Comiskey Park and a forfeit to the visiting Detroit Tigers.[37]

Life after baseball

Finding himself no longer able to financially compete in the free agent era, Veeck sold the White Sox in January 1981. Following the sale, new White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf made several negative references to Veeck's tenure with the team; in response, Veeck publicly transferred his allegiance back to the Chicago Cubs, the team his father had operated in his youth. Veeck retired to his home in Chicago but in summer could often be found in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Veeck also wrote occasional articles for magazines and newspapers, usually opining on the overall state of baseball.

Poor health/death

Veeck had been a heavy smoker and drinker until 1980. In 1984 Veeck underwent two operations for lung cancer.[5] Two years later, in 1986, he died at the age of 71 from cancer.[2] He was elected five years later to the Baseball Hall of Fame.[38]

When he died at age 71, he was survived by his wife, Mary Frances, and eight children. Two of his children, Peter and Ellen, were from his first marriage, and the others (Mike, Marya, Greg, Lisa, Julie and Chris) were from his second marriage.[39] Mike Veeck became owner of the independent minor-league St. Paul Saints and still is a partner in the team. The younger Veeck and co-owner actor Bill Murray emulated many of Bill Veeck's promotional stunts with the Saints.

Books by Veeck

Veeck wrote three autobiographical works, each a collaboration with journalist Ed Linn. The first two were reissued in updated editions in the 1980s following Veeck's return to ownership. The books include:

  • Veeck As In Wreck (1962) – a straightforward autobiography

  • The Hustler's Handbook (1965) – divulging his experiences in operating as an outsider in major leagues

  • Thirty Tons A Day (1972) – chronicling the time he spent running Suffolk Downs racetrack in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The title refers to the daily quantity of waste (horse excrement, used hay and straw, etc.) that had to be disposed of.

Awards and honors

  • 1948 World Series champion (as owner/president of the Cleveland Indians)

  • National Baseball Hall of Fame (class of 1991)

  • The Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals (class of 1999).[40]

See also

  • List of members of the Baseball Hall of Fame


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