Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bill Veeck, by Paul Dickson

Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, by Paul Dickson

Before our current world of billionaire team owners, Bill Veeck owned several different baseball teams, including the White Sox two different times. I do enjoy baseball, but am a bit embarrassed to admit I didn't know who Bill Veeck was. After reading this excellent biography, it turns out I may not have known his name but was well aware of his legacy.

Veeck was famous for being a relentless promoter, always looking for a unique innovation or publicity stunt to attract new fans to baseball. He was one of the first owners to broadcast games on the radio, installed the first "exploding scoreboard" in the country, and started the trend of putting names on the backs of jerseys. He fought in WWII (losing his leg in combat) and there saw black and white men working together; from then on he became a stout proponent for integration making him very unpopular with his fellow owners. In 1942 he attempted to purchase the Phillies with the intent of stocking the roster with the very best of the Negro League players, but was thwarted by then Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Landis. Veeck did eventually help pioneer integration, signing Larry Doby as the first African-American in the American League and the second in baseball after Jackie Robinson. Sadly, despite all the good things he did for baseball, Veeck is better known for his outlandish stunts.

One of my favorite baseball stories has always been about the time a little person was called to the plate in a major league game. Turns out this not only is true, but Bill Veeck was the mastermind behind it. Eddie Gaedel was less than four feet tall, but Veeck signed him to play in 1951 for the St. Louis Browns wearing number ⅛. When Eddie walked to the plate the opposing Tigers objected, but with a valid contract the umpire allowed the batter. With a strike zone of maybe two inches Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches and was immediately replaced with a pinch runner. The next day the American League President voided the contract and banned "midget" players from the sport, but the previous game was deemed official and history was made.

Another less humorous promotion was Disco Demolition Night in 1979. The idea was that people would bring disco albums into the stadium and they'd be destroyed between games of a double header. Unfortunately it didn't go quite as planned as may if not most of the overflow crowd were not actually baseball fans but anti-disco rockers and the event devolved into a riot. "It was an incredible scene. There were bonfires of burning records on the streets, and records thrown Frisbee-style into the air were slicing down. ... All hell then broke loose. Anti-disco forces stormed the field and refused to leave. They ran the bases and then stole them all, including home plate. The batting cage was pulled loose and destroyed, along with other field equipment. People from the upper deck slid down the foul pole to get onto the field." Hard to imagine Jerry Reinsdorf or corporate-sponsored MLB allowing that today.

Veeck truly loved baseball; hanging out in the Wrigley Field bleachers singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" he was once quoted as saying, "This is the epitome of pleasure." A love of the sport didn't make him the success he became though; he had a set of twelve commandments that guided his professional and personal life. The first two in particular hit home with me: "1. Take your work very seriously. Go for broke and give it your all. 2. Never ever take yourself seriously." I haven't taken the time to codify my beliefs, but if I did I'd like to think these tenets would be found at their core.

First Sentence:
The first Bill Veeck—William L. Veeck Sr.—was born in Boonville, Indiana, a small village near Evansville, on January 20, 1876, the son of Dutch parents.

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