About William Louis "Bill" Veeck, Jr.
William Louis Veeck, Jr. ( /ˈvɛk/; February 9, 1914 – January 2, 1986), also known as "Sport Shirt Bill", was a native of Chicago, Illinois, and a franchise owner and promoter in Major League Baseball. He was best known for his publicity stunts to raise attendance. Veeck was at various times the owner 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 innovations and contributions to baseball.
Finding it hard to financially compete, Veeck retired after the 1980 Chicago White Sox season. He died of cancer six years later as a result of years of smoking. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame five years later in 1991.
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 several columns about how he would have run the Cubs differently, and the team's owner, William Wrigley Jr., took him up on it. While growing up, Bill Veeck worked as a popcorn vendor for the Cubs. At age 13, Veeck came up with the idea of planting ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field. (Bill Veeck Jr. was 23 years old when the ivy was planted). 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.
In 1941, Veeck left Chicago and, in partnership with former Cubs star and manager Charlie Grimm, purchased the American Association Milwaukee Brewers. After winning three pennants in five years Veeck sold his Milwaukee franchise in 1945 for a $275,000 profit.
According to his 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, 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 in all likelihood this story was made up by Veeck. Extensive research by two members of the Society for American Baseball Research has revealed no reference to a moveable fence or any reference to the gear required for a moveable fence to work.
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 shortly after of the leg above the knee. Over the course of his life he had 36 operations on the leg. He had a series of wooden legs and, as an inveterate smoker, cut holes in them to use as an ashtray.
Major League Baseball
Veeck's first attempt to own a Major League franchise was the Philadelphia Phillies. According to Veeck's memoirs, in 1942, before entering the military, he acquired backing to purchase the financially strapped Phillies. When Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis got wind of Veeck's plans to stock the Phillies with Negro League stars, Landis allegedly vetoed the sale and arranged for the National League to take over the team. Although this story has long been part of accepted baseball lore, it is arguably false based on sources of the time. Notably, Philadelphia's black press never mentioned a possible Veeck purchase.
In 1946, Veeck became the owner of a major league team, the Cleveland Indians. He immediately put the team's games on radio. The Indians moved to Cleveland Municipal Stadium permanently in 1947.
That year he signed Larry Doby as the first black player in the American League. The following year later Veeck signed Satchel Paige to a contract, making the hurler the oldest rookie in major league history.
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.
Although Veeck had become extremely popular, an attempt in 1947 to trade player-manager Lou 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.
By 1948, led by Boudreau's .355 batting average, Cleveland won its first pennant and World Series since 1920. 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. One year later, Veeck married his second wife Mary Frances Ackerman in 1950. He had met her the previous year while in Cleveland.
St. Louis Browns
After marrying Mary Frances Ackerman, Veeck bought an 80 percent stake in the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Hoping to force the 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. 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 midget Eddie Gaedel. Veeck sent Gaedel to pinch hit in the bottom of the first of the game. Wearing elf like shoes and a 1/8 as his uniform, Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches and then was pulled for a pinch runner. 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.
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 St. Louis Cardinal 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 Saigh 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. Veeck quickly realized that the Cardinals now had more resources than he could possibly hope to match. Reluctantly, he decided to leave St. Louis and find another place to play. As a preliminary step, he sold Sportsman's Park to the Cardinals. Veeck would have probably had to sell it in any event; the 44-year old park was in a poor state of repair, and even with the rent from the Cardinals he didn't have the money to bring it up to code.
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. For the Browns to move, the minor league Brewers would be shut down. The Braves wanted another team with the same talent, and an agreement was not made in time for opening day. Ironically, a few weeks later, the Braves themselves moved to Milwaukee. St. Louis was known to want the team to stay, some campaigning for the removal of Veeck. He then got in touch with a group that was looking to bring a Major League franchise to Baltimore. After the 1953 season, Veeck agreed in principle to sell half his stock to Baltimore attorney Clarence Miles, the leader of the Baltimore group, and his other partners. He would have remained the principal owner, with approximately a 40 percent 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 that 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 as 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. 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 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. He also installed an electric blower to blow the dirt off home plate, and a mechanical box with fresh baseballs that would rise from underground. Both were operated by the umpire with foot switches.
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, California, with Veeck as a minority partner. 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 brought it to a halt by invoking his exclusive right to operate a major league team in Southern California. 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).
In 1961, due to poor health, Veeck sold his share of the team for about $2.5 million. After selling the White Sox, Veeck spent a short time working as a television commentator. 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 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. 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.
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, arbitrator Peter Seitz's ruling struck down the reserve clause and ushered in the era of free agency. Veeck's power as an owner began to wane relative to richer owners. Ironically Veeck had been the only baseball owner to testify in support of Curt Flood during his famous court case, at which 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. 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. 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 with additions 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. Veeck asked Caray to sing for the entire park, and he refused. Veeck replied that he already had a recording, and he would be heard either way. Caray reluctantly agreed to sing it live, and went on to become famous for singing the tune.
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 host Steve Dahl, held one of his most infamous promotion nights, Disco Demolition Night, which resulted in a riot at Comiskey Park and a forfeit to the visiting Tigers.
Life after baseball
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.
Although he never owned the Cubs, Veeck spent his last years as a frequent visitor of Wrigley Field, becoming a fan of the team he grew up with. Veeck had been a heavy smoker and drinker until 1980. Weak from emphysema and having had a cancerous lung removed in 1984, Veeck died of a pulmonary embolism at age 71. He was elected five years later to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When he died Veeck was survived by eight children. From his first marriage he had two children, Peter and Ellen. With his second wife, Mary Frances, he fathered six more children.
Books by Veeck
Veeck wrote three autobiographical works, each a collaboration with journalist Ed Linn:
Veeck As In Wreck (1962) – a straightforward autobiography
The Hustler's Handbook (1965) – divulging his experience 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 horse excrement that had to be disposed of.