Ron Briley: Review of Paul Dickson's "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick" (Walker & Company, 2012)
Ron Briley is a regular book review for HNN
Major League Baseball (MLB) owners are not usually the subject of laudatory and sympathetic biographical treatment. After all, the so-called “Lords of Baseball” maintained a rigid color line until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947. Despite MLB’s celebration of its racial pioneering, the pace of the sport’s desegregation was slow. At the time of Robinson’s retirement following the 1956 season, the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers had found no “qualified” black athletes for their rosters. The intransigence of ownership in defending baseball’s reserve clause and maintaining control over the players led to the labor stoppages of the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. To rekindle interest in the sport, owners looked “the other way” as rampant steroids use inflated home run production and attendance figures. MLB has apparently survived the steroids era and regained a degree of stability, although the sport fails to generate the excitement of professional football and basketball. This is a sorry record, and baseball owners are not usually perceived as heroic figures by the fan base.
There is, however, a significant exception to this observation. From 1946 to 1980, baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck owned four Major League franchises -- Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox (twice). Veeck earned a well-deserved reputation as a baseball maverick for his championing of baseball integration, criticism of his follow owners, and his promotions to elicit fan interest in his teams.
Although Veeck produced three autobiographical works with free-lance writer Ed Linn, most notably Veeck As In Wreck (1962), he is now the subject of a well-researched and written biography by Paul Dickson, the author of over forty books, including histories of American reactions to Sputnik in the 1950s and the Bonus Army in the 1930s as well as such baseball volumes as The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (third edition, 2009) and Baseball Is . . . Defining the National Pastime (2011). Drawing upon the voluminous journalistic accounts regarding Veeck’s life and career (and Veeck was always good for a controversial quote) as well as extensive interviews with the baseball executive’s family and friends, Dickson portrays Veeck as an iconoclast who loved baseball but was willing to challenge the conventional wisdoms of the sport. Dismissing simplistic notions of Veeck as a hero or clown, Dickson asserts that his goal is to present Veeck as “a remarkable iconoclast and individualist living through a time when conformity and corporate allegiance were valued personal attributes.” Nevertheless, Veeck, rather than the cultural context, remains the focal point for Dickson’s narrative, and the author’s depiction of Veeck is essentially heroic -- a perspective with which Veeck’s legion of fans will have no problem.
Veeck was born February, 9, 1914 in Chicago. His father was a sports writer who became president of the Chicago Cubs. Bill Veeck followed his father into the family business, eventually becoming treasurer for the Cubs. In 1941, with his father deceased and his relationship with Cubs owner Phil Wrigley deteriorating, Veeck purchased the Milwaukee Brewers of the minor-league American Association (the current Milwaukee Brewers are an unrelated franchise). Whether operating in the major or minor leagues, Veeck’s philosophy, according to Dickson, was simplistic but effective: “create a good team and make sure the fans left the ballpark happy.” Under Veeck’s guidance, the Brewers became a dominant team on and off the field, with fan interest promoted by radio broadcasts, ladies’ days, and prizes ranging from appliances to farm animals. Veeck, however, had to do much of his promotion from afar as in 1943, at the age of twenty-nine, Veeck volunteered to join the Marines as a private, rejecting offers of a military commission.
During his service in the South Pacific with an artillery unit, Veeck crushed his left leg, exacerbating an injury he received while playing football at Kenyon College. After returning to the United States, Veeck’s leg was amputated above the knee. For the remainder of his life, Veeck was in constant pain and had numerous operations on his leg. Nevertheless, he made light of this situation, employing his wooden leg as an ashtray. Dickson’s description of Veeck as heroic for the way in which he handled this disability is hard to argue with.
More controversial is Veeck’s assertion that following the 1942 season, he planned to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the team’s war-depleted roster with players from the Negro Leagues, thus shattering baseball’s racial apartheid. According to Veeck, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis thwarted this effort at desegregation by arranging for the Phillies to be purchased by William Cox. Some baseball scholars suggest that Veeck invented the story to increase interest in his 1962 memoir. Dickson, however, has located several references to Veeck’s plan for the Phillies in African American newspapers during the 1940s. What is missing is the archival evidence regarding Veeck’s plans and the scheming of Landis. Oral histories and journalistic accounts abound for Veeck’s life, but the archival record remains rather scarce.
Veeck’s endeavors to join the major leagues, however, were soon realized. After selling the Brewers, Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946. Following the pattern he established in Milwaukee, Veeck made the Indians a contender and attracted large crowds to massive Municipal Stadium. Veeck employed promotions such as baseball clown Max Patkin and honoring a man named Joe Early representing the typical Indian fan. He also improved the Indians by integrating the American League in 1947 with Larry Doby, adding the legendary Satchel Paige the following season. Although the signing of Paige was dismissed by Veeck’s critics as a promotional scheme, the forty-two year old rookie helped pitch the Indians to the American League pennant and victory in the World Series. Veeck also took great pride in drawing over 1.5 million fans and smashing the attendance record of the New York Yankees. But this joy proved to be short-lived as Veeck, in financial stress due to a divorce, sold the Indians following the 1949 season. Although Veeck found personal happiness in a second marriage with Mary Francis Ackerman and the six children produced by this union, Veeck’s virtual abandonment of his first wife, Eleanor Raymond and their two children, as Dickson acknowledges, was not one of Veeck’s heroic moments.
He returned to baseball in 1951, purchasing the perennial cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns. Perhaps Veeck’s tenure with the Browns is best known for his use of three-foot-seven-inch Eddie Gaedel as a pinch hitter. Veeck was castigated for bringing a carnival atmosphere to the ballpark, and the use of “midget” players was banned. Dickson argues that the inspiration for the Gaedel appearance was the legendary John McGraw, a family friend, and a short story by James Thurber, with which the well-read Veeck would have been familiar. Despite such antics, Veeck was unable to compete with the rival St. Louis Cardinals, and he attempted to move the club to Baltimore. The other American League owners, however, blocked the transfer until Veeck sold the team. Veeck had certainly antagonized other teams, especially the New York Yankees, with his off-beat promotions and criticism of the baseball establishment. Dickson also believes that resentment over Veeck’s integration of the American League played a pivotal role in this rejection of his efforts to relocate the Browns franchise. In 1955 and 1956, Veeck ran the minor-league Miami Marlins, signing his old friend Paige who continued to pitch effectively for Veeck.
Tiring of life in the minor leagues, Veeck headed a group that purchased the Chicago White Sox in 1959. Under Veeck’s leadership, the Chicago franchise won its first American League pennant since the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, although the Sox did lose the 1959 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The White Sox did not repeat as league champions in 1960, but with Veeck’s new exploding scoreboard lighting up after every Sox home run, attendance increased from 1.4 million to 1.6 million fans. Poor health, however, forced Veeck to sell the White Sox in 1961.
Regaining his health, Veeck moved his family to Boston, where he operated the Suffolk Downs. Efforts by Veeck to purchase the Washington Senators were negated by the baseball establishment, but in 1975 his return to the White Sox was authorized if he kept the club in Chicago. Dickson notes the irony that when out of baseball Veeck had testified on behalf of Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause, but when he returned to the game and the clause was overturned by an arbiter’s decision, Veeck was unable to financially compete with owners such as the Yankees George Steinbrenner for expensive free agents. After finishing the 1977 season with ninety wins, the Sox lost players such as Oscar Gamble and Richie Zisk to free agency, and the team slumped badly. Veeck again tried to create fan interest with promotions such as having the White Sox play in shorts. But the July 12, 1979 Disco Demolition Night -- which ended with a number of drunk and stoned fans rushing the field -- was a disaster and resulted in the White Sox forfeiting a game to Detroit. Although his son Mike took the blame for the promotion gone bad, Dickson writes that the disco demolition “seemed emblematic of all that was wrong in the country and in baseball at the end of the 1970s, and it demonstrated that the game -- and the times -- had passed Veeck by.”
In 1980, Veeck sold the White Sox and spent many of his last years in the bleachers at Wrigley Field before expiring from cancer in 1984. Dickson describes Veeck as a liberal who was committed to baseball integration, forming lifetime friendships with Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. Veeck refused to wear a necktie and prided himself on being informal. He was also a heavy drinker and smoker who seemed to thrive with little rest. Dickson also asserts that Veeck was an intellectual who was constantly reading -- although a little like Sarah Palin with Katie Couric, Dickson fails to provide the titles which Veeck was pouring through. In the final analysis, Veeck was a hero to many in baseball because he challenged the baseball establishment and owners who had almost ruined the game. He brought fun to the ballpark, and Veeck delighted Yankee haters by tweaking “the evil empire” in the Bronx. Dickson’s biography reminds one why Veeck was so endearing to many baseball fans and makes one root for release of the projected Veeck biopic with Bill Murray in the title role (who, incidentally, is co-owner of the minor-league St. Paul Saints, along with Veeck's son Mike).
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