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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
"Bill Veeck was born on the right side of the tracks. And as soon as he was capable, dragged himself to the other side," says Mike Veeck with a laugh about his father, the maverick Hall of Fame baseball owner, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Just as he predicted, Bill Veeck, for all his accomplishments, is best remembered as the guy who sent a midget to the plate. And yet, Eddie Gaedel's lone major league appearance, while the most famous of Veeck's stunts, may not even have been his most bizarre. And it hardly ranks among his significant contributions to the game.
Far more important were his innovations in the financial operations of his various franchises -- almost all of them initially deplored by other owners. In stints with the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox (twice) between 1946 and 1980, Veeck was the last person to purchase a major league team without an independent fortune.
Born on Feb. 9, 1914, in Chicago, Veeck grew up in the suburb of Hinsdale. When Bill was four, his father, sportswriter William Veeck Sr., became president of the Chicago Cubs. By the time he was 11, Bill was working as a vendor, ticket seller and junior groundskeeper. When his father died in 1933, Veeck left Kenyon College to work for the Cubs, rising to club treasurer. In 1935, he married Eleanore Raymond.
He left Chicago in 1941 when he bought the financially-troubled American Association Milwaukee franchise in partnership with Charlie Grimm. Arriving in Milwaukee with $11 in his pocket, Veeck turned his promotional genius loose. He gave away live animals and birds and a 200-pound block of ice, scheduled morning games for night-shift workers, staged weddings at home plate and presented manager Grimm with a birthday cake out of which popped a much needed southpaw pitcher.
After Milwaukee won three pennants in five years, Veeck sold the franchise for a $275,000 profit in 1945.
While still a half-owner of the Brewers, Veeck spent almost three years in the Marines during World War II. An accident cost him his right foot and, even after 36 operations over the rest of his life, his leg as well.
Before entering the military, Veeck secured backing to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942. His revolutionary plan was to stock the club with Negro League stars. His mistake was revealing his plans to Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, who rejected the idea.
When the "Sport Shirt," as he came to be known for his favorite attire, finally reached the majors - with the Indians in 1946 - he did it with a creative bit of financing. He used a debenture-common stock group that made remuneration to the partners non-taxable loan payments rather than taxable income.
He broke new ground of a different sort by signing Larry Doby in 1947 to be the first African-American player in the American League and 42-year-old Satchel Paige in 1948 as the oldest rookie in major league history.
Veeck almost lost the goodwill he had accumulated when he tried to trade popular shortstop-manger Lou Boudreau to the Browns. When word of the negotiations got out, there were protests and petitions in support of Boudreau. In response, Veeck went from bar to bar in Cleveland to admit he had made a mistake and announce personally that the deal was off.
Boudreau rewarded his boss and the fans in 1948 when Cleveland won its first pennant and World Series since 1920.
Among Veeck's more popular stunts in Cleveland were the ceremonial burial of the 1948 flag after it became apparent that the team could not repeat in 1949 and "Good Old Joe Earley Night," staged for a fan who complained that Veeck was honoring everyone but the average "Joe."
After selling his shares in Cleveland to settle his obligations from an expensive divorce, Veeck reemerged as the owner of the Browns in 1951, a year after marrying Mary Frances Ackerman. Expressing a desire to drive the Cardinals out of town, Veeck succeeded merely in annoying Cardinals owner Fred Saigh by hiring former Cardinal stars Rogers Hornsby and Marty Marion as managers (as well as Dizzy Dean as an announcer). He also decorated Sportsman's Park, which the Browns owned but which both teams shared, with Brownie memorabilia.
The Gaedel gimmick took place on Aug. 19, 1951, and was followed five days later by "Grandstand Manager's Day," perhaps Veeck's most elaborate stunt. With himself, former Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, and thousands of fans holding placards that said yes on one side and no on the other, publicity director Bob Fischel held up cards with proposed moves - steal, bunt, change pitchers - to which the grandstand managers flashed their opinions.
While manager Zack Taylor puffed a pipe and relaxed in a rocking chair, the fans called an excellent game: The Browns won, 5-3, to stop a four-game losing streak.
The end of the Browns began after the 1952 season with a Veeck suggestion that American League clubs share radio and television revenue with visiting clubs. Voted down 7-1, he refused to allow broadcasts of games when the Browns were on the road. The rest of the league retaliated by eliminating lucrative Friday night games in St. Louis. Then, when Saigh sold the Cardinals to Anheuser-Busch breweries with its unlimited resources, Veeck realized he had to move his franchise.
And the only way that would happen would be if Veeck sold the team, which he did. The franchise then moved to Baltimore.
In 1959, Veeck popped up as head of a syndicate that bought a controlling interest in the White Sox, who won their first pennant in 40 years as well as establishing a team home-attendance record with 1.4 million. They broke that mark with 1.6 million the following season when Veeck installed the first exploding scoreboard in the majors. The ostentatious 130-foot scoreboard in Comiskey Park produced fireworks, sound effects and 10 electric pinwheels; all went off after White Sox homers.
Poor health forced Veeck to sell his share of the team in 1961. But 14 years later, Veeck reappeared as White Sox owner. Showing that he hadn't lost his touch for irritating other owners, Veeck and general manager Rollie Hemond set up shop in a hotel lobby and made four trades in full view of passers-by.
Two weeks later, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in the Messersmith-McNally case and ushered in the age of free agency. Though the cards were stacked in favor of richer owners, Veeck still hung on for five more seasons.
During this period, Veeck's most creative gimmick was a Bicentennial-inspired Spirit of '76 parade on Opening Day 1976 - with himself as the peg-legged fifer. His "rent-a-player" scheme for taking other clubs' stars in their option years helped the White Sox win 90 games and finish third in 1977 behind leased sluggers Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble.
In 1976, Veeck reactivated 54-year-old Minnie Minoso for eight at-bats, so Minoso could say he had played in four decades. Four years later, he again reactivated Minoso, who went 0-for-2 but could say he had played in five decades.
Veeck's longest surviving idea was having announcer Harry Caray sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. His most copied idea was having players take curtain calls after homering. His least copied idea was putting his players in short pants.
And the worst idea was Disco Demolition Night. On June 12, 1979, a disc jockey's plan to explode disco records between games of a doubleheader resulted in thousands of fans jumping onto the field, policemen futilely trying to restore order and the umpires postponing the second game. The next day, the Tigers got the victory via forfeit.
Finally giving up, Veeck sold the White Sox in January 1981. He spent much of his final years sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers, enjoying the sunshine, the baseball and the ivy on the outfield walls he is alleged to have planted.
Veeck died at 72 of cancer on Jan. 2, 1986. Five years later, he was elected into the Hall of Fame.
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