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THE FANS AT Sportsman's Park were unusually anxious. It was only the top of the first in a game between the visiting Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns on Friday night, Aug. 24, 1951, but things weren't going well for ace right-hander Ned Garver. He had gotten the first A's batter, Eddie Joost, to line out to short, but after Ferris Fain and Elmer Valo singled, Gus Zernial blasted a homer. Then Hank Majeski reached on an error, Dave Philley singled him to third and suddenly the Browns were down 3-0 with runners at the corners and only one out.
Ordinarily, Garver would look into the Browns' dugout to see whether manager Zack Taylor was motioning to the bullpen. But Taylor wasn't in the dugout.
He was sitting in a rocking chair in the box seats next to the dugout, dressed in civilian clothes, a straw hat on his head and bedroom slippers on his feet, holding a pipe in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
Beside him were two strangers in Browns uniforms, and behind them was a Greek chorus of 1,115 fans, all holding cards with a green yes on one side and a red no on the other. "It was the strangest thing I have ever seen in baseball," says Garver, now 88 and living in Bryan, Ohio. On cue, a man standing before the fans raised a sign asking, shall we warm up pitcher? The fans held up their cards in response. According to Garver, "When I saw all the nos, I appreciated that."
What Garver was witnessing, and pitching in, was Grandstand Managers Night, perhaps the most wonderful, and certainly the most democratic, promotion in the history of baseball. The fans had been tasked with voting on every decision in the game.
It was the brainchild of Bill Veeck Jr., who had assumed ownership of the moribund Browns earlier that summer and was trying pretty much everything to take over the town from the Cardinals. And in an era when baseball is struggling to woo a new generation of fans, current owners could learn a lot from Veeck -- starting with how he viewed the fans.
THERE HAS NEVER been an owner who left a more colorful, creative or collegial legacy than Veeck. He claimed to have planted the ivy on the outfield walls of Wrigley Field (though some dispute this). As the owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1947, Veeck integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby, and he brought that team its last championship in 1948. During his ownership of the Browns, Veeck sent contracts to every baby boy born in a St. Louis hospital. In the first of his two memorable stints owning the White Sox, he introduced the exploding scoreboard to Comiskey Park. He had a wooden leg as a result of an injury he suffered as a Marine in World War II -- and had cut a hole in it where he could throw his cigarette butts.
Veeck wasted no time after his purchase of the Browns in early July 1951. He moved the team offices from the second floor to the ground floor so that fans could drop by, then moved his own family into an apartment in the ballpark. He signed 45-year-old Satchel Paige as a pitcher and baseball clown Max Patkin as a first-base coach. He handed out free beer and soda between games of a doubleheader and ended every home game with fireworks. "Best time of my life," says 88-year-old Frank Saucier, a former Browns outfielder. "Every night was a carnival."
On Aug. 10, Veeck went down into a coal mine to tell some 200 miners what his plans were for the last-place Browns. Later that day, he announced his plans for Grandstand Managers Night. It should have come as no surprise, as Paul Dickson writes in his 2012 biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, that "he insisted on sitting in the bleachers, in part because of his belief that one's knowledge of baseball is in inverse proportion to the price of one's seat."
Five days later, on Wednesday, Aug. 15, this notice appeared on the third page of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:
How to Become the Manager
If you would like to be a Grandstand Manager of the Browns on the night of Aug. 24 in their game against the Athletics, fill in your name, address, zone number and city or town below.
The short one-column item went on to ask readers to fill out the starting lineup, "exclusive of pitcher," and send the ballot to the sports department at the Globe-Democrat. At the bottom, it read:
If you would like to be one of the coaches, append a brief letter, stating your reasons. The shorter the better. Your membership card, entitling you to admission to park upon payment of tax, will be mailed to you.
The fanfare for his masterpiece had begun. But Veeck upstaged it four days later when he signed a 3-foot-7, 65-pound theatrical performer named Eddie Gaedel, put him in a No. uniform and sent him up to pinch-hit for Saucier to lead off the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers. Gaedel was walked -- and summarily banned from baseball.
"I won 20 games that year for a team that lost 102," says Garver. "I batted .305, sometimes sixth in the order. But all anybody ever wants me to talk about is that damn [Gaedel]."
When Athletics general manager Art Ehlers got wind of Veeck's plan to let Brownie fans make managerial decisions, he accused him of making a travesty of the game. But the A's and Browns had already done that; they were seventh and eighth in the eight-team AL. There was no baseball commissioner at the time to stop Veeck -- Happy Chandler had just resigned -- and besides, the Browns owner was good friends with Connie Mack, the 88-year-old patriarch who had just retired after 50 years as the Athletics' manager.
As for the response of the fans, that little article generated more than 4,000 letters, from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, and Brooklyn, New York. From those letters, Veeck selected two men to be honorary coaches, Clark Mitze and Charles E. Hughes.
At the time, Mitze, a former B-26 bomber pilot in World War II, was a music professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose specialty was the work of Aaron Copland. According to his son Tom, who was 8 at the time, the letter recalled the time Clark took his sons to a batting cage. "He wrote that he missed the first nine pitches and foul-tipped the 10th, which popped up and hit him in the nose. Thus, he was obviously qualified to coach a major league baseball team."
VEECK CLEARED OUT a section behind the home-team dugout for his grandstand managers and had signs printed asking for various decisions, from sacrifice? and steal? to shall we jerk the bum? As the participants entered the park, they each received membership cards in addition to their answer signs.
Here's how the communication was supposed to work: The honorary coaches, Mitze and Hughes, would suggest a question card, and Bob Fishel, Veeck's right-hand man, would hold it up for the fans to see. Then Circuit Judge James McLaughlin, a longtime Browns fan, would take a rough count of the votes and relay the decision via walkie-talkie to player-coach John Berardino.
At first, the plan was for the real manager, Zack Taylor, to watch the game by the dugout, alongside his new coaches. But umpire Bill Summers decided that it was against the rules for Taylor to be on the field without the proper uniform.
Even before the "fan-agers" filed into their seats, they had already made an impact on the game. They had voted to make two alterations to Taylor's normal lineup, starting backup catcher Sherm Lollar instead of regular Matt Batts, and first baseman Hank "Bow-Wow" Arft for rookie Ben Taylor.
There had been no need for them to vote for a pitcher: Garver, nicknamed the Team by Veeck, was already a 14-game winner for a club that was 37-81.
Saucier says he looked up during batting practice, saw all the fans -- a surprising number of them female -- with their cards in the stands and thought, This is absolutely insane.
Adding to the insanity was the sight of Veeck and his wife, Mary Frances, sitting in the back row with Connie Mack. Before the first pitch, A's manager Jimmy Dykes came out to argue with the umpire Summers, barking that he would protest if the voting delayed things.
Veeck described it this way in his autobiography Veeck -- As in Wreck: "Jimmy, always a good fellow, was just trying to help the gag along. To make sure everybody knew he was protesting, he kicked up the dirt around the plate and scowled toward my tyros. My tyros scowled right back. They were fit and ready and straining to start thinking."
They had to start thinking right away thanks to Garver's shaky start. When the shall we warm up pitcher? sign was held up, Veeck and Mack voted yes, but Mary Frances and the majority voted no. With that issue decided, another sign was flashed: infield back? "You could hear the wheels in 1,100 baseball minds spinning like crazy," wrote John J. Archibald of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Most accounts have the fans voting yes, but that's not how Garver remembers it:
"The first time they asked if we should put the infield back, they voted no. Well, neither I nor Sherm Lollar liked that call, so Sherm kind of stalled around until Zack got the message we wanted the infield back, so they took another vote. Still no. Sherm stalled some more. On the third vote, it was yes, so we played the infield back." The Athletics' Pete Suder promptly hit into a 4-6-3 double play, and Garver was out of the jam.
In the bottom of the first, the Browns tied it thanks to RBI singles by both of the fans' choices, Lollar and Arft. Perhaps emboldened by their wisdom, they had Bow-Wow try to steal second with two outs, but he was thrown out. "By 20 feet," says Clark Mitze. Apparently, the Athletics saw it coming.
Yes, Mitze is 96 now, alive and well and living in Sacramento with his wife of 72 years, Verla, who was also at Sportsman's Park that night with their boys. "Oh my, it was fun," says Clark. "Zack was very nice to us. We did pretty well."
"Except," Verla interjects, "for when we got Hank Arft thrown out."
The people's choice, Lollar, hit a solo homer to put the Browns ahead 4-3 in the third, then doubled and scored an insurance run in the eighth. For his part, Garver settled down and gave up only three more hits. At one point, Fishel held up a protest to umpire? sign after a close call went against the Browns, but the game had moved on before the vote was tallied.
With their 5-3 victory, the Browns snapped a two-game skid. "Never has a game been called better," Veeck wrote in his book. As for the duration of the game, which Dykes was so worried about, it was completed in a brisk 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Even more amazing, in retrospect, were the people involved. To think that Connie Mack was in the stands, enjoying himself, and Satchel Paige was in the dugout, resting after an appearance the day before. Garver would go on to pitch another 10 seasons -- four of them for the Kansas City Athletics -- and Lollar would become a seven-time All-Star catcher.
Patkin, who inspired the San Diego Chicken and the Phillie Phanatic, had a small role in Bull Durham. The Browns' player-coach, John Berardino, dropped the second "r" in his last name and became famous for his role on General Hospital. The courtly, erudite Fishel was so beloved that Major League Baseball gives out an annual Robert O. Fishel Award for public relations excellence.
As for Clark Mitze, he would go on to become the head of the state arts councils in both Missouri and California. His son Tom, who became a distinguished theater executive, still has the trophy Veeck gave Clark after the game. The inscription reads: One of the Best Coaches Ever Banned From the Coaching Lines.
(Charles Hughes also received a trophy, but we could not track him down. Holler if you're still out there, Charles.)
The reviews for the game were mostly positive, with the St. Louis-based Sporting News giving the game a big spread afterward. But it was a successful experiment that was never repeated ... in the majors.
At the time of the promotion, Mike Veeck was less than a year old and living in a crib in his parents' apartment at Sportsman's Park. "That was his favorite promotion," says Mike. "It kind of got overtaken, though, by the other stuff he did. Whenever anybody wanted to talk about Eddie Gaedel or some other stunt, he would always retreat to that night when the fans became the managers."
Mike, now president of the Class-A Charleston RiverDogs and a special adviser to the independent St. Paul Saints, not only followed in his father's footsteps, he also staged his own versions of the game, back in 2004 with the Brockton Rox and last year with the Saints, when he let Little Leaguers umpire from the sidelines.
Bill Veeck died on Jan. 2, 1986, and the Globe-Democrat folded soon after.
"He loved and respected fans," Mike says. "That's why we played Aaron Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man' at his funeral. He was one of them."
But the idea that fans could make the decisions in a big league baseball game lives on, 63 years later, in the reality of every iron-lunged, second-guessing zealot and caps-lock-loving smartphone owner.
In this day and age, it would actually be much easier to pull off such a stunt, what with Twitter and social media. Granted, the Angels aren't going to let their fans decide whether Mike Trout should steal second, but what would be the harm in the lowly Mets having their fans vote for the starting lineup on the last day of the season against the hapless Astros?
Of course, not all good things can last forever. As unbelievable as Veeck's stunt now seems, so was the final note of his fanfare for the crowd of 7,185 (pretty good for the Browns) that Friday night. Here's how The Sporting News described it:
"'Grandstand Managers Night' at Sportsman's Park was concluded with a fireworks display which included a 'thank you' note from Bill Veeck.
'Thank you, G.S. Managers for a swell job,' read the pyrotechnical display. 'Zack manages tomorrow.'"