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Baseball's showman


Wednesday, November 19, 2003
More Info on Bill Veeck
By Nick Acocella
Special to

Signature Game

Aug. 19, 1951 - Veeck's most famous stunt also produced one of baseball's most famous photographs: 3-foot-7, 65-pound Eddie Gaedel in a wide, righthanded, Joe DiMaggio-like stance holding a toy bat with Detroit catcher Bob Swift grabbing a high pitch and umpire Ed Hurley crouching lower than usual.

Gaedel had helped celebrate the American League's 50th birthday between games of a doubleheader by donning a St. Louis Browns uniform with the number 1/8 and popping out of a cake. When the second game began, Gaedel, who had never played baseball in his life, pinch-hit for the announced leadoff batter, Frank Saucier. Admonished by Veeck that there was a gunman in the stands who would shoot him if he swung, Gaedel took four straight balls (all high, naturally) - perhaps caused as much by Tigers lefthander Bob Cain's laughter as by Gaedel's miniscule strike zone.

Replaced by a pinch-runner, Gaedel bowed and doffed his cap repeatedly, to the delight of 18,369 fans, the Browns' largest home crowd since 1947. "For a minute, I felt like Babe Ruth," Gaedel said after the Browns' 6-1 defeat.

While Commissioner Happy Chandler admitted he was amused by the ploy, American League President Will Harridge, more dour, struck Gaedel's name from the record book and banned further appearances by midgets. Veeck, never one to let a good gimmick die - and intending to use Gaedel again, preferably with the bases loaded - demanded Harridge declare a minimum height limit, wondering whether, if it were placed high enough, the league could get rid of Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto.

Odds 'n' Ends

  • Veeck is the only 20th century major league operator to own three franchises.

  • Veeck's most lasting contribution as a minor league owner was a rule prohibiting adjustable fences. It was passed one day after he unveiled a gadget that raised the fence in Milwaukee when the visiting team was batting and lowered it when the home team was hitting.

  • Veeck tried to buy the Yankees in 1945, but lost out to the Larry MacPhail-Dan Topping-Del Webb combine.

  • When he finally did obtain a major league franchise - the Indians in 1946 - he was, at 42, one of the youngest owners ever.

  • In 1948, Veeck's Indians drew a major league record 2,620,627 fans - a mark that would stand for three decades.

  • Veeck was known to fly to New York after a game, hit some night spots, and fly back to Cleveland on the first flight the next morning.

  • Veeck always claimed he had never read Ring Lardner's "You Could Look It Up," a short story in which a midget was sent to the plate to walk but, lured by a good pitch, grounded out.

  • Before trying to move the Browns to Baltimore, Veeck entertained offers from Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Florida.

  • Veeck's worst season was 1953, when, after the American League refused his request to move the Browns to Baltimore, fewer than 300,000 fans showed up in St. Louis. Many came to vilify Veeck, and the attacks were particularly galling since he actually lived in the ballpark.

  • Out of the majors between 1954 and 1958, Veeck ran a minor league franchise in Miami in 1956. He also researched the possibility of major league baseball on the West Coast for Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, worked for ABC Sports and NBC Game of the Week, and tried to buy the Tigers and Athletics, and a Cleveland NBA franchise and the Ringling Brothers' circus.

  • Veeck's open sports shirts, which became his signature apparel, were worn because of a skin condition that made collars tight around his neck too painful for him.

  • Another innovation during his first stint with the White Sox was putting names on the backs of players' uniforms.

  • Particularly annoying to Veeck among major league officials was Yankees general manager George Weiss, whom he called "Old Pus Bag." Veeck once stomped on Weiss' fedora at an American League meeting.

  • Veeck's relationship with Gaedel continued beyond the midget's lone plate appearance. In 1960, Veeck had Gaedel and three other midgets dress as Martians and dropped from a helicopter onto the Comiskey Park infield. The four midgets shook hands with shortstop Luis Aparicio and second baseman Nellie Fox, and the field announcer told the fans that they had arrived to assist the not-too-tall double play combination in their struggle against the earthlings.

  • On Opening Day 1961, Veeck brought Gaedel and several other midgets back to Comiskey as vendors to satisfy the complaints of patrons who thought regular peanut and beer salesmen blocked their view of the game.

  • Out of baseball again from 1961 until 1975, Veeck recuperated from a reduction of the blood flow to his brain. But he wasn't idle. He published Veeck - as in Wreck, an autobiography, in 1962, and The Hustler's Handbook, a credo, in 1965 - both with Ed Linn; ran Suffolk Downs Race Track from 1968-70, tried to buy the Washington Senators, and testified on Curt Flood's behalf in his anti-reserve clause case.

  • The most ironic element of Veeck's career is that it finally ended because of the demise of the reserve clause, which he had long considered at least absurd and probably illegal.

  • Veeck won Executive of the Year awards in 1948 (with Cleveland) and 1977 (with Chicago).

  • Minnie Minoso attended Veeck's funeral in 1986 wearing a White Sox uniform.

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