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William Louis Veeck, Jr. (pronounced /ˈvɛk/, rhymes with "wreck"; February 9, 1914–January 2, 1986), also known as "Sport Shirt Bill", was a native of Chicago, Illinois, and franchise owner and promoter in Major League Baseball. He was best known for his flamboyant publicity stunts, and the innovations he brought to the league during his ownership 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 significant innovations and contributions to baseball.

In response to his critics, Veeck once said, "All I ever said is that you can draw more people with a losing team, plus bread and circuses, than with a losing team and a long, still silence."

Contents

Early life

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 what he'd do differently if he ran the Cubs, and the team's owner, William Wrigley Jr., took him up on it. Growing up in the business, young Bill Veeck worked as a vendor, ticket seller and junior groundskeeper. 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 1937 Veeck planted the ivy that is on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field and was responsible for the construction of the hand-operated center field scoreboard still used.

Milwaukee Brewers

In 1941, Veeck left Chicago and purchased the American Association Milwaukee Brewers, in a partnership with former Cubs star and manager Charlie Grimm. 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, so he got away with it... until one day when he 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.[1]

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 thereafter of the leg above the knee. Over the course of his life he had 36 operations on the leg.[2] He had a series of wooden legs and, as an inveterate smoker, cut holes in them to use as an ashtray.

Philadelphia Phillies

According to Veeck's memoirs, in 1942, before entering the military, he acquired backing to purchase the financially strapped Philadelphia Phillies, planning to stock the club with stars from the Negro Leagues. He then claimed that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a virulent racist, vetoed the sale and arranged for the National League to take over the team.[3] Although this story has long been part of accepted baseball lore, in recent years its accuracy has been challenged by some researchers.[4]

Cleveland Indians

In 1946, Veeck finally became the owner of a major league team, the Cleveland Indians, using a debenture-common stock group making remuneration to his partners non-taxable loan payments instead of taxable income. He immediately put the team's games on radio, and set about putting his own indelible stamp on the franchise. The Indians moved to the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium for good in 1947.

That year he signed Larry Doby as the first African-American player in the American League, then followed that one year later by inking Satchel Paige to a contract, making the hurler the oldest rookie in major league history; there was much speculation at the time about Paige's true age, with most sources stating that he was 42 when he joined the Indians. Many sports writers mocked Veeck's decision to sign Paige. One wrote that if Paige had been white, no one would have thought to sign him. Veeck countered, "If Satchel had been white, he would have been in the majors 20 years ago."

Although Veeck's image has long been considered fan-friendly, his actions during the early part of the 1947 season briefly presented a different view. When the city of Cleveland began renting Cleveland Stadium for midget auto racing, an activity that often left the field in a shambles, Veeck hinted that he might consider moving the team to the then-virgin territory of Los Angeles, or back to the team's own outmoded and inadequate stadium, League Park. However, after the two sides discussed the issue, the matter was settled.

As in Milwaukee, Veeck took a whimsical approach to promotions, hiring rubber-faced 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 more popular player-manager Lou Boudreau to the St. Louis Browns led to mass protests and petitions supporting Boudreau. Veeck, in response, visited every bar in Cleveland apologizing for his mistake, and reassuring fans that the trade would not occur (by Veeck's account, the proposed deal was already dead).

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.

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 spited Cardinals owner Fred Saigh by hiring 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.

Some of Veeck's most memorable publicity stunts occurred during his tenure with the Browns, including the famous appearance on August 19, 1951, by midget Eddie Gaedel for which Veeck predicted he'd be most remembered; and shortly afterwards "Grandstand Manager's Day" - involving Veeck, Connie Mack, Bob Fishel, and thousands of regular fans, directing the entirety of the game via 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 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 Anheuser-Busch. Veeck quickly realized that the Cardinals now had more resources than he could possibly hope to match. Reluctantly, he decided to cede St. Louis to the Cardinals and find another place to play. As a preliminary step, he sold Sportsman's Park to the Cardinals. He'd probably have had to sell it in any event; he couldn't afford to make the repairs necessary to bring the aging park (it had been built in 1909) up to code.

At first Veeck considered moving the Browns back to Milwaukee (where they had played their inaugural season in 1901). He was denied permission by the other American League owners. He also wanted to move his club to the lucrative Los Angeles market, but was denied as well. He then got in touch with a group that was looking to bring big-league ball to Baltimore. However, the owners voted this move down as well. After the 1953 season, Veeck agreed in principle to sell half his stock to Baltimore attorney Clarence Miles, the leader of the Baltimore group. 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, and 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. According to Lee Allen in "The American League Story" (1961), after the Yankees watched the exploding scoreboard a few times, Clete Boyer, the weak-hitting third baseman, hit the ball over the outfield fence and Mickey Mantle and several other Yankee players came out of the dugout waving sparklers. The point was not lost on Veeck.

In 1961, due to poor health, Veeck sold his share of the team. Soon afterwards former Detroit Tigers great Hank Greenberg, his former partner with the Indians, persuaded him to join his group pursuing an American League franchise in Los Angeles as a minority partner. However Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley was not willing to compete with a team owned by a master promoter like Veeck, even if Veeck was only a minority partner. When O'Malley got wind 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).

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.

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.

The 1979 season was arguably Veeck's most colorful and controversial. On April 10 he offered fans free admission the day after a 10–2 Opening Day shellacking by the Toronto Blue Jays. Then on July 12, Veeck, with an assist 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.

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.

Veeck, weak from emphysema and having had a cancerous lung removed in 1984, died of a pulmonary embolism at age 71. His health had begun to fail after decades of smoking 3–4 packs of cigarettes a day. He was elected five years later to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Books by Veeck

Veeck wrote three autobiographical works, each a collaboration with journalist Ed Linn:

  • Veeck As In Wreck - a straightforward autobiography
  • The Hustler's Handbook - divulging his experience in operating as an outsider in major leagues
  • Thirty Tons A Day - 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.

See also

References

  1. ^ Lowry, Phillip (2005). Green Cathedrals. New York City: Walker & Company. ISBN 0802715621. 
  2. ^ "ESPN.com - CLASSIC - SportsCentury biography of Bill Veeck". Espn.go.com. http://espn.go.com/classic/veeckbill000816.html. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  3. ^ Veeck - as in Wreck, pg 171, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.
  4. ^ A Baseball Myth Exploded, David M. Jordan, Larry R. Gerlach, and John P.Rossi , http://www.sabr.org/cmsFiles/Files/Bill_Veeck_and_the_1943_sale_of_the_Phillies.pdf#search=%22veeck%20phillies%22

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