December 12, 2019

Bill Veeck Day

April 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Today is Bill Veeck Day. It is the day that Paul Dickson’s biography of Bill Veeck is officially released, the day “Sport Shirt Bill” is back with us once again. Like a bad penny, he has returned. It is something he himself said often, as he bounced between Wrigley Field and Comiskey, forever part of the Chicago scene.

Or it could be Cleveland where he won his first World Series behind Larry Doby, or St. Louis where he met his match with the Browns. Or better yet, it could be the Eastern Shore, from which Veeck stalked the Washington Senators and Baltimore Orioles like the spurned lover he was. But wherever he turned up, he was out in the bleachers, or on the concourse, meeting the fans, mixing it up. And Paul Dickson says that is the real reason the owners hated him. Because they hated seeing pictures of him in the bleachers, sitting there with the regular guys having a beer.

There are so many wonderful stories in Paul Dickson’s biography of Veeck. The big ones like Eddie Gaedel, Minnie Minoso and the Go-Go Sox, and the small ones like planting the ivy at Wrigley Field in his first real job in baseball in 1937. But it is all there, warts and all. Paul Dickson doesn’t miss a beat, down or otherwise.

The most fascinating stories revolve around Veeck’s role in integrating the American League. Dickson nails it. It was the first time that Bill Veeck asserted himself center stage in the baseball world. Paul Dickson sets up that story by including the 1943 winter baseball meetings where Commissioner Landis and the major league owners met with Paul Robeson and “a group of black publishers and editors” who wished to “advocate for the entry of black’s into baseball.”

Much of what has been written about the meeting has focused on why Landis included Robeson, whether it was intentional to shift attention away from the central claim for equality to Robeson’s ties to communism. But Dickson included the transcript of the meeting without any apologies for Robeson and with not intent to lessen Landis or anyone else. The words speak for themselves and the great man, who always admitted his links to the Communist Party, beautifully articulates his case for why baseball should do what was right, “because a thing like this–Negro ballplayers becoming a part of the great national pastime of America–could make a great difference in what peoples all over the world would feel toward us.” (p.90)

It was a moving presentation and Paul says that he is the first person to use it, having found the transcript in the Cooperstown Library shortly after it was first available to the public. The Robeson meeting is a metaphor for the entire book. The research is impeccably thorough and the presentation of crucial junctures in baseball history is always thoughtful and many times poignant.

Bill Veeck became known to some as the “Abe Lincoln of baseball,” but somehow he alienated the other American League owners over the issue of race. Paul Dickson told me it was not Lary Doby– that was to be expected after Jackie Robinson, “No, it was Satchel Paige,” said Dickson. Baseball had for so long denied Paige his chance, so when Veeck brought him up in the second half of the ’48 season and he pitched the Cleveland Indians into the World Series, that showed the owners up, and they did not like that.

Paige, like so many others, never forgot the chance that Veeck gave him. It began a long friendship between Paige and Veeck, a constant loyalty of one showman to another, according to Dickson. But it was the kind of loyal friendship that was never one-way and it is repeated so often in the book. Larry Doby, Minoso, Early Wynn, and so many players who revered the man and called him friend. The many fans for whom he did favors, and the writers. Everyone loved Veeck except the owners and the Commissioners.

I asked Paul Dickson what was the most surprising thing he found out about Veeck in researching the book and he said without pause, the war hero side of Veeck. The man who always had a quick smile lived with intense pain from injuries incurred as a U.S. Marine fighting on Bougainville Island. It was one of the worst environments any fighting man in World War II had to endure and it took a drastic toll on Veeck. Airlifted out to a hospital in Hawaii, his injuries left him with Osteomyelitis that forced numerous amputations of his leg in the years after the war. Yet Veeck made jokes about it even when the pain was at its worst, hiding an ashtray in his wooden leg, producing it whether he was sitting in the bleachers to the delight of the fans around him, or whether he was dancing with his wife at Sardis to entertain the glitterati.

The controversy about Veeck’s attempt to buy the Philadelphia Phillies during the war is there as well, presented with the same thoroughness and thoughtfulness as everything else.  There is an appendix devoted to the issue for SABR members who are not convinced by Dickson’s assertion that the positive evidence he marshals outweighs what he calls the proof of a negative by SABR researchers David M. Jordan, Larry R. Derlach and John P. Rossi. They were the first to claim Veeck’s story a fraud in 1998 in the SABR publication, The National Pastime. Dickson devotes a lengthy discussion to the issue, but provides convincing evidence Veeck was telling the truth.

Whatever negatives are there, they are hugely outweighed by the weight of those that loved the man. A letter by Early Wynn of the Indians,excerpted on page 246, is a wonderful tribute. Wynn wrote, “I know I speak for all of us when I say that you have been a helluva lot more than just the boss. You have been a wonderful friend. All of us will always cherish your friendship.” It is not just Early Wynn at a banquet mouthing the needed platitude. It is the genuine sentiment presented throughout by the many who remained friends with Veeck throughout his life.

What made me appreciate Veeck more than anything in the book, however, was his genuine warmth for fans, his willingness to be one of them, to celebrate the game with them, not just for them,  but because he was one of them. Bill Veeck made money from baseball not only because he knew how to give fans more of the game, but because he truly loved it.  He knew little else having grown up the son of Bill Veeck, Sr. who was the President of the Chicago Cubs  from 1919 til his death in 1934, when the younger Veeck was still at Kenyon College. Bill Veeck was about baseball from the day he was born until the day he died and he never quit being a fan.

Washington baseball fans will find great tragedy in one of Paul Dickson’s stories, one he no doubt feels himself. Veeck made numerous attempts to buy the Washington Senators, but was denied every time. Veeck was also prevented from moving the St. Louis Browns–that he owned in the early 1050’s– to Baltimore, forced to sell them before the owners would approve the move. But during the 1960’s and ’70’s Veeck tried to purchase the expansion Washington Senators on at least three occasions and his offers were refused, ostensibly on financial grounds, but given the consequences and the questionable nature of the owners who ended up with the team, that claim rings hollow.

That story is one that fans in DC need to read. Though I have read at length of the small-minded owners: Calvin Griffith and others who helped engineer the move to Texas, I was surprised to learn that they had Veeck as a viable option not only in 1971, but as early as 1962 and again late in in ’68 when the team was first sold to Bob Short.

As Dickson says repeatedly, there is so much more to Veeck than exploding score boards and Eddie Gaedel. They are part of the man and important to the telling of his story, to understanding him and they certainly are part of this heart-felt remembrance. But there is so much more that most fans do not know.

The Scott Simon quote that begins the Epilogue summed it up for me. “Bill Veeck had one of the most absorbing and valuable American lives of the century.” No less absorbing and valuable is Paul Dickson’s biography of the man.  It comes out today, and it is worth every bad penny.

Paul Dickson will be a guest on the Outta the Parkway Show talking about the Veeck book this Friday, April 27th.  All quotes above are all from Paul Dickson’s book, Bill Veeck,Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, by Walker and Company, New York, New York, available April 24, 2012.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!