Veeck – As In Wreck
Book Review: Veeck – As In Wreck
Bill Veeck would have turned 100 this year and assuredly would have had a lot to say.
Veeck is remembered for owning the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox at various points from the 1940s to the 1970s and his autobiography, Veeck – As In Wreck, written with Ed Linn, appeared in 1962 when Veeck had, once again, been pushed out of baseball, this time not by finances or his fellow owners but by his frail health.
It’s comforting, and quite fitting, to read Veeck’s book now knowing that he would hang around for another quarter-century as Veeck lived his whole life as a contradiction of time. In personality, energy and passion he seemed eternally young and was indeed quite young for an owner, as his Indians won the 1948 World Series when he was a mere 34.
But Veeck also seemed older than his years as he had been around baseball since the 1920s, starting out working for the Chicago Cubs when he was just a kid, helped into the career by his father, fabled Chicago sportswriter William Veeck, Sr.
But Bill Veeck also seemed older than his years in that his body turned on him at an early age and he battled illness throughout his life, making it a triumph of medicine, and his weariless lust for life, that he lasted until the age of 71.
Veeck was baseball’s ultimate showman. Veeck – As In Wreck begins with his most famous, or most notorious, bit when, with the St. Louis Browns, he sent the midget Eddie Gaedel to bat in a game in 1951. Gaedel, you likely know, came to the plate as a pinch-hitter wearing jersey # 1/8 to face Tigers lefty Bob Cain and walked on four pitches and never played again, but still became one of sports’ greatest folktales. A very true one.
Veeck never pulled a stunt like that one again but did introduce baseball to many other gimmicks and garnishments including the exploding scoreboard with the White Sox, always championing the view that baseball had to entertain not just those who love strikes and slides but those who also simply love sunshine and a good laugh because that’s the only way you’ll keep putting people in the seats, even if your team stinks.
Veeck was always desperate for attendance because his teams were, indeed, often bad and Veeck – As In Wreck is as much about dollars and cents as it about home runs and hook slides and this book would likely be appreciated by a reader whose preference is business rather than baseball. And there’s a certain irony to that. Veeck was seen by many of his fellow owners as well as journalists, players and fans as a joker but he was just as committed to business as anyone else in baseball.
For those of us whose primary memories of Veeck are from his White Sox days, we recall him sipping wine at the Old Comiskey Park and sitting in the stands, like a regular guy, as the Sox would put together an exciting few weeks on the field only to ultimately crash and burn under a lack of talent and money. In the years after he sold the Sox in 1981 Veeck became a fixture again on the North Side, sunning himself with his shirt off in the bleachers amid the Wrigley Field ivy he himself helped plant decades before.
But there are points in this book, and let’s keep in mind that Veeck himself wrote it, where our protagonist comes across as someone far removed from the lovable guy who wants to drink beer, swap stories and be everyone’s pal. Veeck, it seems, was often not much of a husband or father and his language toward and treatment of Gaedel comes across today as extremely insensitive if not downright Donald Sterling-like.
We forgive such things, though. And we must applaud his honesty. Bill Veeck’s spirit and contributions to baseball are timeless but the man himself was very much a creature of time, places and worldly influences. He was a World War II vet and was also constantly in challenged health and so he often, his own words tell us between the lines, seemed to live for the day. Veeck – As In Wreck might be subtitled “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die.”
Anyone who loves the game of baseball, the business of baseball, the history of baseball or anyone who worries about the American pastime’s turbid future would enjoy reading Veeck – As In Wreck. It’s well written, it’s heartfelt, it’s bold, it’s honest and it’s, in its own way, a smart chronicle of twentieth century America.
If you can, read this book on the train on your way to a ballgame. Or read it in a park with little leaguers playing in your periphery. Or, perhaps, read it at home, alone, with a stack of pennies in front of you. Think of all the things you would like to do if you had more money. Then think of all the things you can do with the money, the energy, the faith and the friends you do have. Think of what is possible and then, perhaps, what is impossible will seem a bit less distant. Think of Bill Veeck. And then keep reading.