The late Bill Veeck (or, as he often said, “it rhymes with wreck”) is known today as one of baseball’s greatest innovators, a mastermind of public relations — and perhaps the most controversial non-player to be associated with the game. There’s good reason for the reputation: Veeck spent a good part of his adult life poking the game’s other owners, and doing with almost nothing what they failed to do with a lot.
So far as we can tell by studying his life, Veeck rarely had a dime, seemed always on the edge of bankruptcy — but somehow always salvaged both himself and the franchise he was either working for or owned. That was true whether he was in Milwaukee (where, in 1941, he took on ownership of the Brewers minor league team), in Cleveland (where he was the team’s first owner to put the games on the radio), or in Chicago — where he added the first “exploding scoreboard.”
It’s no use denying it now, despite Veeck’s legendary status and the fact that he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he wasn’t well liked. That’s putting it mildly. He was — as the scions of baseball’s well-heeled and ingrown powerful owners would have it — “crass,” a “showboat” and “too flamboyant.” All too true. But there was, in fact, more to it than that.
In 1942, Veeck determined (though many say the incident never actually happened) that he could save the Philadelphia Phillies from financial extinction by buying it and stocking it with stars from the Negro Leagues, a plan that met with an immediate veto from Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a “Georgia Peach” (shall we say) who had (ahem) other ideas. “In 1942 I really tried to break the color line and thought I had,” Veeck later recalled. “It lasted for about 24 hours.”
Veeck’s attempted sleight-of-hand pushed the other owners away from him, and labeled him as an upstart. He would never shake that sense of suspicion, nor ever wanted to. And no matter how hard they tried (and failed, and failed again) in the years that followed, a small group of powerful owners always tried to belittle his accomplishments (but adopted his ideas) and keep him away from the game. Thankfully, they always failed.
But the best Bill Veeck story, and the one with the greatest modern implications, is also one of the least known. Back in 1951, Veeck bought a controlling share of the St. Louis Browns and vowed to chase the vaunted St. Louis Cardinals out of town. He hired Cardinal Marty Marion as the Browns’ manager and brought in Dizzy Dean as the team’s announcer. He then restocked the team, bringing on Vic Wertz, Virgil Trucks and even Satchel Paige (among others), and doubled attendance at Sportsman Park.
Ironically, Veeck’s success was the spur that the National League needed to improve the Cardinals. N.L. owners approved the sale of the Cardinals to the Busch family — who they knew could outspend Veeck, or at least outlast him. The spiteful move wasn’t lost on Veeck, who countered by saying he’d move the Browns to Milwaukee, where they’d become the Brewers. But the National League ruined that plan, quickly moving the Braves into Milwaukee ahead of him.
Veeck responded by saying he’d move the team to Los Angeles, which resulted in yet another veto. In desperation, he planned a move to Baltimore, where the team could become the Orioles. The American League not only vetoed that move, they made it clear to Veeck that they’d veto every plan to relocate the Browns that he could come up with. The result was that rather than chasing the Cardinals from baseball, the Browns were forced into near bankruptcy. Their 1953 season was one of their worst, with St. Louis fans staying away in droves.
With nowhere to go, and boxed in by the other owners, Veeck sold the Browns to Baltimore lawyer Clarence Miles, who did what Veeck always wanted to do — he moved the St. Louis American League franchise to Baltimore, where they became the Orioles.
The shape of modern baseball is, in many ways, the true legacy of Bill Veeck. The Braves moved from Boston because of him, the Browns to Baltimore. The Brewers early tenure in Milwaukee, and their popularity, date from Veech’s tenure. He was the first owner to identify the West Coast as prime baseball territory.
Even more importantly, Veeck was the first baseball owner to see the game as entertainment — and the first to realize that it would take more than just putting a team together and letting them play to attract fans. The idea that a stadium can include other entertainment “venues” dates from Veeck’s exploding scoreboard, and everything from a “t-shirt toss” to a “President’s Race” is descended from his ideas. Of course, as we all know — he once brought a midget to the plate, and even allowed fans a chance to “demolish disco.”
The question for us has always been whether this often criticized and still controversial giant would ever meet his biographer. Thankfully, more than 25 years after his death, he finally has. In Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson has captured the essence of what made Veeck baseball’s first, and truest, revolutionary.
Dickson quotes former commission Bowie Kuhn as calling Veeck “equal parts charlatan and rebel,” but then follows it with Happy Chandler’s assessment that Veeck was not only “a stand up guy,” but a person who could easily have been one of baseball’s best leaders.
Sportscaster Charlie Brotman, however, described Veeck’s legacy best — and is quoted at length in Dickson’s highly readable, and pointed style: “Before Bill Veeck, baseball teams simply showed up to play. The decision to come to the ballpark was left to the fans . . . Veeck changed all that — he made everybody want to come to the ballpark.