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A Baseball Owner in ‘A League of His Own’…Part One

Jim McKay
Jim McKay (left) of ABC Wide World of Sports with Bill Veeck at Comiskey Park, Chicago, 1964 (United States Public Domain)

Some called him baseball’s Barnum & Bailey. Bill Veeck Jr (pronounced Veck) was the first and the only real master showman of major league baseball. He was the champion of the underdog, an owner who preferred to roam around his park, sit and talk with the fans, instead of hiding out in a skybox somewhere, swizzle-stick in hand, sucking up to some fat dignitaries. He hated neckties and refused to wear them. He insisted on being called by his first name, never Mr Veeck. In short, he was certainly not part of the status quo.

As an owner of three different major league teams (one of them twice), he was loved by sportswriters, fans and players, but despised by most of the other owners, the league officials and the traditionalists whom he liked to call in print the “Old Guard,” the same ones who claimed he was making a travesty of the hallowed game of baseball. Veeck is probably best remembered--above all else--for sending a midget to the plate in a major league game in 1951. But he did a lot of other noteworthy things for baseball.

Bill Veeck Jr was born 9 February 1914 in Chicago, Illinois. At the time, his father, Bill Veeck Sr, was employed by the Chicago Evening American, eventually writing a sports column for them in 1917 under the byline Bill Bailey’s Column. At times, Bill Sr criticized the Chicago Cubs for how they had been run for several years, finally leading team owner William Wrigley Jr saying to him, “All right, if you think you’re so smart, why don’t you run the team.” So, Veeck did. Bill Sr joined the Cubs as vice-president in 1918, the same year the Cubs won the National League pennant. He then became president in 1919, a position he held until his death from leukemia in 1933 at the age of 56.

Billy Jr began working for the Cubs at age 11 in several capacities…ticket office, switchboard, concessions, plus getting his hands dirty with the groundskeepers down at field level. When his father died, young Bill learned the business side of the game by taking night classes, paid for by the owner, Phil Wrigley, who took over the Cubs reins upon his own father’s death. Veeck soon became team treasurer and assistant secretary on a $22 a week salary. Despite his busy schedule, Veeck also had time to get married to Eleanor Raymond, his first wife, in 1935. A family man now, Wrigley quickly upped his salary to $25 weekly.

Phil Wrigley’s new idea was selling the public on coming to “Beautiful Wrigley Field” and enjoying a ballgame. So, the park was cleaned up and freshly painted. The attendants had to be neat and courteous. Young Bill contributed in his own way by approaching the owner with his own idea to plant the now-famous, beautiful ivy on the outfield walls. Wrigley gave Veeck the OK. Veeck even helped in the physical installation of it in 1937, which happened when the Cubs were on the road. Although the ivy wasn’t ready in an abundant supply for the entire job, Veeck and a hand-picked crew planted bittersweet, interspaced with ivy that eventually took over the walls in a couple years.

By 1941, Veeck needed an outlet for all the crazy ideas he had spinning around in his head. In mid-season, with partner Charlie Grimm, an ex-Cub great who eventually became his manager, and with the help of an investor group, he bought the American Association AAA Milwaukee Brewers, a financially-strapped team with a zero fan-base, and an awful 19-43 won-loss record. An independent operation not affiliated with any major league team (although once subsidized by the Cubs), Veeck operated by selling his best players to the majors. A prime example was Eddie Stanky, whom he sold to the Chicago Cubs for $40,000 after the 1942 season. For the five years that Veeck part-owned the team, the Brewers finished well off the pace in the first season, lost the pennant by one game in the second season, then won three straight pennants before he and Grimm sold the team for a $275,000 profit in 1945.

One game, Veeck gave away orchids to every woman who entered the park. On other occasions, he handed out live birds, live lobsters, a swayback horse, and a 200-pound block of ice. Before another game in 1943, as a present to Grimm, Veeck had a newly-acquired and much-needed southpaw pitcher named Julie Acosta pop out of a cake for the surprised manager. Acosta was quickly put to good use by pitching that same day. He lost in 13 innings, but struck out 17 batters. He won his three other starts in their pennant drive. While in Milwaukee, Veeck also introduced “Rosie the Riveter” morning games for the female night shift workers, which was quickly copied by major league baseball during the remaining war years.

While still a half-owner of the Brewers, Veeck spent three years in the US Marines during World War II, where an accident cost him his right foot. Many years and 36 operations later, he eventually lost his whole leg almost right up to his groin and had to use a series of wooden limbs. He even cut large holes into them to double as ashtrays for his smoking habit. After selling the Brewers, he bought a ranch in Arizona to settle down with his wife to save a troubled marriage. But it didn’t work out for them, and they decided to go their separate ways. Meanwhile, Veeck was restless, or as he put it, “A vulture in search of a ball club.”

1948 Cleveland Indians
1948 Cleveland Indians, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (United States Public Domain)

He got back into the game in 1946 by shelling out $2.2 million for the lowly Cleveland Indians whose biggest assets were fire-balling pitcher Bob Feller and sleek shortstop, player-manager Lou Boudreau. When Veeck took over in late spring, only 290,000 fans had come through the gates. The previous owner was so cheap that he demanded balls hit into the crowd be returned to the playing field. He also refused to have Indians ball games broadcasted on radio for fear of hurting attendance. Attendance certainly couldn’t have been any worse. Veeck changed both of those indiscretions in a hurry. He also hit the road and made hundreds of speeches around Ohio. By season’s end, over one million fans entered the park, part of that due to promoting Bob Feller, who won 26 games and set a modern record by striking out 348 batters.

In 1947, the team hauled in 1.5 million fans, and Veeck signed Larry Doby, the first African-American in play in the American League. By 1948, he added the most famous of all Negro Leaguers, the skinny, long-legged, rubber-armed Satchel Paige, the oldest rookie in the majors at 42. Some baseball people thought it was only a publicity stunt. But Paige contributed immensely in the stretch drive with a 6-1 record, a 2.48 ERA and two shutouts, while setting five different park attendance records in his first five starts.

That year, Veeck’s Indians won the city’s first pennant as well as their first World Series in 28 years. They also set a major league attendance record attracting 2.6 million customers through the turnstiles at the huge monstrosity known as Municipal Stadium. In the first home game, the Indians had a paid attendance of 73,181. In the last regular season game, they had 74,181. In between, they set a single attendance record of 82,781 for a doubleheader with the New York Yankees. For Game 5 of the World Series, 86,288 entered the park.

Recently, The Sporting News ranked the 1948 Indians as the ninth-best major league team ever. Besides owning a great roster that led the American League in batting average, homers, fielding average, shutouts, saves, and ERA (all categories by a wide margin), Veeck also put his usual gimmicks on display like fireworks after games, marriages at home plate, and being part of a funeral procession in 1949 that buried the 1948 AL pennant flag in the outfield ground.

But, it all came crashing down before the start of the 1950 season, when he had to sell his shares in the Indians--which went for $22 million--to help pay for a very expensive divorce from his first wife.

Part Two --(after the break) Next Week


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