A Baseball Owner in ‘A League of His Own’…Part Two
In 1950, Veeck married Mary Frances Ackerman, a showbiz press agent for the Ice Capades. She was not only attractive, but intelligent too and an enormous help to her husband in his future baseball operations. In 1951, Veeck then made what many people considered the greatest mistake of his life by purchasing the American League St Louis Browns, one of the worst major league teams ever. His plan was to run the crosstown National League St Louis Cardinals, owned by Fred Saigh, out of the city. Veeck signed ex-Cards like Rogers Hornsby and then Marty Marion to manage the Browns and ex-Card pitching great Dizzy Dean to announce the games. His promoting helped to increase attendance from a pitiful 247,000 in 1951 to a much-better 519,000 (almost 300,000 increase), while the Cardinals attendance dropped by 300,000.
Veeck also decorated Sportsmans Park--owned by the Browns and rented out to the Cardinals--with Browns paraphernalia, just to bother Saigh. Saigh ended up leaving all right, but he sold out to super rich Gussie Busch of Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Veeck knew his days in St Louis were numbered once that happened because he’d never to able to compete with the Busch beer money backing the Cardinals. Veeck eventually sold after the 1953 season. Once again, he was without a team. The Browns then moved to Baltimore in 1954 to become the Orioles.
But Veeck left behind the great story about 26-year-old Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7, 65-pound midget entertainer. In 2014, we have to be politically correct. So let’s call Gaedel vertically-challenged…or how about just a little person. Veeck brought him to St. Louis for a doubleheader on 19 August. In the bottom of the first in the second game, Browns manager Zack Taylor called Gaedel out of the dugout to pinch hit for Frank Saucier. Suddenly, the 18,000 fans in at Sportsmans Park came alive. Tigers manager Red Rolfe protested, but Taylor produced a legit contract. Then pitcher Bob Cain walked Gaedel on 4 straight pitches because he couldn’t come anywhere close to Gaedel’s strike zone, which was the size of a leather wallet.
It was Gaedel’s one and only appearance in the majors. He was banned from baseball the very next day. But his one plate appearance still stands in the record books. When Gaedel died 10 years later, his obituary made the front page of The New York Times. Also in 1951, Veeck brought back Satchel Paige, after the Indians released him in 1949, and turned him into an outstanding relief pitcher, one of the few on-field bright spots for the lowly Browns.
By 1959, Veeck was back in baseball when he purchased the Southside Chicago White Sox (as opposed to the Northside Chicago Cubs) for a reported $27 million, just in time to take the American League pennant with solid defense and tight pitching, plus timely hitting with very little power. The press dubbed them the “Go-Go Sox.” And the White Sox attracted a then-White Sox record of 1.4 million fans.
Veeck added players last names on the back of uniforms, mostly for the benefit of the female fans who wanted to know the names of the players. For years, going back to his minor league days in Milwaukee, he had geared his fan base to the female needs. To him, women weren’t just baseball fans in dresses. He made sure their washrooms were spotless. As time went on, he added full-length mirrors, and inserted players’ first names to scorecards, along with nurseries for mothers with babies who wanted to come to the park. All due to suggestions from females. Veeck still loved his door prizes. He gave away 1,000 cans of beer to one fan, and 10,000 cupcakes to another--all delivered to their homes, whether they wanted them or not.
The epitome in Chicago was the 130-foot-long exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, built at a cost of $300,000. Debuted 12 April 1960, it lit up with spinning wheels, music and fireworks when a Sox player hit a home run. An even-better 1.6 million came to the park in 1960, thanks to the glitzy scoreboard, I’m sure. Once again, Veeck’s ownership of a major league was short-lived. In 1961, he sold out due to health reasons.
Out of the game for more than a decade, he repurchased the White Sox in December 1975. The White Sox were now a team facing bankruptcy. Baseball had changed a lot in the years he was away. For one thing, artificial turf was the norm. Veeck tore it out of Comiskey and returned the playing field to natural grass. For 1976, he also brought in 53-year-old Minnie Minoso, a White Sox star from the 1950s, to DH for 3 games, then again for 2 at-bats in 1980, thus giving Minoso the distinction of playing in the majors for 5 decades. Opening Day 1976 saw a White Sox record crowd of 40,318. Wilbur Wood threw a 5-0 shutout. But by year’s end, Veeck’s team finished last in the AL West.
Another thing Veeck had to deal with was the Free Agent era. To answer that, he came up with his unique “Rent-a-Player” idea. He would trade away for players in their option years, then sign them usually for only one season. And it worked. At first, anyway. In 1977, the White Sox contended for most of the year and led the division for 61 days before finishing third with 90 wins, an increase of 15 wins from the previous season. They set a new White Sox attendance record and Veeck was voted Executive of the Year. They hit a team-record 192 homers (second in the AL), breaking their old mark of 138. Richie Zisk (30 HRs, 101 RBIs, .290 BA) and Oscar Gamble (31 HRs, 83 RBIs, .297 BA) were the prime Rent-a-Player contributors, along with Eric Solderholm (25 HRs) and pitcher Steve Stone (15 wins). Then all four quickly moved on. After the 1980 season, Veeck sold out for $20 million, unable to compete competitively in the salary-rising Free Agent market.
He spent the remaining summer months of his years relaxing in the stands of his old stomping grounds of Wrigley Field, soaking up the sunshine, signing autographs, and engaging in conversation with the chatty fans around him. A chain smoker most of his life, he died in 1986 at age 71 of cancer. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1991.
As an owner, he always wanted to be remembered, first and foremast, for promoting the game of baseball that he loved so much. That was his prime objective. Unlike the other owners, he wanted his objective accompanied with some glitz and fun. That’s all. Veeck was not only a business man engaged in deals here and there sometimes resulting in millions of dollars changing hands. He was also an avid reader of history. Not just American, but worldwide history.
Deep down inside, Veeck was a commoner. My kind of guy.