The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.
THE SHRINE OF THE ETERNALS1999 ELECTEES
WILLIAM LOUIS VEECK, JR.
Born 2/9/14, Chicago, Illinois
Died 1/2/86, Chicago, Illinois
A self-proclaimed "hustler," Bill Veeck, Jr. was the greatest public relations man and promotional genius the game of baseball has ever seen. The son of former Chicago Cubs president Bill Veeck, Sr., he got his start in the baseball business selling peanuts and hot dogs at Wrigley Field and was fond of saying that he was "the only human being ever raised in a ballpark." Over the course of a fifty-year love affair with baseball, Veeck would own three major league teams and would establish himself as the game’s most incorrigible maverick.
Upon returning from military duty in World War II, during which he received a severe leg wound that would ultimately require amputation, Veeck bought his first major league team, the Cleveland Indians, in 1946 at the age of 32. Although his reign in Cleveland was a mere three-and-a-half years, neither the Indians nor the game of baseball were quite the same thereafter. In 1947 Veeck hired the American League’s first black player (Larry Doby), and a year later brought Cleveland its first pennant and world championship since 1920, establishing a new major league season attendance record of 2.6 million fans. He introduced fireworks displays after games and signed 42-year-old Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige to a contract in 1948, making him the oldest rookie ever to play professional baseball. Veeck even staged a night for Joe Earley, after the fan protested that the Indians owner had honored everyone except the average "Joe."
After selling the Indians, Veeck took on his greatest challenge in 1951: ownership of what he called "a collection of old rags and tags known to baseball historians as the St. Louis Browns." Veeck operated under the premise that fans should have a good time at the ballpark, even if the home team loses. (And the St. Louis Browns lost often, finishing dead last in the American League in 1951 with a 52-102 record, 46 games out of first place.) Veeck’s most memorable promotion for the Browns was sending 3’7" midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate, but perhaps even more daring was staging "Grandstand Managers’ Day," in which the fans determined the team’s actual strategy by holding up large placards marked "YES" on one side and "NO" on the other. Ironically, with the Grandstand Managers deciding whether the team bunted, stole a base, changed pitchers, etc., the Browns broke a four-game losing streak with a 5-3 victory. The fans retired with a 1.000 winning percentage and are still waiting for a visionary owner to hire them again.
Veeck’s final major league team was the Chicago White Sox, which he owned twice, from 1959-1961 and then again from 1976-1980. While at the helm of the Pale Hose, Veeck installed baseball’s first exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park; introduced the game’s first avant-garde uniform in 1976, consisting of a pullover shirt with a straight bottom to be worn pajama style outside of Bermuda shorts; and orchestrated, with the assistance of his son Mike, the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" in 1979.
Bill Veeck once said that "baseball must be a great game, because the owners haven’t been able to kill it," a sardonic comment from a man who often infuriated the stuffed shirts in the executive suite. The starched, button-down fraternity of baseball owners (or, as Veeck called them, the "forward-looking fossils who run the game") viewed his promotions and innovations as undignified "travesties." Probably the low point of his popularity among fellow owners came in 1972 when he testified on behalf of Curt Flood’s effort to overturn baseball’s reserve clause, which Veeck had always regarded as illegal. (It was not unusual to find Veeck championing liberal and sometimes unpopular causes, both in and out of baseball. Although he had an artificial leg, he participated in the day-long civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in March of 1965, without the use of crutches.)
But as much as his fellow owners abhorred him, Veeck was as passionately respected by his players and by the fans, who found him generous and unpretentious. Larry Doby said he was fortunate to have worked for Veeck and called him "probably the nicest and the greatest man that I ever met. He never showed any prejudice or bigotry or racism within himself. He fought for the little man, the underdog." Veeck maintained a genuine open-door policy, telling his fans, "You call Comiskey Park (WA4-1000) and ask for Bill Veeck and the switchboard operator isn’t going to ask who you are or what you want; the next voice you hear is going to be mine."
In his final years Veeck adopted the Chicago Cubs and could often be found sitting, without a shirt, in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, where baseball remained a game played only under the sunlight. Although he carried a lifetime pass in his wallet to any ballpark in the major leagues, he preferred to pay his own way. "I pay for my tickets so I can complain," he remarked. At Veeck’s funeral in 1986 at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago, it was most appropriate that a lone trumpeter opened the services playing Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man." That is, after all, precisely how Bill Veeck, Jr. would like to have been remembered.