Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
By Paul Dickson
(Walker & Co., 418 pages, $29.50)
I confess I don’t much like today’s major league baseball—or MLB, as it is branded—for the same reason I can’t understand why any sane person would go to Las Vegas for any but the most sordid reasons.
So I was vastly entertained by Paul Dickson’s biography of Bill Veeck, the wild man baseball impresario from Chicago. In addition to being an authoritative chronicle of how the game used to be in that halcyon fifty years between 1930 and 1980, it also gives off a reminiscent aura of grass outfields, the comforting feel of a hard bleacher seat, and air made redolent of popcorn and tobacco.
Dickson calls Veeck a maverick and he certainly was that. But he was more than that. He was a visionary whose dream was as king-sized as his ego and just as flawed.
What Bill Veeck hoped to achieve was the transformation of the sport from being a national pastime to becoming a national cultural experience—one open to all Americans, one that would be both portable and accessible for a people who were on the move from one hometown to new opportunities elsewhere. Wherever they went, baseball would be there. It was not Veeck’s fault that instead baseball has turned into a sterile travesty of corporate boxes, luxury hotdogs, and stupid mascots. A game played by steroid-swollen prima donnas whose salaries would make a hedge-fund manager blush.
One of the strong points of this book is the easy-reading, yet knowledgeable voice of the author. And for good reason. What Dr. Samuel Johnson was to lexicography, Paul Dickson is to baseball. Johnson is best remembered for his massive 18th century Dictionary of the English Language but he also was a prolific essayist on every topic under the sun. So, too, Dickson’s 974-page Baseball Dictionary is the standard reference on that topic. But there is not enough space to list the 55 other books he has written on topics from the space program, to the special languages of war and boozing, to ice cream, political history, and, not least, about baseball.
Dickson’s subject comes across as a contradictory mix of working class huckster, prep school intellectual, idealist, and trickster. But his commitment to baseball was genuine enough, rooted in the heritage passed on to him by his father, Bill Veeck, Sr.
That inheritance began at the dawn of the last century when the elder Veeck broke in as a young reporter on the storied old Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. Within five years he was on staff as a baseball writer and columnist on the madcap Hearst-owned Chicago Evening American, where he covered both the White Sox and the Cubs in the company of such storied writers as Ring Lardner.
Veeck Sr. became increasingly incensed at the way a sport he loved was being mismanaged by owners and embarrassed by corrupt players in the pay of gamblers who routinely fixed games. In 1918, a year before the infamous Black Sox scandal that rocked organized baseball, Veeck met William Wrigley, the chewing gum manufacturer and fan of the Cubs. At a dinner at Wrigley’s home, the sportswriter unloaded his belief that by skillful marketing, a huge fan based could be created for the Cubs and the increased financial flow would go a long way to effectively policing the team and keeping it immune from the blandishments of the gamblers.
Wrigley, intrigued, took control of the Cubs that autumn and surprised everyone by naming Veeck vice president and treasurer. Veeck’s first act was to improve the accommodations provided at the rest rooms for women fans. Then he ordered cleaner uniforms for the players. As the fan base grew, Veeck Sr. pioneered radio broadcasts of Cubs games on a clear-channel station that reached deep into the Middle West and made the team a regional favorite.
Bill Veeck, Jr. was so deeply immersed in baseball by his father that by the time he was twelve, he developed the life-long certainty that he, too, would be a team owner. Yet his parents sent him off to a series of unhappy prep schools and to Kenyon College until, in the Depression year of 1933, Veeck Sr. died. Bill Junior dropped out of school and went to work for the Cubs as an office boy. It was the start of a career that would transform the game.
Working from his father’s belief that people who pay to watch a baseball game should feel they were getting value for their money, Veeck soon worked his way into being in charge of the Cubs concession operations. Along the way he made friends with another hustler named Ray Kroc, who sold paper cups for the various beverages on sale; Kroc would later found the McDonald’s hamburger empire and, incidentally, become an owner of the San Diego Padres. While he was still in his twenties, Veeck rose within the Cubs organization to hold his father’s old job as treasurer.
Bill Junior got his dream in 1941, when he was 27 and became a half-owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. World War II saw him serve for three years in the Marines, where he lost a leg in an artillery accident and thereafter got about on a series of wooden artificial limbs that became part of his public persona. He often would stub out cigarettes on it.
That persona was deliberately brash. Dickson describes him as “a tall, chain-smoking, charismatic, photogenic redhead with a big open face and a voice so deep and compelling that writer Dave Kindred said it ‘came as a train in the night.'” He was a prodigious beer drinker and raw steak eater.
Along the way he became the owner of the Cleveland Indians where he signed Larry Doby as the first black player in the American League. Cleveland won its first World Series since 1920 in Veeck’s first year of ownership. He then owned the St. Louis Browns in the early fifties where—yes, he actually sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel into a game with the Detroit Tigers as a pinch hitter. From there it was back to Chicago and the White Sox, who true to form went on to win their first pennant in forty years—powered no doubt by Veeck’s installation of the first “exploding scoreboard.”
The point of the life of Bill Veeck is that he tried to make baseball a game that anyone—black or white—could play as a sport that anyone—man, woman, or child—would want to watch and enjoy the often slow but always elegant interplay of ball, bat, and glove on a warm afternoon or a soft evening. That he virtually had to fist-fight his way past the clenched minds of other team owners and pusillanimous league officials is his tragedy.
It is our loss too. But happily, this book reminds us of a happier time when events could have gone another, better, way.