IN THE STRIKE ZONE
Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
Walker & Co.: 446 pp., $28.
I find my pass, pink and laminated, “1980 White Sox Cordially Invite You to the Bards Room.” My mind races, touches all the bases -- Bill Veeck, peg leg, craggy kisser, steel-wool hair, sans necktie (as always), quaffing beers, spinning yarns, making the hours fly by, enthralling and illuminating us in his postgame sanctuary while outside his ballpark is dark.
The “exploding scoreboard” (his creation), its fireworks punctuating every Sox home run at home, is quiet for the night. The fans’ sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (his idea) with Harry Caray off-key and organist Nancy Faust on key, has turned yet another typical day at the office into a party.
Veeck as in Shrek, that’s him. Only no ogre was he. Quite the contrary -- his mirth, his showmanship, his bonhomie made those of us lucky enough to have known Bill Veeck somewhat possessive of him, this man of the people who owned a number of Major League Baseball clubs while keeping his home number listed in the telephone book. Oh, how captivated we were by the man, we scribes, we apostles -- with nearly as much gusto as that of so many of Veeck’s fellow owners who hated the same man, resenting his radical or even sometimes ridiculous ways.
My first reaction when a copy of Paul Dickson’s new biography, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” lands in my lap is to be curious if justice has been done to him, before turning a single page. I touch base with Mike Veeck, the great man’s son (a man of a few radical and wonderfully ridiculous notions of his own), to inquire if the descendants approve. “We’ve read it and enjoyed the easy flow and the research,” Mike replies. “Mr. Dickson has won me over with his gentle prose.”
Nice first pitch. So into the bio I go, wondering if there’s a chance in heck that this can be a proper bookend to one of the best of all sports books, “Veeck as in Wreck,” the long-ago collaboration of Ed Linn with his subject that established Veeck as a man who held nothing back, denigrating his own contemporaries in such a way that owners such as Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley were appalled by him.
The proof of goodness is usually in the details, so it becomes clear right off the bat that Dickson has written an authoritative work. It does take on a bit of a term-paper feel in part, since Dickson did need to rely heavily on anecdotes of old, Veeck being deceased for 26 years and therefore unavailable for beery, cheery late-night chats. But the stories are well documented and well told, so Veeck, like his kin, likely would approve.
We know what’s coming, to some extent -- the zany notions that gave Veeck an everlasting reputation for anything madcap in a baseball cap. No. 1 on the list being the time he sent up No. 1/8 to bat, 3-foot, 7-inch pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel, drawing a four-pitch base on balls for Veeck’s St. Louis Browns in a famed 1951 game. A great many of us are familiar with that novelty act, but Dickson makes sure we also learn that Gaedel was later beaten to death, mugged (while probably drunk) for the 11 bucks in his pocket.
Veeck the World War II vet, the amputee, in and out of the Mayo Clinic as if it had a revolving door, is also presented in full detail, including the unfathomable pain he must have been in while delivering to the masses so much laughter and joy. Veeck the civil-rights champion, the one who merits much of the credit that Branch Rickey alone tends to get, the one who marched in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral procession in 1968, is revealed here as well. This is the man of many parts who held court for us in that Bards Room, a one-legged man who marched to war and marched for peace.
His dad, the original Bill Veeck, was not a bad bard himself. He was as renowned as his drinking buddy Ring Lardner in some Chicago sporting circles back when he wrote newspaper columns under the pseudonym “Bill Bailey.” He was among those who suspected that not only did the 1919 White Sox deliberately lose a World Series (as was proved to be the case) but that the 1918 Cubs did likewise (never proved, but a distinct possibility). Chicago’s teams knew how to lose whether they tried to or not.
Pasadena was where the Cubs trained in those days, just before William Wrigley Jr. bought a majority stake in Catalina Island and transported the Cubs’ spring camp to the isle. One day out west, Veeck senior was stunned when Wrigley offered him a chance to quit journalism and run the team. Veeck became club president and, in demonstrating his own distinctive flair, had ivy planted on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls.
Los Angeles became the younger Veeck’s field of daydreams. He tried everything and everyone he could think of in the ‘50s to bring MLB to this coast, having been hired to explore such a move by William Wrigley’s son Phil, who owned the L.A. Angels of the minors. Veeck already qualified as a near-pioneer, having integrated the American League in 1947 (with Larry Doby), so not only did he come close to beating Rickey to emancipation, he also came close to beating Walter O’Malley to baseball’s virgin territory. Who knows? Chavez Ravine could have ended up with Vin Scully leading the fans in song plus an exploding scoreboard.
More and more, thanks to the Veecks, father and son, did baseball befriend opposite sexes and different races, young Bill heeding a lesson that all paying customers’ cash was green. Innovations abounded under both Veecks, seeking mass appeal. Some were inspired. Some were absurd -- Max Patkin the clownish coach was one, and when the White Sox of the late ‘70s took the field in short clam-digger pants, everyone pretty much concurred that the far-out owner had gone too far.
Dickson’s tome tells tales I had never heard, like the time former Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s campaign asked Veeck if he’d permit the ’76 presidential candidate to pinch-hit. Veeck thought it over and said no, a word he didn’t use much. It didn’t keep him from letting a 54-year-old Minnie Minoso suit up for the Sox or agreeing to son Mike’s concept for a “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979, which led to a near-riot and the Sox’s being forced to forfeit a game. Sometimes with a Veeck, you did have to accept a wreck.
A nut? That he was not. A voracious reader, Bill Veeck killed time daily in the bathtub with a book or newspaper in hand and his wooden limb nearby, flicking cigarette ash into its built-in tray. One morning, after reading a Bob Greene column about a man in dire need of a job, Veeck was on the phone in a heartbeat, offering one at the ball yard. “I didn’t know that people like Mr. Veeck really existed,” said the man. I am here to confirm that few do.