Taken For Granted: Remembering a ballgame renegade

A World Series championship banner will fly above Dodger Stadium on March 31. No, I’m not delusional; I sadly recall the Dodgers’ miserable finish last season.

The banner proclaiming the Giants World Series victory will be streamed overhead by an airplane as the Blue Crew takes the field against San Francisco on opening day. The flyover is the malicious brainchild of Bay Area fans who never miss an opportunity to stick it to the L.A. faithful.

The stunt is reminiscent of something the late Bill Veeck might have pulled. Veeck (as in “wreck”) was owner and general manager of several major league ball teams from the 1940s through the late ‘70s and was renowned for hokey promotions. Given the quality of the teams he owned, Veeck’s showmanship was necessary to put fans in the stands.

He built the first exploding scoreboard, complete with fireworks, pinwheels and sound effects, and started fan appreciation day, giving away everything from bats to live animals, cupcakes and, on one occasion, raffled off an oil well. Putting player’s names on their uniforms was a Veeck idea, as was ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field and Harry Carey singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at White Sox games.

Jerome Joseph, owner of the Brand Bookstore and a St. Louis Browns stockholder at the time, fondly recalls sitting in the stands on Aug. 19, 1951, when Veeck pulled his most outlandish stunt — sending 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to bat for the Browns. A professional entertainer, Eddie wore elf shoes and a Browns uniform with the number “1/8” on his back. His strike zone, when in a crouch, was estimated to be about 11/2 inches.

Joseph remarked that “everyone thought it was a gag.” The crowd laughed and then became subdued when the somewhat bewildered home plate umpire ordered the pitcher to proceed. Holding a kiddie bat, which did not move off his shoulder, Gaedel walked on four straight pitches. After strolling to first base, a pinch runner was sent in and Eddie proudly crossed the diamond to the cheers of the fans.

The league office went bonkers, threatening to add a minimum height requirement to the rule book and unsuccessfully attempting to have the at-bat stricken from the record book. But Veeck had been careful to comply with league rules, signing Gaedel to a legitimate big league contract if only for one at bat.

Veeck’s baseball career began as a teenage popcorn vendor at Cub’s games and progressed to owner and general manager of major league teams. During World War II, he served with the Marines in the Pacific, suffering the loss of a leg.

His efforts to attract fans to the ballpark overshadowed his many positive contributions to opening the game up to all and allowing players a chance to escape the onerous contracts which existed until the 1950s. He was the only owner to support eliminating the reserve clause and allowing free agency.

Years before Branch Ricky brought Jackie Robinson up to the Dodgers, Veeck made an offer to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and staff the team with star Negro League players. Aware of Veeck’s plans, the league sold the club out from under him. In 1947, he recruited the first African-American to play in the American League: Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians. A year later, he added the legendary 42-year-old rookie Satchel Paige.

Veeck offered to put an American League team in Southern California at the same time Walter O’Malley was moving the Dodgers to L.A. Realizing what a promotional genius Veeck was, O’Malley pulled out all the stops to prevent Veeck from getting a franchise, which would compete in what he claimed was his geographic market.

So on opening day, Veeck will undoubtedly be ribbing O’Malley as those San Francisco fans put the needle to our boys in blue.

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.

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