Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick

  • Paul Dickson
  • Walker & Company
  • 448 pp.
  • May 14, 2012

Behind Bill Veeck’s showmanship, publicity and stunts, the author finds a talented baseball and business mind in this new baseball biography.

Reviewed by Roger D. Launius

Paul Dickson’s Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick is a most welcome portrait of an iconoclastic, ingenious and slightly cockeyed owner of a succession of teams — the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox (which he owned twice). An admitted egotist who frequently upset owners with his stunts, Veeck also made sound baseball decisions, creating winners in Cleveland and Chicago. Veeck, as Dickson makes clear, is best remembered for sending Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf, to bat in a game against the Tigers at St. Louis on August 19, 1951, an imaginative way of getting a walk for his team. That stunt sealed Veeck’s place as a baseball original.

The son of a Chicago Cubs president, Veeck had a populist tendency that found him happiest when roaming the bleachers to mingle with fans. By the time he was 11, Veeck was hawking concessions in the stands, working in the ticket office and helping the groundskeepers. He is credited with planting the ivy at the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. In 1941 he bought the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, trying out a series of wild stunts and practical jokes during the games as a means of attracting paying customers. He pioneered the now-ubiquitous giveaways at ballparks for everything from bats to beer steins. Once he entertained his Milwaukee fans with a gadget to raise the outfield fences of his stadium when the visiting team batted, lowering it when his team was at the plate. That stunt lasted one game; the league banned it the next day.

In 1946 Veeck bought controlling interest in the Cleveland Indians and transformed it into a powerhouse, even as he entertained fans with “bread and circuses.” Veeck was also an early and persistent advocate of baseball’s integration. He signed Larry Doby from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1947, and Doby became the first African American in the American League when he arrived in Cleveland near the end of the 1947 season. Veeck followed the next year by signing another Monarch, the legendary Satchel Paige, who as a 42-year-old rookie went 6-1 for the Indians during the team’s World Series-winning season in 1948.

Veeck sold the Indians soon thereafter but immediately purchased the St. Louis Browns, a perennial doormat in the American League. One anecdote points out the lack of attendance at the Browns’ games: a fan supposedly saw Veeck on the street one day and asked him what time the game was that afternoon. Veeck responded, “What time can you be there?” Veeck immediately set about making the Browns more interesting through promotions, even if the baseball was terrible. During “Grandstand Manager’s Day” on August 24, 1951, for example, Veeck had several thousand spectators manage the game. They were handed placards with a green “yes” on one side and a red “no” on the other as they entered the ballpark. During the game grandstand managers flashed their opinions about what to do next. All the while the Browns’ regular manager, Zack Taylor, puffed a pipe while sitting in a rocking chair. The crowd changed the starting lineup, moved players to different positions and altered the batting order. The fans loved it, but the gimmick infuriated other owners. Veeck quipped in defense, “I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity.”

When Veeck failed to gain approval to move the Browns to another city, he was forced to sell the team and was out of baseball until 1959, when he purchased the Chicago White Sox. That year the “Go-Go Sox” won their first pennant in 40 years. By the mid-1960s he was out of baseball again, this time on the advice of his doctors as he retired to his Maryland farm. Veeck went back to Chicago in 1975 and bought the White Sox again for $7 million. He sold the team five years later for $20 million, a remarkable return on investment for baseball at the time. Again health prompted his exit from baseball, in part because of his experience in World War II that cost him a leg, but also because he was a heavy smoker and underwent two operations for lung cancer. He eventually died in 1986. One of his players, Minnie Minoso, attended his funeral wearing a White Sox uniform. Veeck would have been pleased.

Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick is a very fine baseball biography that compares with the best work that has been published on the leaders of the sport over the years. Paul Dickson’s breezy style illuminates not only the Bill Veeck of legend, but also the real Bill Veeck who worked hard at his craft even as he honed to a fine art the persona of a maverick and a “hustler,” the term Veeck liked best in characterizing himself. There was the unconventional Veeck who could never resist tweaking the noses of the baseball establishment; but even Veeck’s image as a baseball maverick was a hustle. Lost in all of the showmanship, publicity and stunts, Dickson concludes, was a tremendously sound baseball and business mind.

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and the co-author of Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman (2010).

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