Bill Veeck: major league baseball’s last entrepreneur

Were he still with us, February 9, 2014 would be the hundredth birthday of William Louis Veeck, Jr. Today’s sterile, quillion-dollar corporate baseball industry misses him terribly. There will never be a better day to explain why.

Let’s start with one bold assertion: if Bill Veeck owned your hometown baseball team, you’d buy season tickets.

You would. I love the game, but I’m not much at all for actual stadium attendance (don’t like crowds, too many jackasses). I would want season tickets.

Even when Veeck’s teams were lousy, they entertained. And since he understood women’s buying power, and their sometimes differing expectations from the ballpark experience, Veeck’s teams appealed to women perhaps even more than men. In those days, most owners viewed female fans as afterthoughts. Veeck considered women valuable customers of the most loyal sort. An unprejudiced man in an era of African American segregation and aristocratic anti-Semitic restrictions, Veeck’s operations attracted and welcomed anyone willing to buy a ticket. Thus, Veeck set attendance records, and all his teams created buzz.

They also sometimes became winners, and on a low budget. Veeck was an entrepreneurial baseball owner; when he owned a team, it was his primary business. He was no George Steinbrenner, flush with wealth earned in other ways. Rarely could he afford a team’s purchase price, so he followed the principle of ‘other people’s money.’ He would line up investors, put up some of his own money, and operate the team. He was a salesman, a hustler of the best kind, and a very shrewd judge of administrative and sports management talent. If you had wanted a drink-from-the-firehose sports and promotional education, and you’d had any guts at all, you’d have gone to Veeck’s office and offered to take a job doing anything, for whatever he wanted to pay you. The rest would come through osmosis.

There’s a trend today in sports, news and talk shows: sports entertainment, news entertainment, talk entertainment. Pro wrestling, CNN and Jerry Springer are examples of the trend. Problem: no one today manages the second noun without losing the first. Pro wrestling is not sport, CNN is not news, and Jerry Springer isn’t discussion. They’re circuses, nothing more, deserving no more serious consideration than a stage magician who seems to believe his act involves actual magic.

Bill Veeck combined entertainment with sport without diminishing either. That is genius. And while Bill Veeck spent much of his life laughing his head off, few things gratified him more than when the game’s stuffy dignitaries would accuse him of making a travesty of baseball. But why would they say such a thing?

  • He once sent a little person (formerly called a ‘midget’) up to bat.
  • He gave outrageous door prizes, like a dozen live chickens or a pallet of beer.
  • His stunts sometimes bombed, notably Disco Demolition Night.
  • He sometimes used clowns in the coaching boxes.
  • He brought up 42-year-old Satchel Paige, late of the Negro Leagues, and touted him for Rookie of the Year.
  • He was the first to sign an African American (Larry Doby) to play in the American League.
  • He held a funeral for a pennant.
  • He held a Grandstand Managers’ Day in which fans chose the lineup and strategy. His fans won.
  • His groundskeepers’ skullduggery was a legend. If Veeck’s team was full of turtles, the groundskeepers transformed the basepaths into swamps. If they couldn’t run, no one got to run.
  • If he had a crosstown rival, he considered it his duty to try and run them out of town, annoying them in every way he could think of.
  • Hardly a game went by without some sort of stunt. Car racing. Little people landing by helicopter. Door prizes. The exploding scoreboard (a Veeck invention). Fireworks…

…and much more. But he did all of it while doing his level best to build winning teams on a shoestring budget. Bill Veeck wanted to win as well as entertain. The ‘travesty’ was that he and his fans had fun.

My assessment is that the other owners hated him out of stuffy envy. Veeck was always having fun, and they often were not, and his promotional competence pointed up their many promotional scleroses; of course they were bound to hate him. The staid and dull almost always hate the fun and interesting, do they not? Most owners took their lordly positions very seriously. Veeck’s first act, upon buying a team, was to remove his office door. He would then reorganize the concession stands, renovate the women’s restrooms, speak at any event that wanted him, tease his detractors, excoriate his nearest rivals, and go out drinking with his friends. A caring man who meant much to many, Bill Veeck had a great many friends to drink with. Some were the bleacher guys, because Veeck did not watch games from an effete  luxury box. He preferred to sit shirtless in the cheap seats, drinking beer and talking baseball with his steady customers. He loved the stadium, the stunts, the fans and the game.

For most of this time, he had a leg to stand on…and only one. He lost the right in Marine training during World War II, and every so often they had to trim it back a little more. He had to soak the stump in hot water for several hours each day. Veeck being Veeck, he cut a hole in the prosthetic leg and used it as an ashtray. For fun, he would stab it with an icepick and watch the reactions. He was inventive and brave, pioneering a number of innovations we take for granted today.

Bill Veeck made baseball fun, even for people who otherwise paid it minimal attention. He is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is something of a patron saint to the Baseball Reliquary, the organization which gave me generous permission to use Tony Salin’s work as the basis of my baseball name pronunciation project.

And if he owned your hometown team, you’d go to the games.

There is plenty of good reading out there about Bill Veeck. Here’s your Veeckography:

Veeck as in Wreck, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

The Hustler’s Handbook, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

Thirty Tons a Day, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

Bill Veeck: A Baseball Legend, Gerald Eskenazi

Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson

Note: for my money, anything written with Ed Linn is worth reading. One of the most gifted co-authors whose work I’ve had the pleasure to experience. They rarely get due credit for that.

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2 Comments

  1. Great column! I had never heard of Veeck and had fun reading it. You have to love anyone who carves a hole in the prosthetic leg to use as an ashtray.

    • Thanks, OSG. He was one of the game’s great characters, and a personal sports hero of mine.

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