In opening his 1962 autobiography, “Veeck—as in Wreck,” with a chapter on midget Eddie Gaedel, longtime baseball owner and showman Bill Veeck concedes straight off that sending the pint-size actor to the plate as a St. Louis Brown would go down as his legacy.
“I have done a few other things in baseball, you know,” Veeck writes. “I’ve won pennants and finished dead last; I’ve set attendance records and been close to bankruptcy . . . But no one has to tell me that if I returned to baseball tomorrow, won ten straight pennants and left all the old attendance records moldering in the dust, I would still be remembered, in the end, as the man who sent a midget up to bat.”
Veeck, of course, did return to baseball, purchasing the Chicago White Sox a second time in 1975. He wound up giving both fans and critics something new to talk about besides Gaedel, when Disco Demolition Night erupted into the most disastrous promotion ever undertaken by a professional baseball club.
Paul Dickson proceeds to rescue Veeck from the ranks of ringmaster, establishing him over the course of this insightful biography as one of the game’s leading executives. Born into baseball, Veeck had a tremendous role model to learn from right at the dinner table in the form of Chicago Cubs vice president Bill Veeck Sr.
Veeck senior imparted one of the most valuable lessons his son ever absorbed when the boy was just 11. “You know, Bill,” his father said, “it’s a very interesting thing. You can look at that money and it all looks exactly the same, doesn’t it? You can’t tell who put it into your box office. It’s all exactly the same color, the same size and the same shape. You remember that.”
The younger Veeck never forgot. His views on race were decades ahead of most of his contemporaries’. Had his plot to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and stock the roster with Negro Leaguers not been foiled by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and National League president Ford Frick, Veeck would now be revered as the man who desegregated baseball instead of Branch Rickey. Though the Phillies tale was refuted in a 1998 SABR publication, Dickson debunks the allegation that Veeck made the whole episode up later in life, uncovering contemporary references to both the intended purchase and the plan to fill the lineup with African Americans. He discusses this at length in the book’s appendix.
When Veeck’s plans were thwarted, he was forced to wait until 1947, settling for integrating the American League by signing Larry Doby for the Indians several months after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Brooklyn. Unlike Rickey, Veeck insisted on paying the Newark Eagles, settling on a sum of $15,000 to purchase Doby. Though Doby initially struggled, Veeck wouldn’t be dissuaded from seeking out other Negro Leaguers to bolster his roster. The following season he again made headlines, signing legend Satchel Paige.
Veeck’s tireless energy in promoting and building his ballclubs is even more notable given the health problems he battled throughout his adult life. Veeck volunteered for the military in 1943, eschewing an offer to remain stateside in a publicity role for an opportunity to fight like any average, non-celebrity private. A serious wound to his right foot eventually required evacuation to a Navy field hospital, then a return to the States. Over time, Veeck lost the leg, undergoing multiple amputations, though never, according to friends and family members, complaining about his hardship.
Veeck’s addiction to baseball and drive to work seemingly more hours than a day held eventually derailed his first marriage, costing him years of contact with his oldest children. Dickson presents Veeck as less than an ideal husband and father to this first family, though later in life, after meeting and marrying Mary Frances Ackerman, his new family became a much more central focus in his life, particularly after he settled in Maryland.
It was during this semi-retirement from the game that Veeck collaborated with author Ed Linn on his hugely successful memoirs, “Veeck—as in Wreck” and “The Hustler’s Handbook.” A third title, “Thirty Tons a Day,” came out a decade later, detailing his years at the helm of the Suffolk Downs racetrack outside of Boston. This vast library of writings, combined with Veeck’s fondness for talking with reporters, left Dickson a seemingly endless trove of documents from which to cull stories for the new biography. It also raises a potential hurdle among fans of Veeck’s books, the first of which was included on Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books of All Time in 2002.
Certainly many of the stories in “Bill Veeck” will be familiar to readers of Veeck’s memoirs. But Veeck’s writings are necessarily less objective than Dickson’s. Dickson also provides a structure and the full cradle-to-grave perspective that was unavailable at the time Veeck and Linn unloosed the baseball pariah on the literary world five decades ago.
There’s so much more to this colorful visionary to celebrate than midgets and Disco Demolition. Veeck was a one of a kind whose impact reached beyond the ballpark, into the very fiber of 20th-century America. Dickson has captured it all in entertaining fashion.
Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
By Paul Dickson • Walker & Company, 2012 • $28.00