Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When "Sport Shirt Bill" Went to War

On this Veterans Day, as we honor the sacrifices of all the men and women in uniform, I'd like to take a few minutes to remember one particular veteran's story.

In late November of 1943, with another season in the books and the pennant won, maverick Milwaukee Brewers owner Bill Veeck left his office at Borchert Field and enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

Veeck Joins the Marines, November 1943
(Milwaukee Sentinel)

This was Milwaukee Sentinel cartoonist Lou Grant's take on "Sport Shirt Bill"'s new outfit:

The Marines, well aware of Sport Shirt Bill's penchant for the theatrical, thought they were getting a publicity stunt and recruiting tool. They accepted him despite his having bad knees, expecting him to stay Stateside and play for the newsreel cameras.

Newly-minted Private Veeck had other ideas, however, and by all contemporary accounts pulled every string he could find to have himself transferred to a fighting unit, destined for the South Pacific and the front lines.

This wasn't the first time that Veeck's flair for promotion had been mistaken for self-promotion. While he didn't shun the attention he got at the Orchard, he never forgot why the fans came to the corner of 8th and Chambers in the first place. If promoting himself helped promote the team, more's the better. But while that might have been a side benefit for the "P.T. Barnum of Baseball," it was never the point.

Even while presiding over such spirited nonsense as fan giveaways, Veeck never took the field. During his birthday party for manager Charlie Grimm, Veeck hosted from the dugout, microphone in hand. He was taught to stay out of the players' arena by his father, who had been president of the Chicago Cubs from 1919 until his death in 1933, and so throughout his life Bill Veeck stayed out of the club's locker room, and only publicly appeared on a baseball field a handful of times.

As he went off to training in San Diego, Veeck left his ballclub in solid hands. Grimm and team secretary Rudie Schaffer (elevated to acting president) took over the operations. Jim Gallagher, general manager of the Chicago Cubs and an old friend of Veeck's from his days planting ivy at Wrigley Field, loaned Milwaukee his assistant Don Stewart, who had prior experience running Tulsa's entry in the Texas League.

Before leaving, Veeck wrote an open letter to the team's fans, which was reprinted in this early 1944 issue of Brewer News. In it, he says almost nothing about himself, choosing instead to assure the fans that good times would continue to be held at the Orchard. I quote it here in full to get a good measure of the man in his own voice:
Dear Fans,

It's going to be kind of funny not to be around that ball yard this season because I have enjoyed so much being with you. However, you know that wherever I may be stationed, I will be looking forward to getting back to Borchert Field. I am not worried at all about leaving because I know we will have a good ball club and one that is ably managed both on the field and in the office. I know that you are going to keep having a good time at the ball games, and I hope you'll feel free to drop in and see the gang at the office just as you did while I was here.

I'd like to tell all of you that I have appreciated tremendously the way you fans have treated us. We, in turn, have tried to reciprocate by havinf a good ball club, a clean ball park, and by trying to give courteous treatment to all.

In closing, there is just one thing I'd like to add, and that is to remind you that the gang is still going to be doing business at the same old stand, and I hope that all of you enjoy the coming summer at Borchert Field.

Thanking you again for your many courtesies, I am, very truly yours,

PVT. BILL VEECK, U.S. Marine Corps.
While he might have dedicated himself to being a fighting man, Sport Shirt Bill couldn't ever leave baseball behind. It would take more than the Marine Corps to get the baseball man out of Ole Will. He continued to wheel and deal from afar, and in April of 1944 Veeck, now a Private (First Class), negotiated the sale of a shortstop to the Seattle Rainers. It didn't hurt that Rainiers vice president Roscoe Torrance was himself a Captain in the Marine Corps, in a role much like the one the Corps originally envisioned for Veeck - Torrance was "an athletic and morale officer" whose duties included running a "leatherneck baseball league" on bases.

Call it a win-win-win: Seattle got a shortstop, the Brewers got some cash, and the Marines got their good press after all.

After all his efforts to see combat, Veeck's military career was by his own account "short and undistinguished." His right leg was crushed in the recoil of an anti-aircraft gun during the Bougainville campaign and of his twenty-two months in the service, he spent eighteen in military hospitals.

On the home front, Jolly Cholly Grimm was keeping the ballclub running smoothly. The Brewers were off to a great start in the American Association. What could possibly go wrong?

The bigs had been knocking on Grimm's door for some time - in November of 1941 the New York Times reported that he had turned down an offer to manage a major league club in order to remain with the Brewers - but this was the Cubs, his old team. The sentimental pull was too much, and after a brief period during which Milwaukee fans implored Grimm to stay, Cholly packed his bags for Chicago.

Veeck learned of Grimm's departure from a tattered copy of Time magazine in his hospital room on Guadalcanal. He reacted out of emotion, firing off an ill-conceived and admittedly "unfair, unkind and unforgiveable" letter to his old friend Jim Gallagher, accusing Gallagher of all manner of back-stabbing treachery in stealing his manager.

He was similarly restrained when he heard whom Grimm had hired to take his place in the dugout - a former ballplayer named Charles Dillon "Casey" Stengel (right). In Veeck's defense, Stengel's managerial career to date had consisted of piloting the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves to a series of cellar finishes. Veeck dashed off another ill-conceived letter, this time to Rudie Schaffer, accusing Stengel of being "incompetent and a clown." Schaffer responded with a letter of his own, not-so-patiently explaining that Stengel had agreed to take the job only as a favor to Grimm, who refused to leave the Brewers until he had found a manager who could fit in with the team's "free and easy, clowning operation."

"Incompetent and a clown." While Veeck's second assesment of Stengel was undoubtedly true, he couldn't have been more wrong about the first part. Not only did the Brews not lose a step after Grimm left for Chicago, they continued to be the class of the American Association in 1944, finishing the season with an astounding 102-51 record. Today, Stengel's Brewers are remembered as one of the top 100 teams in minor league baseball history.

While tearing their way through the American Association, the Brewers kept their president close to their hearts. The cover of the 1944 All-Star Game program (which featured the Brewers squaring off against a team of All-Stars from the other Association clubs) features a beautiful Lou Grant cartoon depicting Private Veeck listening to his beloved Brews on the radio.

Similarly, when Veeck finally returned home in August of 1945 (just in time to see his beloved Brews with their third straight pennant), the club welcomed him in grand style:

The returning PFC was honored in a ceremony at Borchert Field. This time Veeck couldn't help but stand under the floodlights, sporting his newest trademark accessory:

His wound would never fully heal, and in 1946, after a series of infections, Bill Veeck's right leg was amputated nine inches below the knee. This would be the first of thirty separate amputations, as the leg would slowly deteriorate over the rest of his life. At first panicked by the thought of going through life as a "cripple," Veeck soon turned his most potent weapon - his sense of humor - to the challenge. Never one to avoid a gag at his own expense, Veeck worked his wooden leg into his showman's persona, especially after he carved an ashtray into it for his cigar.

Veeck was never known as the shy and retiring type, but aside from flaunting his wooden leg he was reticent to discuss his time in the Marines. In his 1962 autobiography Veeck as in Wreck ("The chaotic career of baseball's incorrigible maverick"), he discusses his service career this way:
I had left to join the Marines at the end of the third season (in Milwaukee), missed the next season and returned, on crutches, for the last six weeks of 1945.
That's it. One additional throwaway reference, made in the context of the series of operations on his leg. The "coconut tree" trade, which made such great newspaper copy at the time, didn't even warrant a mention.

Veeck as in Wreck runs 380 pages, 380 pages in which Veeck has nothing to say about why a young man with bad knees and three young children decided at the age of 29 to leave his home, his family and his ballclub to go fight in a war. As was so often the case, when given the opportunity to shine the spotlight upon his own personal accomplishments, Sport Shirt Bill elected to remain quietly in the dugout.

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