Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick"

Today's Book Club installment is a new biography, released just last week, of our very own Bill Veeck. It's entitled, naturally enough: "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick" by Paul Dickson.

Veeck is probably best known for his promotional exploits as a major league owner (sending the 3'7" tall Eddie Gaedel up to bat for the St. Louis Browns, Comiskey Park's exploding scoreboard), but was also a man who passionately loved the game and its fans. At every stop in his baseball career, Veeck sat in the grandstands with regular fans, proclaiming a belief that one's knowledge of baseball was in inverse proportion to the price of his or her seat.

Veeck's sense of social justice also shines through in Dickson's account. Although wags will joke today that the phrase "CHAMPION OF THE LITTLE GUY" on his Hall of Fame plaque is a reference to Gaedel, Veeck was a lifelong believer in civil rights. In 1943, he had a deal to buy the Phillies, which he intended to stock with players from the Negro Leagues. Veeck made the mistake of informing Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of those plans, and the next day the National League stepped in to take over the Phils, scuttling Veeck's deal. Fourteen years later, with Cleveland, Veeck integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby just three weeks after Jackie Robinson's debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Dickson does a marvelous job of tracing that sense of justice back to his father, Wm. L. Veeck, Sr. The elder Veeck was a successful Chicago sportswriter and columnist when he was hired to run the Chicago Cubs in 1918 by owner William Wrigley Jr., who asked the critical columnist "You think you can do better?" (Veeck's response: "Well, I certainly couldn't do any worse.").

While with the Cubs, the senior Veeck was a force for changing and broadening the game. He persuaded the reluctant owners to agree to an annual All-Star Game in 1933, and that same year proposed a series of interleague games to boost sagging attendance in the dogs days of summer. Decades later, his son would become an innovator in his own right, with the same mixed record of success.

Veeck the Younger cut his eye teeth on his father's Cubs team (much is made of how he helped plant the first ivy vines along the outfield wall) before striking out on his own with the Milwaukee Brewers.

One of the things that most struck me while reading Dickson's account was how Veeck spent his life building a professional family. He had a habit of working with the same people over and over, moving together from one team and one city to the next, they either following him directly or rekindling a professional relationship once he had settled in to his new home. This was perfectly embodied in his relationship with Rudie Schaffer. Schaffer was an accountant for the Milwaukee Brewers when Veeck and Charlie Grimm bought the team in 1941, and Sport Shirt Bill instantly took a liking to Schaffer's "boundless love of baseball".

1943 Milwaukee Brewers
(Schaffer back row left, Veeck back row right)

Schaffer quickly became Veeck's right hand man, ran the club while Veeck was in the Marines, and stayed with him thereafter. When Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians in 1946, Schaffer was brought in to take over as general manager. Schaffer would do the same for the Browns when Veeck moved to St. Louis. He would also be a key figure in Veeck's tenure as owner of the Chicago White Sox, as well as his brief foray into horse racing at Suffolk Downs. When Veeck was honored as "Baseball Executive of the Year" in 1977 after turning around the previously-hapless White Sox, Veeck gave much of the credit to Schaffer: "He does the work and I take the bows."

There was another member of Veeck's troupe who joined in Milwaukee. Johnny Price was a shortstop signed from the Oakland Oaks as much for his between-inning entertainment as his work on the field.

Veeck took price to the big leagues in 1946, signing him to a contract with the Indians as a pinch hitter. "He won't hit much," Veeck said, "but he's the greatest baseball entertainer in the country." Veeck had the inspired notion of pairing him with Max Patkin, the other great baseball clown, who he brought to the Indians as a coach.

I was also struck by how much Veeck's time as owner of the Brewers informed the rest of his career. Much of what we think of as his shtick was developed at Borchert Field. The movable fence he built at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to contain opposing players' home runs? Had its origins in Borchert Field's "spite fence". The zany fan giveaways and raffles he held throughout his career were first tried on the fans at the Orchard. Even the infamous White Sox uniforms he introduced in 1976 had their roots in Milwaukee. Although their most iconic feature was the rarely-worn shorts, the road uniforms were notable for their solid blue shirts and matching pants.

The navy-over-navy road uniform, eschewing traditional gray, bears a distinct resemblance to the Brewer uniforms Veeck introduced to Milwaukee in 1942:

Mickey Heath Tries On the New Brewer Uniform

The new baseball uniforms for the Brewers arrived last week and Mickey Heath (left), back with the club as coach, tried on the home suit. He and Rudy Schaffer, club secretary, are holding up a shirt of the road uniform. Home uniforms are of white jersey and the road suits are dark blue. At present the most important date on the Brewers' calendar is the one shown in the picture—Apr. 16, opening day.
As the American Association Brewers were the incubator for players on their way to the majors, so too was the club important in the development of Bill Veeck as an owner.

Even the cover photograph reinforces his connection with the Brewers. In it, a young Veeck sits in his desk at Borchert Field, wheeling and dealing on the phone. Over his shoulder is the oversized trophy he bought to commemorate the Brews' Opening Day attendance record in 1942. On the wall, a stern photo of Kenesaw Landis stares down at him. This little touch could have been an ironic gesture, given the Commissioner's role in thwarting Veeck's plans for the Phillies, not to mention the many run-ins the Brewers' organization had with Landis over the years.

Dickson's tome is meticulously researched (one of his sources was our very own Paul Tenpenny), engaging and a worthwhile addition to any baseball fan's library, but those of us who love the Brews will find it a particular pleasure. You can buy it now at your local bookstore, on Amazon or, if you don't mind the ludicrous price tag you can download an iBook from Apple (seriously, guys, there's no way that should cost the same as a hardcover copy). I can't recommend it highly enough.

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