The book: “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick”
The author: Paul Dickson
The vital stats: Walker and Company, 448 pages, $28.
The pitch: Before the Dodgers moved to L.A. from Brooklyn, Bill Veeck had his sights on Southern California for his hapless St. Louis Browns (before they were relocated the opposite way, to Baltimore). Imagine him as the long-time owner of the local team.
Before the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to become the first regular African-American player in 1947, Veeck already had a working list of prospects he was going to do it with. Robinson started playing in April of that season. By July, Veeck signed Larry Doby as the American League’s first African American player, with his Cleveland Indians, although his first choice would have been the legendary Ray Dandridge.
Before this latest biography of the great baseball owner who lived large while in control of three big-league franchises (one twice) from the 1950s to the ’80s, there was “Veeck — As in Wreck,” his autobiography in 1962, which still stands as one of the all-time classics in baseball literature.
Dickson isn’t too late in becoming the first to compile the most extensive profile of Veeck, and not really relying too much on “Wreck” as a launching point. In fact, it’s about time, and there has to be a way for someone to use this as a launching point for a movie about Veeck’s life on the big screen.
Veeck is bigger than life, thinking outside the batter’s box long before the term became a clich. He’s known as the owner who once trotted midget Eddie Gaedel up to the plate for an at-bat in 1951, or launched Disco Demolition Night, or even signed legendary pitcher Satchel Paige to help his Indians win the 1948 World Series. He always tweaked the system, and the fans were always on his side.
If only someone could be that way today — that is, if it fit their personality. You can’t fake it. And Veeck never did. Imagine him today with social media.
Dickson is a master with words, having already done books on the “Hidden Language of Baseball” (in ’03), several revisions of the “Dickson Baseball Dictionary” and, lately, co-authoring “Journalese: A Dictionary for Deciphering the News,” that will come out this year. To some, Dickson can be a little on the dry side, but hardly sounding like some pontificating academic showing how much more he knows than everyone else. He’s got a voice that works with this subject, thankfully, and keeps it on track when all craziness could be breaking out.
How much in depth goes Dickson get into Veeck? The Gaedel story only takes four pages out of 400-plus. And it leaves you wanting more, but in the context of everything else, it’s just the right amount of space.
Veeck, right, with Satchel Paige in 1948, a colorized version of a black and white shot originally printed in the Sporting News. The photo was posted on UniWatch.com via Gary Chanko and Mears Auctions (linked here).
An excerpt: From Chapter 14, after Veeck had his Browns removed from him in 1954:
“I didn’t leave baseball gracefully, I was evicted,” Veeck declared. The American League had given him the book and, as his friend the Cleveland Press columnist Whitey Lewis put it, “broke his back and his heart.” Out of baseball, he vowed to be like the bad penny, fated to turn up again.
Less than two weeks later, he was back in circulation with a $1,000-a-month special assistant to Phil Wrigley (owner of the Chicago Cubs), assigned to develop ways of spearheading baseball’s move to the West Coast. Veeck was to work closely with Don Stewart of Wrigley’s minor-league Los Angeles Angels. Wrigley aimed to put the National League ahead of its rival in moving to the fertile West Coast market. …
Before the year was over, Veeck had not only proposed a major upgrade of Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field to major-league standards but also met with California governor Goodwin Knight to explore the public financing of ballparks in Los Angeles and San Francisco … Veeck moved his young family to Los Angeles and immediately became the face and voice of western expansion …
Based in Los Angeles, Veeck attempted deals of all sorts, often for or with friends. One involved the eccentric and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who owned a brewery in Texas that Jerold Hoffberger wanted to buy. Hoffberger asked Veeck to make the approach. As Veeck recalled twenty years later: “With cloak and dagger maneuvering, I got to the Hughes people, and they promised to relay the message to the chief.”
A year of silence followed but then one night at eleven o’clock, the telephone rang and it was Hughes, who instructed Veeck to meet him three hours later at a hamburger joint on one of the main streets in Los Angeles. Veeck kept the appointment, and except for the counterman, Hughes and he were the only people in the place. After asking Veeck if he wanted coffee, Hughes grunted, “I don’t want to sell the brewery.”
To which Veeck replied, “My friend doesn’t want your brewery. He bought one in Detroit eight months ago. Good night!”
(Dickson notes that story came from the April 20, 1976 issue of the Chicago Tribune, from a David Condon column in which Veeck was presumably sitting at the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago telling stories about his past.)
(After Veeck did a report in 1954 that was “a road map” for the N.L. moving two New York teams to L.A. and San Francisco), in February 1955, Veeck officially ended his fourteen month stay in Los Angeles and resigned from his post with Wrigley with the understanding his job was done … At the final press conference, with Phil Wrigley at his side, he displayed an artist’s drawing of how Wrigley Field in Los Angeles could be expanded to seat 50,000 by cutting the grandstand in half and moving it to the outfield. Veeck also used the press conference to announce that he had bought the 47,000-acre Deep Creek Ranch in New Mexico …. (which would) keep him busy until his return to Los Angeles or San Francisco with a “major role” with a big-league club. Pressed as to which city he would prefer, he said Los Angeles.”
(Note: In Dec., 1955, Veeck and friends bought the Triple-A Syracuse team and moved it to Miami, where it was renamed the Miami Marlins … His friends wanted him to move there and upgrade the franchise to “major-league status.” … By 1959, he owned the Chicago White Sox — who played the Dodgers at the Coliseum in that season’s World Series.)
Bill Veeck, left, signs Larry Doby as the first African-American player, joining the Cleveland Indians.
How it goes down in the scorebook: A giant explosive scoreboard announcing to the baseball world: Veeck Lives.
In Dickson’s acknowledgments, he writes: “I attempt to bring Veeck into focus as neither a clown nor a hero — although he could play either of these roles — but as a remarkable iconoclast and individualist living through a time when conformity and corporate allegiance were valued personal attributes. If I have achieved this goal and gotten Veeck right or nearly so, then I have many to thank for their help.” Included is Veeck’s son, Mike, who co-owns the St. Paul Saints, Charleston River Dogs, Fort Myers Miracle and Hudson Valley Renegades, and lives along the same principles as his dad.
I’m reminded of the day when this out-of-towner, Frank McCourt, took a pounding in the local media not long after he bought the Dodgers in 2004. Maybe he just didn’t know how to run a team. A year later, Mike Veeck’s book “Fun Is Good: How to Create Joy & Passion Your Workplace & Career,” came out, kind of using his successes in minor-league baseball as a blueprint. I sent McCourt a copy, and he sent me a note of thanks shortly later.
If McCourt were in charge, I’d also send him a copy of this Veeck bio, with the hope that it wasn’t too late to absorb the spirit of the man, even if he wasn’t cut of the same cloth. In some ways, I see some of Veeck in McCourt — always fighting an uphill battle, but still able to achieve some things and improve the baseball experience along the way.
McCourt could have been another champion of the little guy, if ….
Our favorite book blurb review: “Any man who wanted to be included on Richard Nixon’s enemies list is worthy of a searching biography — and Paul Dickson has been kind enough to do that for us with his compelling portrait of the unregenerate Bill Veeck.” — Ray Robinson, author of “Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time”
Also: A review of the book by the Los Angeles Times former columnist Mike Downey (linked here).
Also don’t miss: The Baseball Reliquary’s major exhibition, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” opens today and runs through May 24 at the Arcadia Public Library (20 W. Duarte Rd., Arcadia).
Baseball Reliquary director Terry Cannon says that while “the tendency today is to remember Bill Veeck as baseball’s most eccentric showman … he was much, much more. As this exhibition will show, Veeck was a transformational figure in the history of baseball. A nonconformist and visionary, he spent a lifetime challenging baseball’s and society’s well-entrenched status quo.”
The exhibition, sparked based on Dickson’s biography that officially is released on April 24, will culminate on Saturday, May 19, with what’s called a “VeeckFest,” including a film screening, book signing, and panel discussion that will have Dickson join authors such as John Schulian, Ron Rapoport and Ken Solarz.
The “fest” will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Veeck — as in Wreck” (written with Ed Linn, released in 1962, paperback version linked here).
Veeck (1914-1986) actually went on to author two other books with Linn: “The Hustler’s Handbook” (1965), a series of caustic essays on various aspects of baseball, and “Thirty Tons a Day” (1972), a memoir of his days as president of Suffolk Downs. The title of that book is a reference to the amount of horse manure produced daily at the racetrack by the 1,600 horses on hand on peak racing days.
All the Veeck books are on display at the Arcadia Library, including a novel that Peter Schilling Jr. wrote in 2008 called “The End of Baseball,” based on a story included in the Dickson book about how, in 1942, Veeck wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and fill the roster with Negro League stars. Some dispute the authenticity of the story, but Dickson’s book maintains it happened and wasn’t just a creation of Veeck’s imagination.
Also on display: Veeck’s first prosthetic leg (in the possession of Reliquary member Bob Colleary) and Ben Sakoguchi’s orange crate painting “As in Wreck Brand:”