New Veeck Book Chronicles His Wacky Life
Bill Veeck is known for many things.
In Cleveland, he’s remembered as the owner of the last Indians team to win a World Series. He installed the ivy at Wrigley Field and an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park. And in St. Louis, he sent a midget up as a pinch-hitter and let fans manage a game.
He was also a veteran of World War II and in his own words wasn’t handicapped, but a cripple, losing a leg piece by piece over a period of years.
Paul Dickson presents those facets of Veeck – and more – in a new book, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” published by Walker & Company. Dickson, the author of more than 40 books, has written about baseball before, including compilations like “Baseball’s Greatest Quotes” and “The Unwritten Rules of Baseball,” and has written books on history, on topics such as the Bonus Army and Sputnik. But he had never tackled a project like a biography of Bill Veeck.
“It’s a true American biography,” Dickson said. “A lot of people said, ‘It’s a baseball book.’ It’s a baseball book, but it’s also about America. “
Dickson interviewed more than 200 people for the book, and tackled the project from an investigative standpoint, making public records requests for Veeck’s FBI file and his Marine Corps record from World War II. Dickson said Veeck was nothing short of heroic in World War II, volunteering for service when he was nearly 30, going into combat into the South Pacific instead of recruiting and selling war bonds as the Marines wanted, and actually conducting baseball business (he was the owner of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers at the time) in a combat zone.
Veeck, along with Ed Linn, wrote a total of three books. “Veeck As in Wreck” was an autobiography written in 1962 – a time, Dickson said, when Veeck was afraid he was going to die. He had sold the White Sox, did a farewell tour and scaled back his chain-smoking to a pack a day as doctors suspected he had lung cancer. Veeck didn’t have cancer, and recovered, ending up writing two more books: “The Hustler’s Handbook” and “Thirty Tons a Day,” about his ownership of Suffolk Downs.
Aside from Veeck’s own writing, there hasn’t been a whole lot written about him. Dickson noted that Veeck had a lot of interaction with many other famous people through the 20th century. Jack Ruby, who later went on to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, was a vendor at Wrigley Field, working for Veeck and his father. One of the concession contractors was a paper cup salesman named Ray Kroc, who through his restaurant sales career ended up owning McDonald’s – and also became a major league baseball owner, of the San Diego Padres. Veeck lunched with Salvador Dali and marched with Sammy Davis Jr. in Martin Luther King’s funeral – but did not march with King in Selma, as popular myth suggested.
Dickson also tackles Veeck’s attempts to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and integrate them while Jackie Robinson was still in the Army. Veeck talked about his plans in “Veeck As In Wreck” and “The Hustler’s Handbook,” but a SABR article attempted to torpedo that as talk – a charge which Dickson refutes, pointing out that nobody challenged Veeck’s account until after he and many of his friends and contemporaries were dead, and disproves the main thesis of the SABR article – that this is a story that only materialized after the fact, as evidenced by the lack of coverage in the media of the day.
In addition to Veeck’s basic belief in fairness and equality – he testified on behalf of Curt Flood when he challenged the reserve clause, realizing full well that free agency would doom his abilities to own a major league team without particularly deep pockets – he was also a visionary, or at least smart enough to find himself on the right side of history.
Both he and his father, who was an executive with the Cubs at the time of his unexpected death, opened baseball up for women and children to enjoy. Dickson tells of one of Veeck’s first acts in Cleveland being to tear up the women’s rooms and install new ones. He included a nursery at Municipal Stadium so people can leave their babies there and watch baseball. You can draw a straight line from Veeck’s promotions to ideas today, like kids running the bases and autograph days.
Veeck was also an early advocate for night baseball – allowing working people to see games – and interleague play, as well as revenue sharing. And of course, he won. While he could be of no help to the Browns, he owned the 1948 Indians and he and Hank Greenberg could be credited with assembling the team that won the 1954 pennant and what was at the time one of the best farm systems in the majors, and Veeck’s White Sox won a pennant in 1959, their first in 40 years.
But despite his own book title, Veeck is presented as more than a hustler by Dickson. He’s an egalitarian, a veteran and, as his plaque in Cooperstown said, a champion for the little guy.
“He might be described as a buffoon,” Dickson said. “But there’s a man of tremendous purpose.”