Veeck’s Integration Plans Included Move to Arizona

At the dawn of the post-World War II era, Major League Baseball was uniform in two fashions: All the ballplayers were white, and all the spring training sites were in Florida.

Bill Veeck did his best to change both of those.

Veeck was born into a baseball family in Chicago in 1914. He worked in the front office of the Cubs – as did his father – before buying the Milwaukee Brewers, a minor league team in the American Association. Veeck said he was stymied in his attempts to buy the moribund Philadelphia Phillies in 1942, because other owners and commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis heard he planned to stock the team with Negro League All-Stars. The Phillies were quickly sold to William Cox, a businessman who owned the New York Americans of the American Football League, and served as president of that league as well. Cox promptly earned the dubious honor of being the first owner banned from baseball for betting on his own team.

World War II beckoned for Veeck, and he served with the Marines in the South Pacific, losing his foot in the process. Veeck had a ranch in Arizona, the Lazy Vee, where he was trying to rekindle his marriage to his wife Eleanor. After he sold the Brewers in 1945, he couldn’t stay out of baseball. He bought the Indians in 1946 and set about changing the culture of the team.

Based on the recommendation of Arizona state Sen. Hiram Corbett, he decided to move the team’s training camp to Arizona. He needed another team to make the move as well to lower expenses, and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham happily moved his team along as well (Stoneham was willing to share the load a decade later when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, trucking the Giants out of the Polo Grounds in Harlem for San Francisco).

But Veeck had another reason for relocating the team’s spring training home from Florida to Arizona: A devoted egalitarian, he wanted to escape Jim Crow laws in the south, which featured segregated facilities. Veeck learned about this the hard way as Brewers owner. In his first autobiography, “Veeck as in Wreck,” he said he found himself sitting in the black section of the ballpark in Ocala, Fla., where the Brewers trained, and was ordered by the sheriff to move. When Veeck refused, the mayor was called in, and Veeck said if he was moved, then he’d take his whole team out of Florida – and make a stink about it. The mayor and sheriff backed down, but the seeds were planted.

The Indians played their spring training games at Randolph Municipal Baseball Park in Tucson, which was renamed for Corbett in 1951. Veeck would hold events at his ranch for the team, and later in 1947, he signed Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles. Veeck took pains to remind people that unlike Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson, Veeck had actually paid for his player’s contract from the Negro Leagues.

Ironically, the Indians stayed at a segregated hotel in Tucson that wouldn’t permit Doby in 1948. A year later, Doby stayed with the rest of the team. Veeck sold the team in 1949 to pay for his divorce from Eleanor, but the Indians stayed in Arizona for another 40 years.

Today, half of all Major League teams have spring training in Arizona, including the Indians, who call Goodyear home now. In 1993, the Indians left Hi Corbett Field (immortalized in the beginning of “Major League”) for Florida. They were originally supposed to go to Homestead, but Hurricane Andrew destroyed their field, and they ended up in Winter Haven for 15 years. In 2009, the Indians returned to Arizona for spring training.

After the Indians left, Hi Corbett Field served as the spring training home for the Colorado Rockies until 2010. It’s currently the home field for the Arizona Wildcats.

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