This week in 1986, Bill Veeck made the front page one last time in Cleveland.
Veeck hadn’t owned the Indians in more than 35 years at that point. In fact, he hadn’t owned a baseball team in six years. But his death of cardiac arrest at the age of 71 gave baseball fans in three cities one last opportunity to claim him as one of their own.
It was once said that Veeck’s epitaph should be “Cause of death: Life.” But decades of chain-smoking (when he had his leg removed following an infection after being wounded in World War II, he reputedly said, “I’m not losing a leg; I’m gaining an ashtray”) had finally caught up with him. He suffered from emphysema and died after surgery to remove a tumor on his lung. Plain Dealer columnist Bob Dolgan also noted that Veeck drank copiously (surely, it couldn’t be a coincidence that the first team he ever owned was the minor league Milwaukee Brewers).
“Veeck liked beer, often drinking a case in one night,” Dolgan wrote. “He smoked incessantly. It is a wonder he lived as long as he did. Like everyone else, the angels must have loved him.”
When it came to baseball, Veeck was to the manner born. His father was a sportswriter and later an executive for the Cubs, employing his son at Wrigley Field (popular lore is that Veeck planted the ivy on the outfield walls).
Veeck, who attended Kenyon College until his father’s death forced him to drop out, visited Cleveland for the 1946 U.S. Open at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, and in conversations cab drivers, discovered a marked indifference to the Indians. He put together a syndicate to buy the team, and owned what remains the last Indians team to win a World Series. He sold the team in 1949, ostensibly to pay for his divorce.
Two years later, he was back in baseball, buying a majority of the St. Louis Browns. He tried to run off the Cardinals, and appeared to be on the verge of success when Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, convicted of income tax evasion, was forced to sell. The new buyer was Gussie Busch, scion of the brewing family – and wealthy enough to run Veeck off (ironically, Saigh became one of the largest stockholders in Anheuser-Busch outside of the family). Major league owners, never fans of his, blocked his efforts to move the Browns to Baltimore, forcing him to sell – to owners who moved the team to Baltimore.
“Usually in conflict with other owners because of his far-out promotions and light touch, he probably was a man before his time,” George Sweda wrote in his Plain Dealer obituary.
He bought the White Sox in 1959, and like his foray into Cleveland, had wild success and record attendance. Two years later, facing what he thought was a potentially fatal illness, he sold the team again. He bought Suffolk Downs Raceway, which led to the most memorable title of the three books he wrote (it was a high bar, after “Veeck as in Wreck” and “The Hustler’s Handbook”): “Thirty Tons a Day”, referring to the amount of horse manure at the track.
Veeck returned to the White Sox in 1975. Owners held their noses and approved of him because he’d keep the team in Chicago. He conducted trades in the hotel lobby during the owners’ meeting. He brought back Minnie Minoso and redesigned uniforms including shorts, and it was on his watch that Disco Demolition Night occurred. But the last term of ownership was essentially a victory lap. Veeck, who was the only owner to testify on behalf of Curt Flood when he challenged baseball’s reserve clause, knew free agency was the death knell for owners like him who weren’t independently wealthy.
But even to the end, Veeck had baseball on his mind. He was a regular in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and Browns owner Art Modell recalled speaking to him just ten days before he died. Although when he was asked about returning to Cleveland, Veeck had quoted Wordsworth, saying, “You cannot recapture that first careless rapture,” Modell said he was thinking of trying to do just that. “He called me to ask if the climate was right for him to get back into the baseball picture in Cleveland,” Modell said.
And later that year, the Indians, teetering on insolvency and potentially ready to move, did sell – to Richard and David Jacobs, who set the team on another path of success rivaling Veeck’s ownership.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project