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The Great White Sox Hope

or, another interview with Bill Veeck

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The old captain eyes you from across the table, his eyes gently searching, probing yours for the spark he knows must be there. Once he's found it, he leans forward conspiratorially, the parrot on his shoulder oblivious to his whispered tones.

"Aye, I can take ye there. But let me warn ye, t'will be none of your county fair sideshows or gypsy myths. Nay, I'll show ye all new things, wonder no other Englishman has ever seen. I've been there lad, i can take ye there. I can teach ye the secrets … "

Pausing to shift his stiff wooden leg, Veek hoists the foaming pewter ale mug, holding it up to the candlelight. "Sign on with me and me ship," he whispers, his eyes catching the candle's flame, "and I'll give ye entrance to a new and beautiful world, a place known only to the greatest and mightiest kings. Where the grass is green and lush and where rain falls only by man's command."

The parrot watches serenely as the new passenger excitedly signs on the old peg-legged captain's ship to excitement, wonder, and escape. He watches, too, the fire in his owner's eyes, the light that says there's a new adventure afoot.The last, perhaps, but most certainly the best of the lot of them … 

Had he been born into another place or time, Bill Veeck might have been the beckoning captain of an adventuring ship. Or he might have joined the circus, or managed trade exhibitions, or even become a promoter of rock concerts (indeed, if he had had anything to do with Woodstock at least there would have been good toilets). It was merely a matter of fortune for Bill Veeck that he was born into baseball at a time when it was the undisputed king of national diversions. And it was his misfortune, perhaps, to come at a time when the "Lords of Baseball" were regally disposed to denigrate innovative thought, especially that of a man who eagerly tried to bring flair, flamboyance, and plain old showmanship to a stodgy old game.

Bill Veeck, Jr., was introduced to baseball while working at the Wrigley Field Commissary during his father's tenure as president of the Chicago Cubs (1917-1933). When he took control of his own club—the then-minor-league Milwaukee Brewers in 1941—he opened a whole trunkful of ideas, gimmicks, promotions, and fan-grabbers designed to make a day at the ballpark a memorable experience. Somehow, he felt, if he couldn't make a dull baseball game exciting (and over a three or four hour period that can be a Herculean task), at least he could get the fans turned on by a free souvenir baseball or a surprise entertainment or a round of fireworks or a midget at the plate or … 

And therein, you see, lies Bill Veeck's problem, for the aforementioned Lords of Baseball—the other owners, the corporate heads who didn't wear numbers—didn't seem to see the business of promoting a ballclub in the same way as Veeck. Over a period of 35 years—during which he has been involved with five baseball teams and one race track—Veeck's name has popped in and out of sports headlines in cacophonic conjunction with the ire of his fellow owners. And Veeck has spent more time in court defending himself and his right to a livelihood against that ire than he cares to remember.

But now Veeck's back in Chicago, with another dip into his bag of dramatics, he (and the rest of baseball's owners) have already made the return a memorable media extravaganza: there was a desperate search for the capital needed to buy the Sox from former owner John Allyn; a publicity barrage to bring out Chicago fan support for the buy; eleventh-hour dramatic mystery that involved Mayor Daley, W. Clement Stone, Jack Brickhouse, and Howard Miller; an initial rejection and, finally, the triumphant Tribune headline, "Whew! Sox To Stay."

But what about this man Veeck? Why should he deserve such concentrated flack from the baseball powers-that-be for more than 30 years, and then again as he puts in his bad at what the media have romantically labeled "Veeck's Last Hurrah"? What is it about his personal philosophy of promoting a sport so badly in need of promoting that irks them so?

Well, you see, there's this exploding scoreboard … not to mention the midget … and the pennant buried in center field … while acrobats performed at second base … to the tune of an eight-player band … 

But those, of course, are only some of the more exotic manifestations of Veeck's promotional philosophy. Some of his more common-sense innovations are now part of the "grand old game" that the other owners have tried so determinedly to keep pure:

—Veeck started "bat day," in St. Louis with the Browns in 1952, and its offshoots cap day, ball day, jacket day and helmet day.

—He was the first owner to put names on the back of uniforms, in Chicago in 1961.

—In Chicago, at rainy games, he passed out plastic capes to customers. He had a friend in the weather bureau, so he knew pretty well beforehand on a game day whether it would rain.

—He once held a promotion that let anyone named Smith (or a variation thereof) into White Sox Park free if he or she would sit behind outfielder Al Smith and root for him.

—In Cleveland in 1948, he gave away nylons to women fans and opened a nursery under the stands for children aged 2 to 6 so mothers could watch the games in comfort. This convenience was reserved, however, for game days; he thought children should be left home at night.

—He honored Mr. Average fan, Joe Early, by lavishing him with gifts at home plate.

—He brought black outfielder Larry Doby into the major leagues on July 5, 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson came up with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. Doby's first at-bat was in Chicago. He struck out.

—He hired Satchel Paige, at that time 41 years old, to pitch for him in St. Louis.

—In Chicago, he built a device called the "pitchometer." Baseball rules call for a pitcher to deliver a pitch every 20 seconds when no one is on base. The pitchometer ticked off the 20 seconds and then set off a siren alarm. It was never used, though, because, as Veeck said, "I was unhorsed." He left Chicago that year.

Nothing that obscene. A little free-thinking, a little cornball, and a lot of showmanship. Indeed, when the peg-legged Veeck (he lost his right leg in the marine Corps in 1943) operated struggling Suffolk Downs race track in Massachusetts in 1971-1972, even the sport of kings felt his promoter's touch. Ben Hur's chariot race was re-enacted there, as was Custer's last stand. There was the Lady Godiva handicap and even a race track version of Joe Fan Day. (The lucky seat-sitter won an all-expense-paid thoroughbred race horse for the season. And sure enough, the damned thing won a few purses to the delight of its new owner, the proprietor of a barbecued ribs joint.)

As it is his custom, Veeck is keeping most of the tricks he plans to use this season under wraps. But, as is also his custom, he is talking freely about almost anything else to almost anyone who will listen. The observations that follow are taken from an interview that he gave in the midst of the spring training lockout, just after he introduced the "understated elegance" of the new White Sox uniforms.

On the Game

"I believe that baseball should have an element of fun in it. I don't think of baseball as being the World Series. I think it's a game. Not that there's any connotation of not wanting to win—everybody wants to win—because if you didn't there wouldn't be any reason to keep score. But you can't always guarantee that the game is going to be exciting. You can, however, guarantee that you'll create a festive atmosphere. That's the reason for things like the fireworks. Often that's the only explosion that occurs.

"Generally speaking, both racing and baseball involve getting people to come out and see the show. But racing, you understand, is a quasi-political business. The governor appoints the racing commission and the racing commission controls what you do. They're all politically tied together; and politicians look on race tracks as—a line I used from the book—little tin banks that every once in a while should be picked up and shaken.

"But baseball is a non-political thing. The Mayor, of course, is a baseball fan, so people don't bother us. They didn't before, but then, they never have."

UPI Item—August 20, 1951: "What next, Bill Veeck? After pulling a midget out of a birthday cake to pinch-hit, shooting off aerial bombs, organizing an eight-piece band out of his players and putting acrobats on all the bases, there wasn't much left for the new St. Louis Browns owner to surprise folks with today … "

On the Fans

"I think everyone is a potential White Sox fan, not just the south-siders, but the north-siders too. If we can put on an interesting show, and make it exciting and fun, I certainly anticipate getting casual Cubs fans here like we did before. So I see no reason to think that we won't do it again.

"And I don't think our fans fight and drink any more than fans anywhere else. I think that the security, perhaps, needs careful study. But you know, people behave much as the host does. If you go to somebody's house and they're throwing cigarette butts on the floor and so on, you'll start doing the same thing. In other words, you'll behave in accordance with the surroundings. The better the surroundings, the better the behavior. If people don't care enough to keep their own place up, why should someone else?

"Part of that [controlling fights and disorder at the park] is the responsibility of management. The greater part, I might add. We didn't have that problem when were were here last, and we did twice as much business. They were the same people … 

"Actually, the ballpark's potential is much greater now because it has the Dan Ryan, access to parking lots, etcetera; so other than being a little older—something we can paint away—it's a better situation.

"A big difference with the fans, I feel, is this: The last time were were in Chicago, they were supporting something you had already done. You had won and had shown that you were regardable; here, they're buying you on faith. That takes more. I think it's much more … miraculous. It's not something I've done right now, it's what they hope I can do. To take someone on faith is much more difficult than to accept a proven product. I don't think anyone ever got that kind of reception I've gotten just starting out here."

UPI Item—September 23, 1949: "The Indians buried their pennant tonight in a grave behind the stadium's centerfield fence and topped it with a tombstone. Gagster to the end, tribe president Bill Veeck, top hat and all, drove a horse-drawn 1910 hearse at the head of the pre-game funeral procession. Manager Lou Boudreau and his coaches were pall-bearers. Veeck added to the realism by wiping his eyes as he circled the field. The 35,000 fans howled. On the cardboard tombstone was the simple inscription: '1948 Champs.'"

On the Park

"When you're outside in a ballpark—not a multi-purpose stadium—you're there trying to escape the concrete and steel and all the other things in this world that need escaping from.

"A good example of what I'm talking about is the recent World Series. In Boston, you had 35,000 participants close to the field and their team in a ballpark that was obviously a ballpark built for baseball, not a modern stadium. Then there's Cincinnati, where you had 55,000 spectators. There's a difference. In my opinion, it wouldn't have gone seven games if it weren't for the spectators in Cincinnati vs. the participants in Boston.

"I like old ballparks. I like innovations n the game, but yet I don't want to destroy the good things. I like old ballparks—the ones made for baseball—as opposed to the new abortions. All of them seem like they're constructed from the same set of drawings.

"The first thing I've done here is change the name back to Comiskey Park. Charley Comiskey was grave enough to build this thing. I think he's entitled to have his name on it until the joint falls down."

An incident in Cleveland—1950: During his second year in Cleveland, a group politically stronger than Veeck wanted to build a midget auto-racing track on the field of Municipal Stadium. Veeck, understandably enough, was against the plan, but didn't have enough political pull to stop it.

While the Indians were on a road trip, construction for the track was begun. When the team returned, Veeck refused to play and threatened to sue for loss of revenue. He then called the mayor of Cleveland, Thomas Burke, later a U.S. senator, to come and inspect the track. After much finagling, the Mayor agreed to come to the stadium and have a look-see.

It had been raining for a week and the roughed-out midget track was very muddy. Veeck ordered the grounds grew to dig a hole in the track between first base and home-plate. They watered it, and watered it and watered it. Soon, it was several feet deep, though it looked like a shallow mud puddle.

When Mayor Burke, accompanied by the press, came to the stadium, Veeck maneuvered the Mayor over to the "puddle." The Mayor casually stepped forward to shake Veeck's hand and sank up to his hips in the quagmire.

When he was finally pulled from the hole with the help of the grounds crew, he left; and so too did further hopes of midget auto-racing in Municipal stadium.

On the Game and Tradition

UPI Item—March 17, 1953: "We stood by while he introduced fireworks and midgets. He often has shown little regard for normal baseball protocol … This is where we must put our foot down. We've had enough of him … "—the other baseball owners.

"Tradition shouldn't be confused with stodginess. The fact that something is old or has been done doesn't necessarily mean that it will always be good.

"Now, those owners who attack me for usurping tradition are the same ones who put in artificial turf. This is contrary, in my mind, to their own traditions. They put it in because they thought they could save some money. But in reality, they're taking an average of a year off a ballplayer's career because of increased problems with knee injuries. And they destroy the illusion they're trying to create—being outside and watching a game on natural grass.

"I just want to create atmosphere of excitement. We all like surprises."

On the Game and Society

"I think that you'll see a renaissance in baseball more than in any other sport because it's one of the few unchanging or slow-changing things in our society. We're afraid of change, society's afraid of change. We're a confused society: the decisions after decisions, the changes, are maybe more than we can adapt to. I happen to offer an escape, something where people can withdraw from their everyday life. And the park may mean fantasy.

"When they boo a hitter when he strikes out, they're upset because they've struck out. So the ballplayers become surrogate performers for the fans. Now, in our society there are very few areas other than sports—music, ballet—that have clearly defined arena of play known to both spectators and performers. There are also clearly defined parameters and rules also known to the spectators as well as the performer; where an infraction brings an immediate penalty. In football fifteen yards for holding. Bang. Three strikes and you're out.

"It doesn't really matter whether Edward Bennett Williams or F. Lee Bailey or both defended you. Justice is real and immediate. Compare this to the gray areas of our society where nothing is really straight. We live in quicksand … 

"In the last hundred years there's been less than a half of a change in baseball—the adoption of the designated hitter by only one league, and the fact that it's not being used in the World Series makes that less than a change.

"So people come to baseball and find stability. To a certain degree we're all looking back. A little nostalgia. They look back and see the good things, and ignore the bad. No one in his right mind would want to live through another depression, but still people look back on those old ways. It's like the army: you don't remember the guy that got shot next to you but you remember when the guys got together and stole a case of beer from the army. You get together and talk about it.

"Now, baseball fulfills a need. This is what I sense and, maybe I'm wrong, but my theme is that people are unconsciously not only worried—but afraid of violence. I think you'll find that people are going to turn from the more violent sports back to baseball. Because of this, I think the future is good.

"Getting back to tradition, baseball is a game that's full of it. You try to foster tradition. Baseball is a game that goes from father to son to son, so there's this continuity. The averages let you compare, furthering that continuity. A three-hundred hitter today and a three-hundred hitter from yesterday, even though there are a lot of variables—are comparable. There is sufficient continuity to make such comparisons meaningful.

"Take our uniforms. I'm trying to put into practice what I've said about tradition. I don't mean to say that things should stand still. But the lettering is from the 1903 Sox. The navy-blue came from the uniforms the Sox wore in the 20s and 30s. But the cut and the design and the fabric are all new. Without the fabric we couldn't use this kind of uniform. Yet it is more comfortable.

On Politics

"We've lost our heroes. We're in a period of anti-heroes. In this post-Watergate period we can't even let the dead lie in their graves. We're disinterring them and pointing out their feet of clay. I don't think this achieves anything. What good does it do you to know that President Kennedy had a voracious sexual appetite? And I don't see what difference it makes to point out that a renaissance man like Thomas Jefferson sired some children by a black woman. What difference does it make? They should be judged on what their jobs were an how they were performing them. I find it sad, not only because it reduces the importance of heroes, but also because it makes it more difficult to get good people into politics.

"Right now, you have the sad spectacle of having all these guys running for president and not one of them, really, would you want to vote for. You only want to vote against them or vote for one because he's not as dull as the next one.

"It's sad when we've reached the point where you really can't come up with one name that you'd really like to see in the top spot. Out of 230 million people, there's not one name that comes immediately to mind.

"John Gardner I could vote for. Last election I voted for Norman Thomas. A fellow came down from the National Observer to do a sports piece. By 5 AM we'd settle all the problems of the world. A couple of days later he calls up and says, 'I'm reading my notes, such as they are, and have a few questions to ask about them. You call yourself apolitical. You voted?' I said, 'Yes, I voted. It's a responsibility to vote.' He said, 'For whom did you vote?' And I answered, 'For Norman Thomas.' He said, 'He's dead.' And I said, 'Of course, but I'd rather vote for a dead man with class than two live bums.'

"Two weeks later the National Observer came out and I got a call from this joker who subsequently is indicted in the White House. He says, 'Bill , you shouldn't have said that. You said Mr. Nixon is a bum.' I said, yes, I thought he was; and why shouldn't I say it? And he said because it isn't true. So I said, well, you shouldn't have called me. Why? 'Because my phone's tapped,' I said.

"I never knew that I'd hit such a sensitive chord."

On the Sox and Others

"Most of the people that are here have been here before. This is the most important year in a checkered career. Because of this, I have to have people I know. That's the reason for Paul Richards. I know what Paul can do. He knows the kind of ballclub that we have to have. I don't know Tanner that well. I don't know whether he's competent or incompetent or a great man … I just don't know. So I didn't want to take a chance. The first year is the most important. I wanted someone I know and can reasonably expect to know what he'll do … 

"We'll play ball. Somehow. [At the time, the contract dispute between major-league players and owners had not yet been settled. Over the objections of the other owners, Veeck had opened a "maverick" training camp n Florida for White Sox rookies and free agents.] We'll play baseball. I don't know how, but we'll play. You'll notice that I had to adjust my thinking in several areas when I came here, but I remain firm in my belief that you can't bargain away a court decision. Why try to send it to the Supreme Court? Marvin Miller [Players' Association representative] couldn't change this thing if he wanted to. The players have won certain rights. You just have to admit that.

"I'm just trying to protect myself. We had commitments in Sarasota; we owed them some ballgames. Admittedly, it wasn't the best solution, but it's the best we can do. The money from one game went to the band fund … "

What about Veeck's "rivalry" with Oakland A's owner Charles Finley?

"Rivalry? What rivalry? There's no rivalry. Let me just say this: We're going to dedicate the second baseball book to him on the grounds that he used everything in the first. I don't mean to say that he's slow with ideas. It's just that he, uh, copies. No, I wouldn't say that calling him the Milton Berle of Baseball would be too far off the mark.

"There's no question that he's put together a good ballclub and done it himself. No question. He put forward some ideas that weren't necessarily innovations, but he kept after them until he got them adopted. So from that standpoint, he's been very good for baseball. he's not dull.

"I don't happen to agree with him all the time … "

On the Individual

"I think the individual is more important than anything else. I'm afraid that we tend to make him into another thing, into a number. We do it with labels. We're label-conscious and that's too bad. Even the label 'teenager' has the connotation of someone who's unsavory. But no one has yet explained to me how in the world you can get from age twelve to age 20 without being a teenager.

"Really, I'm opposed to anything that lessons the importance of the individual. And machines, computers, and big conglomerates, it seems to me, tend to do that. It worries me. It's part of our society, I'm afraid. perhaps part of it is similarity of education. Part of it is communication. Now you know what a fellow wears in New York City or Los Angeles or Keokuk or Miami in a matter of seconds. There is a tendency for similar idaes to gain easier acceptance. Even non-conformity has become conforming to non-conformity. And the end-product is conformity.

"This worries me … "

On Veeck

"I don't look on myself as a maverick. I just run my ballclub as best I can, being true to myself and to my people and team. I didn't think that someone should be stopped from doing something 'unusual' just because it is. People hate change, even good change. They like things well-ordered. So when you threaten the tenure of their existence, they react. They oppose you, but they adopt your ideas eventually … 

I've worked in the ballpark since I was a boy. But my daddy, like all newspapermen, always dreamed of owning his own newspaper and I was going to join him in that venture. But when he died, I got a job with Phil Wrigley, the Cub owner, working first as a kind of office boy and then in the commissary and concessions doing things like buying cups for beverage sales. I've always appreciated a good salesman. While working there, I ran into one in particular. If you look under the stands at Wrigley Field, you'll probably find some of the odd-sized cups that he unloaded on me. I've known him ever since … 

"No, I haven't really thought about retirement. I've never retired to retire. There's usually been some reason. I left Chicago because the Mayos told me to sell the ballclub. I spent seven months up there.

"No, I don't anticipate any problems. Over the long haul it might be dangerous, but I don't anticipate any problems. So with this 'last hurrah,' it really isn't a question of a day or a year—it just means that I don't want to move again … "

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