YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Going to See Veeck's Browns Was Like Going to the Circus

January 03, 1986|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

Growing up near St. Louis, I wrote Bill Veeck a letter in June of 1953, chastising him for trading Virgil Trucks and Bob Elliott from the Browns to the Detroit Tigers for Darrell Johnson and Lou Kretlow.

But what did a kid sitting with the Knothole Gang in old Sportsman's Park know?

For Veeck, the really important part of that deal wasn't Johnson, a young catcher, or Kretlow, a journeyman pitcher. The Browns were going to finish in last place with Johnson and Kretlow, or with Trucks and Elliott, but the main thing for Veeck was that they just finish. That made the $75,000 that Detroit sent along with Johnson and Kretlow paramount.

So finish the '53 season the St. Louis Browns did, on a late September day before 3,000 fans. The $75,000 that Veeck got from Detroit in June was gone, and there were not enough baseballs for the team to take batting practice before that last game. And then the Browns were gone, too, sold off to a Baltimore group and renamed the Orioles in time for the '54 season.

Only a masochist could reminisce about Veeck's three seasons in St. Louis--292 losses, two last-place finishes and one next-to-last--but baseball's Barnum will be remembered more for what he did on one day in that town than for the pennants won and attendance records set with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox.

In recent years, Veeck would turn sideways when he saw me coming. "Tell me the midget story," I would request, to which he would say: "Again?"

But he loved telling how he had signed 3-foot 7-inch, 65-pound Eddie Gaedel to a contract, given him a uniform with fraction number "1 8" on the back and sent him to the plate against the Tigers on Aug. 19, 1951.

Veeck told the Gaedel story the same way every time, which probably meant that the facts were intact. Despite having been there, in a crowd of 18,000, the particulars were still a blur to me, other than remembering that Gaedel popped out of a giant cake between games of a doubleheader and walked on four pitches by Detroit's Bob (Sugar) Cain to lead off the second game. But in the re-telling, Veeck spared no small detail, including the intrigue of sneaking Gaedel into the ballpark with only a few people knowing.

Years ago, Charlie (King Kong) Keller, the retired Yankee outfielder, digressed during an interview about his standardbred horse breeding farm to say that he had been on the Detroit bench the day Gaedel batted. Bothered by a chronic sore back, Keller was playing out the string as a pinch-hitter for the Tigers.

"The Tigers stayed at a hotel not far from the St. Louis ballpark," Keller said. "Rumors were flying around the lobby that Sunday morning that Veeck was going to do something really crazy. He had done some goofy things in the past, but they were saying this day that Veeck was going to out-Veeck himself."

In St. Louis, that would have taken some out-Veecking. The burr-headed owner, up to his nostrils in red ink, offered bunkum instead of baseball. He not only brought Satchel Paige, the relic who had pitched in Cleveland when he was in his mid-40s, to St. Louis as a player, but he also gave him a job playing the drums for a jazz combo between games of doubleheaders. When in the bullpen, Paige occupied a reclining lounge chair.

Veeck also hired Max Patkin, the comic contortionist, to entertain the fans, then put him on the first-base coaching line. Criminy, the Browns' hitting was already a laughing matter.

To aid Zack Taylor, his unflappable manager, Veeck brought Grandstand Managers Night, giving placards with strategic options to a section of fans behind the St. Louis dugout. When the opposition rallied, a majority card count determined whether Taylor should remove his pitcher. Hit-away or bunt situations were called by the fans.

Veeck put a basketball court on the infield and hired the Harlem Globetrotters. The opponents weren't a real basketball team, they were the Browns, some of whom were better at bouncing a ball than catching or hitting one.

A ballplayer playing for a team like that had every right to see a psychiatrist. Veeck thought of that, too, and hired Dr. David Tracy to probe the team's tormented psyches.

Naturally, the rest of the American League club owners despised Veeck for his shenanigans. Still, Veeck thought that he could eventually compete in St. Louis with the National League Cardinals, whose principal owner, Fred Saigh, had financial problems and was eventually indicted for income tax evasion. Veeck still owned the ballpark, and in those days the American League, if not the Browns, had more box-office players.

Saigh's problems became Veeck's problems, however, when the Cardinals were sold to the locally owned Anheuser-Busch brewery, a company with deep pockets. After the '52 season, Veeck knew his days in St. Louis were numbered, and he asked the league for permission to move the franchise to Baltimore.

The league turned him down.

Los Angeles Times Articles