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Bill Veeck, an Iconoclast in Baseball, Is Dead at 71

January 03, 1986|From Reuters

CHICAGO — Bill Veeck, 71, a fun-loving iconoclastic baseball owner who enlivened the game with a variety of zany antics that shook up the major league Establishment but delighted fans, died of a heart attack Thursday at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He had been admitted Monday for a chronic respiratory ailment.

While serving as owner of three major league teams--the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians and the old St. Louis Browns--and the old Milwaukee Brewers of the American Assn., Veeck revolutionized the sport by introducing a number of gimmicks intended to entertain fans.

Among his innovations were an exploding scoreboard that sent fireworks shooting into the sky to celebrate a home-team home run, strolling musicians in the grandstand and morning baseball games for night-shift workers during World War II.

At various times, Veeck also used clowns as base coaches for some of his weaker teams and, in one instance let 1,115 fans, so-called "grandstand managers," run the Browns while seated in the stands behind the team's dugout.

In one of his best-remembered stunts, Veeck brought in a midget, Eddie Gaedel, and put him on the roster of the forlorn Browns on August 19, 1951. In his only appearance, Gaedel drew a walk on four pitches, but his image at bat became one of the most widely-circulated sports photographs in history.

Ten years later, Veeck responded to fan complaints about vendors blocking their views by hiring Gaedel and seven other midgets as vendors in the box-seat section of Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Veeck's antics enraged many other club owners who felt he was making a mockery of the game. Eventually, however, many of them adopted a number of his innovations, including the exploding scoreboard, while adding innovations of their own.

A native of Chicago, Veeck grew up in a baseball atmosphere. His father, a former sportswriter, became the owner of the Chicago Cubs and, as a boy, the young Veeck ran errands and did other chores at Wrigley Field. It was the beginning of a lifetime love and longtime association with baseball.

In 1941, Veeck headed a syndicate that bought the Milwaukee Brewers of the triple-A American Assn.

He promptly hired the equally zany former Cub star Charlie Grimm as manager, and the two of them staged a variety of promotional stunts that turned the Brewers into one of the most successful minor league franchises in baseball history.

During World War II, Veeck, serving in the Marines in the South Pacific, lost his right leg when he was struck by a recoiling anti-aircraft gun. A heavy cigarette smoker for years, Veeck often used his artificial leg as an ashtray.

In 1946, the 32-year-old Veeck became the youngest owner in major league baseball when he led a group that bought the Cleveland Indians. He soon introduced a series of fun-inducing promotions that rocked the baseball Establishment but succeeded in drawing fans to Municipal Stadium.

While in Cleveland, Veeck achieved the high point of his career in 1948 when the Indians won the American League pennant and the World Series while setting a then-season attendance record of 2.26-million fans.

One of the team's biggest draws was the legendary pitcher Leroy (Satchel) Paige, whom Veeck hired when Paige was in his mid-40s after a spectacular career in the old Negro leagues before baseball's color barrier was lifted.

Another member of that team was Larry Doby, whom Veeck signed as the first black player in the American League.

Veeck later owned the hapless Browns before the franchise was moved to Baltimore and, on two different occasions, the White Sox, who won the pennant the first year Veeck owned the team in 1959.

Though he was a baseball maverick, Veeck cherished some of the game's traditions.

When he purchased the White Sox the second time, for example, one of his first moves was to have the artificial turf removed and replaced by natural grass.

Between owning the White Sox, whom he outfitted in Bermuda shorts and flapping jerseys one season, Veeck lectured, managed the Suffolk Downs race track in Massachusetts and wrote a best-seller entitled "Veeck as in Wreck" in which he chronicled his colorful career and expressed some scathing criticisms of the baseball Establishment.

"I didn't like the American League owners when I came into the league and I don't like them going out, Veeck said after selling the White Sox for the last time in the late 1970s.

In his later years, Veeck often turned up in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, where, shirtless, he would drink beer and regale the Cub "Bleacher Bums" with tales of his colorful career. For a while, he also wrote a sports column for the Chicago Tribune.

"He was the common man--the working man's pal," longtime Chicago baseball broadcaster Jack Brickhouse said.

Last year, Veeck had a malignant tumor removed from a lung. His health continued to deteriorate, and he suffered from emphysema, which forced him to stop smoking.

In recent years, Veeck had a pat response whenever anyone asked him how he felt.

"Not bad for a balding old man with one leg who can't see or hear," he would respond.

Veeck's family, which includes his second wife, Mary Frances Ackerman, and nine children, said a memorial service would be held in Chicago Saturday at St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

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