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Jim Murray

The Game Was What He Loved

January 07, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Bill Veeck was a guy who never wore a necktie or drank from a glass in his life.

He hated the New York Yankees, stuffed shirts, and anyone who went home before the ninth inning or the bars closed. In that order.

He loved beer, baseball, summer and America.

He was the only owner I ever knew who really loved baseball, not because it sold beer or tickets or chewing gum but because it kept us all young. He loved baseball the way a girl who only had his picture on her dresser loved Clark Gable. You never get over your first crush, and baseball was Bill's. You had to love baseball to own the St. Louis Browns.

No one ever made the game any more fun. He always came to town as if he were advancing the circus or leading a parade. Bill Veeck was the Pete Rose of the front office. His mind was 71, but his heart was 12 years old.

He spoke in a laryngitic whisper, but you could hear him clear across a ballroom. He had an opinion on everything, but he loved it if you disagreed with him. The only thing he loved better than baseball was a good argument.

He had only one leg. The other is buried some place out in the South Pacific, I believe. Bill didn't miss it and although it caused him considerable pain and forced him periodically out of the game he loved, no one ever heard him complain.

Bill never complained. Not even about the St. Louis Browns. He considered himself lucky. "A lot of guys came home without eyes," he once told a guy commiserating with him.

Bill died in Chicago the other day. He had gotten lung cancer a couple of years ago, but since he smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day he liked to say he carried cancer into extra innings.

He loved to talk baseball. He loved people who knew and loved baseball. He considered anybody who didn't retarded.

He was an old-fashioned guy, but he didn't think so. He thought he was as modern as a microchip, but he was really out of his time.

For instance, every ballclub he ever owned had its own ball park, usually an antiquated old pile of ruins you expected to see Nero in. It never occurred to Bill to try to get a city and its taxpayers to pay for his ballpark and his club. Bill raised the money himself. He thought that was the way America worked. And baseball to him was America.

His promotional gimmicks, considered scandalous at the time, are routine now. He put in exploding scoreboards and organ music. He sent a midget to bat. But he also gave away orchids, gift certificates and cars, and today, Bat Night, Helmet Night and Jacket Night are really the modern equivalents of his promotions.

"If you depend solely on people who know and love this game, you will be out of business by Mother's Day," he used to say.

He was not only a promoter, he was a sound baseball man. His franchises were successful. He won pennants in two of the three cities he had ownerships in. He knew ballplayers the way David Harum knew horses.

Baseball treated him shabbily. Bill Veeck should have been an even more historic figure than he was.

For years, long before Walter O'Malley did it, he hankered to move a franchise to Los Angeles. He had the skids all greased to bring the St. Louis Browns here when Del Webb, then owner of the New York Yankees and a powerful figure in the game, stepped in to block the move. He wouldn't even let Veeck go to Baltimore, where the team wound up, forcing Veeck to sell out before the league would OK the move.

Veeck broke the color line in the American League. But he would have broken it in baseball, period, beating Branch Rickey to the punch if he hadn't been slickered by baseball in 1943, too.

The circumstances were these: In the middle of the war, the Philadelphia Phillies were in bankruptcy, to say nothing of seventh place.

Veeck had a daring plan. He proposed to buy the club and, with the connivance of Abe Saperstein, who ran the Harlem Globetrotters, and Doc Young, a Chicago newsman, to stock it with the great players from the Negro Leagues. He had Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter and Monte Irvin lined up.

Veeck wouldn't have had a team, he would have had a dynasty.

"The only thing blocking it was no law, it was just a gentlemen's agreement," Veeck used to recall. "And I was no gentleman."

Veeck later admitted making one bad mistake. "Out of my long respect for (Baseball Commissioner) Judge Landis, I felt he was entitled to prior notification of what I intended to do."

Added Veeck: "The next thing I knew, I was informed that (Phillies' owner) Gerry Nugent, being in bankruptcy, had turned the team back to the league and I would have to deal with National League President Ford Frick. Frick promptly informed me that the club had already been sold to William Cox, a lumber dealer, for about half what I was willing to pay."

Baseball always kept Bill Veeck, so to speak, in the bleachers. But that was all right. That was right where he always wanted to be anyway.

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