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In The Strike Zone

BOOK REVIEW

Showmanship was his game

April 01, 2012|Mike Downey | Downey is a former Times columnist
  • Bill Veeck sits tieless among fans in an image from a Look magazine shoot in 1943.
Bill Veeck sits tieless among fans in an image from a Look magazine shoot… (Bob Sandberg, Walker & Company )

Bill Veeck

Baseball's Greatest Maverick

Paul Dickson

Walker & Co.: 446 pp., $28.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 01, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Veeck: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, a review of the book "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick" said that Veeck's father, William Veeck Sr., an executive with the Chicago Cubs, planted the ivy on Wrigley Field's outfield walls. In fact, Bill Veeck Jr., the subject of the book, did the planting. The error was detected after the section was printed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 08, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Veeck: An April 1 review of the book "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick" said that Veeck's father, William Veeck Sr., an executive with the Chicago Cubs, planted the ivy on Wrigley Field's outfield walls. Bill Veeck Jr., the subject of the book, did the planting.

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I find my pass, pink and laminated, "1980 White Sox Cordially Invite You to the Bards Room." My mind races, touches all the bases -- Bill Veeck, peg leg, craggy kisser, steel-wool hair, sans necktie (as always), quaffing beers, spinning yarns, making the hours fly by, enthralling and illuminating us in his postgame sanctuary while outside his ballpark is dark.

The "exploding scoreboard" (his creation), its fireworks punctuating every Sox home run at home, is quiet for the night. The fans' sing-along of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (his idea) with Harry Caray off-key and organist Nancy Faust on key, has turned yet another typical day at the office into a party.

Veeck as in Shrek, that's him. Only no ogre was he. Quite the contrary -- his mirth, his showmanship, his bonhomie made those of us lucky enough to have known Bill Veeck somewhat possessive of him, this man of the people who owned a number of Major League Baseball clubs while keeping his home number listed in the telephone book. Oh, how captivated we were by the man, we scribes, we apostles -- with nearly as much gusto as that of so many of Veeck's fellow owners who hated the same man, resenting his radical or even sometimes ridiculous ways.

My first reaction when a copy of Paul Dickson's new biography, "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," lands in my lap is to be curious if justice has been done to him, before turning a single page. I touch base with Mike Veeck, the great man's son (a man of a few radical and wonderfully ridiculous notions of his own), to inquire if the descendants approve. "We've read it and enjoyed the easy flow and the research," Mike replies. "Mr. Dickson has won me over with his gentle prose."

Nice first pitch. So into the bio I go, wondering if there's a chance in heck that this can be a proper bookend to one of the best of all sports books, "Veeck as in Wreck," the long-ago collaboration of Ed Linn with his subject that established Veeck as a man who held nothing back, denigrating his own contemporaries in such a way that owners such as Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley were appalled by him.

The proof of goodness is usually in the details, so it becomes clear right off the bat that Dickson has written an authoritative work. It does take on a bit of a term-paper feel in part, since Dickson did need to rely heavily on anecdotes of old, Veeck being deceased for 26 years and therefore unavailable for beery, cheery late-night chats. But the stories are well documented and well told, so Veeck, like his kin, likely would approve.

We know what's coming, to some extent -- the zany notions that gave Veeck an everlasting reputation for anything madcap in a baseball cap. No. 1 on the list being the time he sent up No. 1/8 to bat, 3-foot, 7-inch pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel, drawing a four-pitch base on balls for Veeck's St. Louis Browns in a famed 1951 game. A great many of us are familiar with that novelty act, but Dickson makes sure we also learn that Gaedel was later beaten to death, mugged (while probably drunk) for the 11 bucks in his pocket.

Veeck the World War II vet, the amputee, in and out of the Mayo Clinic as if it had a revolving door, is also presented in full detail, including the unfathomable pain he must have been in while delivering to the masses so much laughter and joy. Veeck the civil-rights champion, the one who merits much of the credit that Branch Rickey alone tends to get, the one who marched in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral procession in 1968, is revealed here as well. This is the man of many parts who held court for us in that Bards Room, a one-legged man who marched to war and marched for peace.

His dad, the original Bill Veeck, was not a bad bard himself. He was as renowned as his drinking buddy Ring Lardner in some Chicago sporting circles back when he wrote newspaper columns under the pseudonym "Bill Bailey." He was among those who suspected that not only did the 1919 White Sox deliberately lose a World Series (as was proved to be the case) but that the 1918 Cubs did likewise (never proved, but a distinct possibility). Chicago's teams knew how to lose whether they tried to or not.

Pasadena was where the Cubs trained in those days, just before William Wrigley Jr. bought a majority stake in Catalina Island and transported the Cubs' spring camp to the isle. One day out west, Veeck senior was stunned when Wrigley offered him a chance to quit journalism and run the team. Veeck became club president and, in demonstrating his own distinctive flair, had ivy planted on Wrigley Field's outfield walls.

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