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Veeck: A Man For Any Season

"Suffering is overrated." - Bill Veeck

He's known for ballpark giveaways, exploding scoreboards, and a midget at the plate. His oddball promotional schemes brought him public attention and unparalleled success. But to the people who knew him, baseball owner Bill Veeck was more than a talented promoter. He was a philosophical, caring man, who was dedicated to making the ball park a fun place to be.

As the 2002 baseball season draws near, we've turned to our WTTW video archives to extract "Veeck: A Man for Any Season," Channel 11's 1985 look at the Chicago baseball legend whose radical ideas changed the game.

Veeck began his Major League career with the Cubs, lost a leg in World War II, and came back afterwards to own the Cleveland Indians and, later, the White Sox. Each of these teams reached the World Series: the Indians in 1948, the Sox in 1959. (Need we remind you that was the last time any Chicago baseball team got that far?)

1914 - William Louis Veeck, Jr. was born in Hinsdale, Illinois, on February 9.

1917 - His father, Chicago sportswriter Bill Veeck, Sr., became President of the Chicago Cubs. (During his youth, the younger Veeck would work as an office boy for the Cubs.)

1940 - Veeck became treasurer for the Chicago Cubs.

1941 - Veeck and former Cubs first baseman Charlie Grimm bought the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. They helped move the club from last place in 1941 to second place in 1942 and first place in 1943-45, while raising attendance to the highest level then known in the minor leagues. Improvement in team members was accompanied by a number of amusing promotional efforts.

1944 - Veeck joined the U.S. Marines and was seriously injured in the South Pacific, resulting in his right leg being amputated and replaced with an artificial leg.

1946 - Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians.

1947 - Veeck signed the American League's first black player, Larry Doby. A year later, he would sign Satchel Paige, a well-known veteran of the black baseball leagues, at age 42, the oldest rookie in major league baseball.

1948 - The Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant for the first time in 28 years, and went on to beat the Boston Braves in the World Series.

1949 - With financial problems, Veeck was forced to sell the Indians team.

1951 - Veeck purchased the last place St. Louis Browns. He staged his most famous promotion when he had 3-foot 7-inch Eddie Gaedel pinch hit. Finding it impossible to throw to Gaedel's strike zone, the pitcher walked him. Although the crowd thoroughly enjoyed the stunt, the league commissioner declared Gaedel's contract invalid the following day.

1952 - The Browns attendance grew nearly 60%.

1953 - A near-bankrupt Veeck sold the Browns. (A year later, the team moved to Baltimore.)

1959 - Veeck returned to baseball, buying the Chicago White Sox. They won their first American League pennant in 40 years at the end of their first season with Veeck. To add excitement to the game, Veeck introduced the first exploding scoreboard that spewed fireworks when the White Sox scored a home run. Veeck was also the first owner to put players' names on the backs of their uniforms, which is commonplace in many sports today. The White Sox doubled their attendance figures under Veeck's guidance.

1961 - Illness forced Veeck to sell the White Sox.

1962 - Veeck wrote, with Ed Linn, his autobiography, Veeck As in Wreck

1965 - Veeck revealed more of the methods of his madness in The Hustler's Handbook.

In the late 1960's, Veeck turned to thoroughbred racing and purchased Suffolk Downs Race Track in Massachusetts.

1972 - Veeck's newest career helped him produce another book: Thirty Tons a Day: The Rough Riding Education of a Neophyte Race Track Operator.

1976 - Veeck again headed a group that took control of the White Sox.

1981 - Veeck sold the team once more, largely because of the financial difficulties stemming from intense bidding among baseball team owners for the contracts of free-agent players. Veeck, who believed that baseball's primary function should be to entertain, became disillusioned with what he regarded as an increased emphasis on baseball as a business.

1986 - Veeck died on January 2. He was cremated and his remains were laid to rest at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

1991 - Bill Veeck was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A New Edition of Veeck's Autobiography
Mary Frances Veeck reports:

Veeck as In Wreck was first published 40 years ago! Last spring, it was issued yet again, this time by University of Chicago Press, its seventh different publisher. The book has been used in U. of C. and Northwestern business and marketing schools. It's currently being used as a textbook at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst marketing department, and as a reference book at Texas A & M. Other authors of works regarding Chicago published by U. of C. Press include Saul Bellow, Mike Royko, Nelson Algren, and Ben Hecht. So we're in good company!

Hall of Fame Acceptance Remarks by Mary Frances Veeck
On Sunday, July 21, 1991, Bill Veeck was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Mary-Frances Veeck offered these remarks at the ceremonies:

Bill Veeck was born into baseball and began working around Wrigley Field as a boy and ended his career at Comiskey Park. In between, his American League Cleveland Indians won the 1948 World Series to become World Champions, and when he owned the St. Louis Browns, it was in 1951 that he sent a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to bat.

I'm sure that no other president-owner-operator of a major league ball club ever had a better education from the ground up regarding how to run a ballyard, as he called it, and/or a ballclub.

Bill felt he was the most fortunate person in the world to be able to work all his life at something he loved so much.

And make no mistake-he truly loved this game. He was a good baseball man who cared enough to take umbrage occasionally, to take exception to things that he felt were not for the good of the game, were not in its best interests, and did not enhance it as entertainment. It was the kind of criticism you lay on your children now and then if you truly love them.

One thing he could never do and that was play baseball well enough to become a professional player! He faced this early on reluctantly like millions of others. However, he never lost his boyhood hero-worship for the people who play this game.

He never "trashed" players. Years ago, he was the first person I ever heard say publicly how good you had to be to become a major leaguer. He reminded all and every one, that of the thousands of people who played baseball, all over the world only "x" numbers made it to the majors.

He never understood, though, why there should not be icing on the cake. He also understood there could be no icing without the cake and he tried always to put together the best "cake" he possibly could field.

Which brings us to why he was not "just another executive," why he was known as the "fan's owner," why indeed he is being inducted today.

Life was not wasted on Bill Veeck. He was born with a great joy of living, tremendous energy, integrity. He was curious, imaginative, creative, spontaneous, stubborn, intelligent, opinionated, witty. He was such fun to be around, a pied piper. He was magic. He was a "pro!" All of these qualities made him the baseball man we remember today.

The Twelve Commandments of His Professional Life:

1) Take your work very seriously. Give your all. Go for broke.

2) Never ever take yourself too seriously! He loved to paraphrase Shakespeare: "What fools we mortals be!"

3) Find your alter ego. A Rudie Schaffer, and bond with him for the rest of your professional life.

4) Surround yourself with similarly dedicated soul-mates of whom you can ask "why?" And "why not?" Naturally, they may ask the same of you! Never hire a coat-holder.

5) In your hiring be color-blind, gender-blind, age-and-experience blind. You never worked for Bill Veeck; you worked with him. Everyone was in it together and you were allowed to make a mistake every once in a while.

6) Attend every home game and never leave a game until the last "out." It's rude!

7) Answer all of your mail. You may learn something.

8) Listen and be available to your fans-customers. Again, you might learn something.

9) Enjoy and respect media members-the stimulation, the challenge. The "them-against-us" mentality should exist only between the teams on the field.

10) Create an aura in your city of operation, that you'd better be at the ballpark, at the game lest you miss something exciting and unexpected. No offense to radio and television, but at the ballpark you are a participant not just a spectator.

11) If you don't think a promotion is fun, don't do it. Don't ever put on something "for the masses." Never insult your fans. It was Ed Linn who summed up Bill's philosophy about "fun at the ole ballpark." "Every Day a Holiday and Every Fan a King" and-Queen, naturally.

12) Don't be so concerned with structured "photo ops" to preserve for some future viewing, that you miss the essence of what is happening at the moment. Instead, let things happen. Cherish the moment, commit it to memory. After all, the popular expression, "are we having fun yet?" was not manufactured out of whole cloth.

Bill never once referred to our game of baseball as "just a game," "only a game." No one understood the importance, the value of holidays and parties, of fun and games in our daily.

A Valentine to Veeck by Jamie Ceaser
Memories about working with Bill on "Time Out" and "Veeck: A Man for Any Season

At first, I heard the clip-clop, clip-clop.

He'd hum to no one-or to anyone who would listen-as he meandered through the halls of Channel 11, but it would never drown out the clip-clop of the wooden leg, sticking out of his pant leg.

When someone would say, "Great to see you, Bill," he'd usually reply, "It's great to be seen," or "It's better than the alternative!."

It was a perfect response from a man who had more than thirty major operations in his lifetime.

He was Bill Veeck.

I had heard of Bill Veeck. If you lived in Chicago, you had, too. But I had never shared a hallway with him until I worked on one of the only PBS sports shows of all time, "Time Out."

He had a twinkle in his eye, an impish smile, and a scheme floating around in his brain at all times.

He was Bill Veeck.

1985 was an exciting first year in television production for me! I was an assistant producer-a glorified "go-fer"-and I would occasionally go for Bill Veeck at his apartment in Madison Park or drop him off downtown at Miller's Pub. But most times, he tooled around town in a cab-and always sat in the front seat.

I have chauffeured some well-known folks since: from "Frugal Gourmet" Jeff Smith to Huey Lewis, Steppenwolf's Terry Kinney, and Maya Angelou. But there was no one like Bill Veeck. He was the most approachable and down-to-earth person of any celebrity with whom I worked. He was so instantly recognizable that wherever we were-on the streets of Hyde Park, at a Cubs game, or in down-state Champaign-all types of people crowded around him and wanted to say hello. And he said hello back, and talked. At Wrigley Field, he could only walk a few steps without someone stopping him.

He was a delicious storyteller. After a taping of "Time Out," I would drive him down Lake Shore Drive as he: pointed out the apartment where he and his wife Mary Frances and their children had lived-the apartment where Edward R. Murrow had interviewed them in 1959, the year the Go Go Sox had won the American League pennant; pointed out how beautiful the moon looked; or told me about the latest mobile he was working on, what book he was reading, or the records he was listening to.

The more he talked and told stories revealing more about himself, the more I wanted to learn. So, during summer vacation-after the sports show was canceled and before it won an Emmy Award-I finally hunkered down in a beach chair on the banks of Lake Michigan in Bad Axe, Michigan and read Veeck As In Wreck. (A 40th Anniversary Edition will be released April 15th.) I fell in love.

I didn't leave that chair all week. I learned about Bill Veeck's world. He was what so many people can only aspire to be-a maverick, an iconoclast, a characters, and a guy who knew how to have fun.

I decided at the beach that I wanted to recount a part of his story on videotape. So I wrote him and Mary Frances a letter. I told them what I wanted to do, and how I thought that while many people may have known about Bill's baseball side, few knew his his personal side.

Bill and Mary Frances called me after they received the letter and agreed to my request. We followed Bill around town for the next four or five months, hanging out with him in all his favorite haunts.

That 1985 WTTW documentary, "Veeck: A Man for Any Season," will be presented once again on Monday, April 1st at 7:30 p.m., on Chicago Stories.

Bill Veeck's birthday was on the same day as my grandfather's; they were two of the nicest men (along with my dad) that I ever met!

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Veeck died on January 2, 1986, just a few months after the initial broadcast of "Veeck: A Man for Any Season.")

In addition to "Veeck: A Man for Any Season," JAMIE CEASER has produced scores of other programs and documentaries for WTTW/Channel 11, including "The Golden Apple Awards," "Image Union," "CenterStage," and "Sneak Previews."

Bill Veeck: Bookman By John Callaway, host of "Chicago Stories"

Bill Veeck is remembered by most people as the fan's man, the American original who perfected showmanship-from sending a midget to the plate to exploding scoreboards-at the old ball park. But I remember Bill Veeck best as a reader. In the summer of l960, just a year after Veeck's Chicago White Sox made it to the World Series, he was in much demand as a public speaker and commentator. Luckily for me, he signed on to a once-a-week baseball show for WBBM Radio, where I was employed as a young writer/reporter.

Every time Bill Veeck walked into the WBBM newsroom he carried a book with him. One week it might be a historical treatise, another week a book of essays, the next week the latest serious examination of current affairs. Veeck was a warm and gregarious man, but imposing in his own way. I felt shy around him. But one day I asked him about what he was reading and from that moment on we forged a relationship based on a mutual love of books. I thought of myself in those days as reasonably well read. I was so in hock to Kroch's and Brentano's that they actually sent a bill collector to my apartment on Wellington Avenue who stood outside loudly shouting how many months and how much money I was in arrears. I don't know if Bill Veeck kept current with his books bills, but I know that for every book I read, he read two and I was reading at least three books, sometimes four a week.

Everyone else in the newsroom wanted to talk baseball with Bill, but he always seemed happy to talk books with me. I remember the last time I saw him, I sat him down by Lake Michigan at the Point in Hyde Park and induced him into a verbal essay on what he was reading that spring. It turned out to be a children's book. I don't remember the title of the book but I remember the passion and delight he took in talking about it. Bill Veeck may have been your showman. He was my book man.

Bill Veeck and the Media By Mike Leiderman, Series Producer, "Chicago Stories," and former NBC5 Sports Anchor

Bill loved the media. He didn't fear reporters. He would spend as much time as any of us wanted talking, schmoozing, drinking (lots of drinking) and discussing subjects that as often were about literature as they were about the problems of the Sox pitching staff.

Every night after a game, he'd be in the "Bard's Room," the dining room/bar at Old Comiskey Park, holding court until well past midnight, outlasting everyone. And the drinks were always on him.

The late 1970s and early 1980s was the time baseball and other big-time sports began beefing up their marketing. "Marketing" became a buzzword. Everyone was into marketing, planning marketing, hiring marketing experts. One day I asked Bill, whose stunts and promotions had preceded this craze by decades, what he thought of this "new wave."

"It's nothing new," he told me. "Marketing is a two-dollar word for 'sales.'"

To me, as a young reporter who already knew of the Veeck legend and reputation, being around him was living history. I'd sit and listen to Bill and watch him chain smoke, then snuff out the butts in the hollow of his wooden leg...

Bill always raved about the quality of care he'd receive from the staff at Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he'd often be found when he wasn't at the ballpark. Besides the leg problems, his heart and lungs were always failing and his health was always at risk. Regardless, Bill Veeck never stopped living at top speed. He had more energy and spirit than anyone I'd ever met.

Additional Links of Interest
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The Essential Baseball Library

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