By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Monday, September 25, 2006
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
When the Lerners of Bethesda finally assumed ownership of the Nationals in July, they immediately did what management almost never had done while the team was in the custody of Major League Baseball: They made nice with the fans. They (literally) rolled out the red carpet, spruced up poor old RFK Stadium, put better beer in the concession stands (though not at better prices) and stood at the gates, along with the team's players, to greet fans.
It was a nice touch, and doubtless helped get the Lerners off to a good start, but it was strictly by the book: "Veeck -- As in Wreck," the classic autobiography of Bill Veeck, the man who brought fun as well as games to the ballpark, written with the sports journalist Ed Linn and published in 1962. Had the Lerners or anyone in their employ read "Veeck"? Who knows. But in reaching out to the fans, they played it very much according to Veeck, who between 1941 and 1981 owned successively the Milwaukee Brewers (then in the minor leagues), the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox. At every stop, he "always tried to entertain," and he succeeded more often, and more hilariously, than anyone in the whole history of sport, period.
"Veeck -- As in Wreck" was written and published shortly after Veeck had to sell the White Sox in 1961 because of ill health, so it doesn't cover the remaining quarter-century of his life, but that really doesn't matter, because the years between 1941 and 1961 were his best. He describes that period with his characteristic mix of pride and self-disparagement:
"I've won pennants and finished dead last; I've set attendance records and been close to bankruptcy. At the age of fifteen, I was taking care of Ladies' Day passes at Wrigley Field. I owned my first ball club when I was twenty-eight. I have operated five clubs -- three in the major leagues and two in the minors -- and in three of the towns I won pennants and broke attendance records. Two of the three teams to beat the Yankees since I came to the American League in 1946 were my teams, the 1948 Cleveland Indians and the 1959 Chicago White Sox. The only other team, the 1954 Indians, was made up for the most part of my old players."
But -- and what a wonderful "but" it is -- no matter what he achieved, "I would still be remembered, in the end, as the man who sent a midget up to bat." That's right. It was Veeck who in August 1951 hired the 3-foot-7, 65-pound Eddie Gaedel -- "a professional midget" who "made his living by displaying himself, the only way we permit a midget to earn a living in our enlightened society" -- to pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns, reducing everyone in the ballpark, including the opposing pitcher and his teammates, to helpless laughter.
Veeck, who was always two decades (or more) ahead of everyone else, was roundly blasted by the sanctimonious baseball establishment and its mouthpieces in the press, but he had the last laugh, though he had to enjoy it from his seat far above. In August 2001, a decade and a half after Veeck's death and a half-century after Gaedel's great day, the anniversary was celebrated with a reenactment at, of all places, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only that, but the little Browns jersey that Gaedel wore in 1951 -- with the number "1/8" stitched on the back -- is permanently enshrined in the hall, a memorial to one of the great moments in baseball history and the two men who made it possible.
I wish I could say that I remember reading about it at the time, but in August 1951 I was 11 years old, living in remote Southside Virginia and infrequently exposed to a daily newspaper. But by the time "Veeck -- As in Wreck" was published, I was an ardent baseball fan, indeed a Cleveland Indians fan thanks largely to the joy with which Veeck had infected that old franchise, and Eddie Gaedel was as much a part of my baseball lore as Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. I rushed to get my hands on Veeck's book as soon as it appeared, gobbled it up in a state somewhere between hilarity and rapture, and immediately put it on my private list of the best sports books ever written.
It remains there to this day. Read now for the second or third time, it hasn't lost a thing. Some of the players, sportswriters, owners and other baseball types about whom Veeck writes were forgotten long ago, and some of the financial and rules-making machinations he describes now seem a little remote, but none of that means a thing by contrast with the book's pervasive humor and smarts. Not merely is it laugh-out-loud funny, but it can be read in all seriousness as a how-to book for running a business. Veeck absolutely adored baseball, but he never lost sight of the business that he was in and always worked very hard to make it profitable. Others could learn from the lessons he teaches about Job 1: keeping the customer satisfied.
Veeck was born in 1914, the son and namesake of the president of the Chicago Cubs. William Veeck Sr. was universally revered and beloved -- "the greatest innovator of his time," who "first brought Ladies Day to the big leagues" and "was also the first to broadcast his ball games" -- and though he didn't pressure his son to follow in his footsteps, the example he set was irresistible, and for that matter "with a father who ran a ball club, my boyhood was the kind most kids dream about." Young Bill hung out with such famous ballplayers as Grover Cleveland Alexander, Charlie Grimm and Hack Wilson, and wanted nothing except more of the same for the rest of his life.
There was more to that life than games -- "I have read an average of five books a week. I read everything, my tastes being both catholic and indiscriminate. I have the literary digestion of a garbage-disposal unit" -- but baseball defined him. By the time he'd reached his early twenties, Veeck knew everything about running and promoting a baseball club, and he "could work harder and longer than anybody else was apparently willing to work." He was also "a maverick . . . by nature and by inclination," and once he set out on his own, he got about his real business: innovation and rebellion.
"All of my life," he says, "I have been fighting against the status quo, against the tyranny of the fossilized majority rule," which is just what he did after he pieced together enough money in 1941 to buy the Milwaukee team of the American Association, "absolutely the worst Triple-A team I had ever seen," playing in "a ramshackle, rundown wooden park which had not seen a fresh coast of paint in 17 years." Veeck spruced up the park and went to town: "Milwaukee was the great time of my life. What can you say about a city after you have said that? Milwaukee was my proving grounds. It was the place where I tried out all my ideas, the good and the bad, without the terrible pressure to succeed that comes with a major-league franchise. Milwaukee was all fun, even when I was running around from loan company to loan company. It was all light, all laughter."
He's right. Hustling from dawn to the wee hours -- the title of his second book is "The Hustler's Handbook" (1965) -- he transformed the franchise from a loser to a winner and hauled in huge, exuberant crowds. When he sold the team in 1945, he cleared a $275,000 profit. In the meantime, he spent three years in the Marines and was seriously wounded at Bougainville. Eventually his right leg had to be amputated, but he always insisted that "although I am crippled, I am not handicapped," since he properly regarded the latter word as a euphemism, "a sponge." He "always cut a hole in my [wooden] leg (you go through a couple a year) and used it as an ashtray."
Utterly undaunted, the very definition and embodiment of blithe spirit, he moved along to Cleveland in 1946 and immediately began drawing immense crowds, pulling in the fans "in the following unheroic, sweaty ways: 1. We gave them a lot of fun and entertainment. 2. I hit the chautauqua trail, making as many as 500 speeches a year. 3. We built a winning team." In 1948, the Indians won the American League pennant and their first World Series championship in nearly three decades. Veeck also put on fireworks displays and zany promotions -- "in our three and a half years in Cleveland every day was Mardi Gras and every fan was king" -- but he never lost sight of the central truth: "The baseball game was still the main attraction."
He also signed Larry Doby, the first African American player in the American League, and brought up the great pitching star of the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige. None of this made his fellow owners happy, but then he was destined to spend his entire working life thumbing his nose at the inner circle -- which, in turn, was destined to loathe and reject him but ultimately to adopt virtually all of his innovations and, in the most exquisite twist imaginable, to give him his own plaque in the Hall of Fame in 1991, five years after his death. That plaque reads in part: "Owner of Indians, Browns and White Sox. Created heightened fan interest at every stop with ingenious promotional schemes, fan participation, exploding scoreboard, outrageous door prizes, names on uniforms. . . . A champion of the little guy."
Every word of which is true. He was the greatest showman baseball has known, and he taught baseball how to put on a show. Unfortunately, no one else has had his combination of ingenuity, intelligence, humor and deep love of the game, so the promotions that now greet fans -- over-amped rock music, Jumbotron scoreboards, wildly overpriced concessions -- detract from the game rather than enhance it. But his lessons are still there to be learned, so "Veeck -- As in Wreck" is herewith assigned as summer reading for everyone in the Nationals' front office, for duty, and everyone in the grandstand, for pleasure.
"Veeck -- As in Wreck" is available in a University of Chicago Press paperback ($16).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.