You may notice his wooden leg first, but it's his face that you remember. It's a wreck, as in Veeck. Here is a man with a gift of radiant homeliness. "How can you be a sage if you're pretty?" rumbles Bill Veeck, with a rhinocerine laugh. "You can't get your wizard papers without wrinkles." For 35 years, with various hiatueses for exile or illness, Veeck has been both baseball's most intellectual sage and its most gleefully vulgar wizard.
Although he has retired now -- at 67, he no longer has the health or wealth to compete as he would wish -- Veeck is still looked upon by baseball people with affectionate perplexity. The game would like to trundle him off to a safe corner as a sort of gadfly Long John Silver who built exploding scoreboards and sent a midget to bat.
Veeck has always been beyond the ken of his kin. "Whatever I've said over the years," says the roistring son of Bill Sr., the starchy president of the Cubs (1919-1933), "the owners have looked to me as though I were a little boy trying to run fast so the propeller on my beanie would spin."
In a lifetime saturated with appetite and anecdote, Veeck has incorporated too many natures into one personality for most folk to grasp and reconcile. Veeck says of his lifelong friend, William Shakespeare, "He writes as though he were 10 different men." We often say of others what best applies to ourselves. Veeck, too, is a man of double-digit personae.
He is a renegade, who, at 19, when his father was dying and could keep only wine in his stomach, hunted up Al Capone and made the gangster a proposition: season tickets for the finest prohibition champagne.
He is the millionaire businessman who, when he bought the Indians in 1946, did so by inventing a financial scam called a debenture-stock deal which was a sweet loophole that the IRS fought him for 11 years -- then gave up. Brilliant? Says Veeck, perversely, "I've always been singularly disinterested in business."
He is literateur who says of Anthony Trollope, "just a small-town Dickens"; of Herman Melville, "I liked Omoo and Typee better than Moby Dick ;" and of Robert Frost, "He was a man who convinced others to accept his own evaulation of himself. I'll take Poe."
He is the handyman extraordinaire who, because he "loved a beautiful line in a building," studied blueprint design in night school. When an engineer ran out on a project, Veeck gathered a desperation crew and in one night directed the building of the Wrigley Field scoreboard, which still stands.
He is a student of politics and history who says that he is basically apolitical because "I have customers and my country has a secret ballot. It's nobody's buisness." But he will add that he has voted for Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas many times. "In fact, I even kept on voting for him after he died, because I'd rather vote for a dead man with class than two live bums." When Veeck got 20,000 hate letters after he signed the first black player in American League history (Larry Doby), he answered them all by hand.
He is an unabased hedonist who, for much of his adult life, has smoked four packs of cigarettes and drunk a case a beer a day. He seems to live by Oscar Wilde's dictum: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yeild to it."
And yet he is also the doting husband and father who is almost totally dependent for emotional solvency on his wife of 31 years, Mary Francis, and on his nine children from two marriages -- five boys and four girls, aged 18 to 44.
Perhaps most remarkably, and most revealingly, Veeck has, for more than half his life, been a sufferer of Jobian curses that would have killed other men several times over. Yet he defiantly describes himself as "a cripple, but never handicapped."
Veeck gives an impression of an indomitable vigor. He swings his wooden leg from the hip so that it thuds on the floor like a man tolling on the door with a baseball bat. You might not guess that ever since a recoiling artillery piece smashed his foot and led to its amputation when he was a marine in World War Ii, Veeck has soaked his stump in a warm bath each morning for two hours to be able to tolerate his artificial leg.
Veeck, you see, does not like Wheelchairs. Or crutches. He has always known the cost of his refusal to pamper his leg. The wear, tear and inevitable infection from his relentlessly active life have led, over the decaes, to more and more surgery and less and less leg, until now Veeck's limb attaches near the groin. Beer and courage have always been his painkillers. In a sense, Veeck has measured out his life by what is left of his right leg.
The hair on Veeck's chest seems to be trying to climb up and out of the open-necked shirts he always wears. Even on the coldest Chicago days, he refuses, as he has all his life, to wear an overcoat or hat. He loves the feeling of zero to the bone. Yet this is a man who has a permanent case of walking pneumonia that requires periodic hospitalization to drain his lungs.
"Last September, it got so bad that I couldn't breathe. I got in a cab to go to the hospital and told the driver, 'Go as fast as you can.' I stuck my head out the window to force more air down my throat. Until that day, I had smoked four packs a day for 50 years. Since then, I haven't touched a cigarette. The moral is that courage is usually abject cowardice, at least in my case. You get so scared that you're going to die that you do whatever you have to do."
He is deaf in his left ear -- the one that gets the hardest thumping, as though being punished for malfeasance in office -- and half deaf in the other. Veeck long ago stopped going to the movies or watching much television because it enraged and saddened him to lose track of dialogue.
Veeck's laughter, his rubbermugged smile and his temper are all close to the surface. He's impatient, direct, uninterested in manners or small talk beyond what civility requires. Cut to the nub, or cut bait.
Veeck has had so many major operations, including six on his "good" leg, that he has developed a unique hobby. "I count sodium pentothal shots. I'm up to 32. I don't know the record. You get conditioned to it. To me, being operated on is like someone else taking a half-dozen pills. Suffering is overrated. It doesn't teach you anything."
Al Veeck's recoveries are the same. The prescription is rest, silence, no excitement, no people, no vices. Everything, in other words, that Veeck detests. He obeys orders until he feels well enough to start killing himself again. His tombstone should read, "Cause of Death: Life."
Years ago, for instance, Veeck had a chronic concussion so bad that if he started coughing he would continue uncontrollably until he blacked out. That illness almost snuffed him and forced him to retire from basball temporarily in 1961. For many years, Veeck ate hard candy to suppress his cough, until the candy itself became a problem. Now, when Veeck coughs once, he stops everything and pays attention to nothing else, as though an old enemy were knocking on the door. So many parts of Veeck's body are trying to slip him the black spot that a lesser man could spend his whole day waiting to collapse.
Instead Veeck pulls a silly plastic gizmo out of his desk that has three cylinders, three golf ball-sized spheres and a tube. "This is my lung machine. The day I couldn't breathe, I didn't have enough lung capacity to hold the balls up for one second. Now I can hold them up for seven seconds." And taking a deep breath, he does.
Perhaps no man in baseball has had his life despaired of -- by others -- as often as Veeck. He has proved an unreliable corpse for 20 years. "Some of us are afraid that, after all the things he's survived, Bill has finally decided that he's going to die this year," says Ray Grebey, the owners' chief labor negotiator and a good friend of Veeck's for 30 years. "Bill has things wrong with him that only he knows. He has a growth in his throat that he won't talk about. I think that why he's sold his interest in the White Sox and retired as team president."
"That's wishful thinking," erupts Veeck good-naturedly when told this affectionate but sorrowful diagnosis. "Ray's a fine fellow, but he's been around those owners too long. They thought they were rid of me in 1961, too. All the owners presented me with a huge embossed, illuminated book listing my contributions to baseball. It was the sort of ode to a widow that you send out when somebody in the front office dies. Well, nine years later, I testified in favor of Curt Flood and against the reserve clause. My fellow owners challenged my competence as an expert witness. So I said, 'Your Honor, may I submit this lovely book in evidence. It's a souvenir of the last time I died.'"
White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa, a bright young Veeck favorite who may be the game's first true clubhouse lawyer, since he has passed the Florida bar, sits at the next table, jotting notes for an offseason speech that evening in Joliet. "The key word is caution, right?" says layRussa. "Keep the old foot out of the mouth."
"Caution is always the easy way out," says Veeck, a veteran of nearly 10,000 rubber-chicken speeches in his peripatetic promoting career. "A man who is cautious never sleeps with a girl, quite. He's so timid he never savors anything completely. Even an after-dinner speaker should be a little drunk on a tight-rope. It keeps everyone's attention. Don't be cautious, Tony. Just don't be injudicious. If you write out your remarks it's an insult to an audience. It shows that your first priority is to protect yourself from them. They sense it. If you just have a few notes on a scrap of paper, you'll walk away with more friends. They'll think, 'Hey, he's honest.'
"I have never liked those who were cautious. My first wife was an equestrienne in the Ringling Brothers Circus who jumped a horse through a ring of fire sidesaddle. She also was an elephant trainer, lying under their feet. It's not true that elephants never forget. Years later, we went back to the circus and she went up to her favorite, Modock the Elephant. He swung his trunk and knocked her flat. There's a lesson in there, I suspect.
"she was a very interesting woman. The divorce was my fault. I couldn't leave baseball alone. It consumed my time. In the end, we parted on very good terms, which, of course, is the saddest way, since it means that everything we had had slithered away and been denigrated. Politeness is the end of passion.
"I've never graduated from anywhere," says Veeck, who was "invited not to return" to several preparatory schools. His stay at Kenyon College was shortened when, while standing in a fourth-story window with one hand grasping a beer and the other hand gripping the window sill, he saw a friend, and, not wanting to spill the beer, waved with the free hand. Veeck fell and, luckily, was so drunk and limp that he only broke both legs. Today that same dorm room is occupied by the son of Ray Grebey. "It concerns me somewhat," said Grebey. "I'm sure it's a room with a rich tradition. I'm not sure I want my son to continue it."
Veeck's scholarship is spontaneous, voracious and eclectic. He reads everything, especially when he is soaking his leg in the morning and when he can't sleep at night.
For Veeck, watching classic literature replaced by faddish films is saddening. "It isn't just the feeling for something remote, like Shakespeare' comedies, that we've lost. We're even beginning to lose the feel for the Marx Brothers.
"We're losing our natural instincts and tastes. They're either watered down or dulled by cynicism. The only way a movie remake of a wonderful adventure like the Three Musketeers could be done was to turn it into phony camp. We're jaundiced, sated. We can't even, or won't even, accept the excitement of Jules Verne. We've got submarines, so how can Captain Nemo interest us?
"This is a confused and confusing society in which we are in danger of feeling that we only semi-exist. We can't afford to lose out basic emotions. When I speak on campuses, I still sense that it's declasse to be enthusiastic or heaven forbid, inspired. It's a carry over from Vietnam. I felt terrible back then. I spoke at Berkeley, Harvard, Kent State. I didn't get picketed once. It was a terrible blow to realize that I had no social significance. The watchwords were speed, violence, cynicism. I felt hopelessly out of step. The sports that fitted the times were football, hockey and mugging.
"In the last few years, things have gotten better. In 1975, when I got back into baseball, I felt it was a sport whose time had come again. This is a game to be savored, not gulped. There's time to discuss everything between pitches or between innings. Baseball is a game that encourages our natural gregariousness. The 60s were a time for grunts or screams. Football passed baseball. Now maybe we reached a point where we have a desire to talk again. I hope so. I think conversation is our natural state."
Baseball's time may have come, but Veeck wonders whether his fellow owners will ever truly get in touch with their sport. With the years, it has given him less and less pleasure that so many of his grumpy predictions have come true, and that, so often, his suggested solutions have been adopted grudgingly or too late. Some 20 years ago, at a league meeting in Phoenix. Veeck proposed that baseball increase its sharing of gate receipts and also pool its TV revenues for the common good. Now those notions are vogue. But then, the only people who wanted to listen to him were in the NFL.
"My own baseball people laughed at me, called me a communist. I didn't get one vote. The only person who contacted me was (NFL Commissioner) Bert Bell. He said, 'Let's talk about this TV-money-sharing idea.' I spent the weekend at a retreat of his in New England discussing it. I didn't create the NFL system (which is now the cornerstone of the league's financial health), but I had a part in it."
At the time of the Flood decision, Veeck was equally prescient in predicting the free-agent era to come, and in outlining its pitfalls. "I warned them about almost everything that would happen," he says without trying to hide his career-long bitterness at the way his advice has traditionally been dismissed as all show and no substance. "I am on record since 1941 as saying that the reverse clause was legally and morally indefensible. I knew its death was coming.
"But I also told them there was a way out. Years ago, the U.S. government sued the vast DuPont holding company and won some antitrust rulings. However, the Supreme Court decided that it was unfair to DuPont stockholders to change drastically the company's framework at one stroke. They authorized 'an orderly transition to be done over a 10-year period under the aegis of the courts.' That's what baseball should have tried to get -- an orderly transition period from the reserve clause to free agentry under the aegis of the courts. They wouldn't have given 10 years, but they also wouldn't have had the disaster of every player in baseball being thrown on the open market in such a short space of time. And we would have a permanent structure for the game now, instead of facing a labor crisis every spring."
Part of the reason Veeck has so seldom held sway in baseball meeting rooms in his manner (brash) and posture (unyeilding). He rubs his lone-wolf methods in the faces of his foes and delights in making stuffed shirts squirm. Often he has taken too much pleasure in being right and not enough in compromising to achieve his ends. "I've got a helluva temper," Veeck says.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does Veeck. If he sees a viable position that no one else has staked out, he'll go for it on a dead run, even if he has to dope out some of the ramifications as he goes. A typical example came the day of the release of American hostages from Iran. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a Veeck nemesis because he led the owners who defeated Edward DeBarto's attempt to buy the White Sox, unilaterally issued lifetime major league passes to all 52 hostages.
"Don't get me started," growled Veeck as soon as he saw the Telex notification to teams from Kuhn. Within minutes, he was on the phone to the commissioner's office, leaving a phone to the commissioner's office, leaving a long hot message for Kuhn.
"This is the first time since the Barbary pirates that we've paid ransom," said Veeck. "And then we sent a fireship and blew them up. Are these hostages supposedly heroes? Did they do something wonderful? I thought they were professionals, doing a job. And the job went badly. I have something for them. But I don't think we should, as a country, congratulate ourselves for losing or celebrate our defeats as though they were victories.
"This is just a grandstand play by baseball, and it disgusts me. We've lost our heroes, and these are pretty poor substitutes. When my Browns finished last, we didn't give them World Series rings. Well, I have registered my complaint. Doubtless, you will get no others."
After Veeck was off the phone, he added, "Bowie is always jumping into some highfalutin thing, trying to set a grand moral tone. Bowie's problem is that he's not really sure whether or not he was named after a race track."
Since Veeck adores a dangerous idea, it is a measure of his self-knowledge that he has chosen to love a person that is yin to his yang. Veeck's wife, Mary Frances, who was billed as "the world's most beautiful press agent" when she pitched the Ice Capades in the late Forties, has made a career, Veeck claims, "of getting me out of trouble after I get myself into it." Where Veeck sometimes is a rolling sea under heavy weather, Mary Frances Ackerman Veeck has the placidity of a sequestered pool. Veeck, for all his charm and generosity, is essentially a self-absorbed personality -- one concerned about his own thoughts, his own opinions, his own projects and his own legacy. His wife is one of those rare people who are so self-assured and at peace that they can concern themselves with others.
The quality in Veeck that most sets him apart is not his success as a baseball executive. Plenty of others have taken two teams to the World Series, as he has the 1948 Indians and the 1959 White Sox. Nor does his promotional skill make him unique, although he has consistently done more for the gate with less product than any baseball hustler in history. Even Veeck's breadth of serious interests, which seems stunning, would simply make him the norm in a university faculty lounge.
No, if Veeck were to walk through Pilgrim's Progress," his name would be Courage. It has been said that courage is man's chief virtue because it makes all other virtues possible. Veeck always has the courage to follow his instincts unquestioningly.
"I was the only one-legged guy in line at the Rotunda at 5 a.m. to see John Kennedy lying in state," says Veeck, who thinks nothing of flying 1,000 miles when his emotions demand.
When Veeck was told three years ago that he could not get a visa to visit Cuba, he simply chartered a plane and landed in Havana. He wanted to see the then-and-now of Batista and Castro. So he did.
The Veeck creed is a savvy locker room mix of calculated wariness and instinctive magnanimity. "Most people will act better than you'd expect, if you'll give them a chance to," says Veeck, probably knowing that Faulkner said it first. Veeck's method is to greet all comers with open arms, but with a hand on his wallet. He is fascinated with the particulars of personality. "Nothing beats a well-told tale," he says. To that end, he has made an avocation of exploring and examining every out-of-the ordinary fellow who crosses his path. "I'd rather give a speech at the federal plan than on the Gold Coast," he says. "And I seem to go over better there, too."
The walls of Comiskey Park, so dreary and forlorn when Veeck arrived six years ago, are a sparkling white now. When a taxi arrives at the front gate, the cab driver, Donnell Rallings, is in a good mood. "I've been a White Sox fan since the 40s," he says. "I lost faith in them for a while, but when Mr. Bill took over the team, I started coming again.
"You know, my radio doesn't work too well. They went to this new seven-volt, and mine is just a five-volt -- but I always listen sharp for Mr. Bill's call. I've gotten him twice. Just like I figured, he sat up front. Only white man who ever sat up front with me.
"Right away, he found out that I'd visited the same part of Jamaica he had. He seemed to want to know all about me. I don't tell many people that I write poetry, but I told him. He sat there with a big smile on his face and made me recite everything I could remember."
Why doesn't he call Veeck by his last name -- you know, Veeck, as in wreck?
"He told me to call him 'Bill.' So, I did. But when I talk about him, I call him 'Mr. Bill.' You know, out of respect."