The tombstone will say Bill Veeck only lived 71 years. Don't believe it. The old rapscallion must have rolled the odometer over a couple of times.
If we measured a man's span by how much he lived, not how long, Veeck might have been the oldest man on earth when he died yesterday in a Chicago hospital.
"I always hate to go to sleep," he said. "I'm afraid something fascinating is going to happen and I'll miss it."
Veeck didn't sleep much. In baseball, the sport that epitomizes moderation, Veeck was the patron saint of joyous immoderation. When he owned teams such as the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, he'd send a midget to bat, give away wheelbarrows of money at home plate or build an exploding scoreboard, if it pleased him.
Because he was more serious than other men -- suffering more, reading more, accomplishing more, risking more -- he was more playful and carefree than other men. A paradox. Just as Veeck would wish it.
On one hand, he was a voracious reader who claimed (and no one disputes it) he consumed an average of a book a day for his last 60 years. Whether his passion of the moment was Trollope, Melville or some pulp detective author, he'd devour not one book but the collected works. ("I liked 'Omoo' and 'Typee' better than 'Moby Dick.' ")
A student of politics and history ("I must be terribly undiscriminating, because I find everything interesting"), Veeck voted for Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas many times. "In fact," he said, "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." Veeck also signed the first black player in American League history (Larry Doby), then answered all 20,000 hate letters by hand.
Despite his passion for ideas, words and causes, Veeck would have laughed himself sick if anyone accused him of being an intellectual. He "never graduated from anywhere," having been invited to leave all such institutions. Once, at Kenyon College, Veeck fell from a fourth-story window; luckily, he was so drunk and limp that he only broke both legs.
Throughout his life, even as an old man, Veeck was a renegade, a hedonist, a buffoon. He loved outlaws, sought the night life and consumed four packs of cigarettes and a case of beer a day. With his peg leg, bottomless appetite and radiantly homely face, he might have been some inexplicable pirate-saint.
"I have never liked those who are cautious," he once said. "My first wife was an equestrian 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," said Veeck, bemused at how tough that moral might be to extract.
For everything Veeck was, he seemed determined to be the opposite as well. He was a doting husband and father who adored his wife of 35 years -- Mary Frances -- like a high school boy with a crush. He couldn't keep from holding her hand in public and generally gave the impression that the man in Chicago who danced with his wife was a guy named Veeck.
As much as he mocked other baseball owners for their stodginess, Veeck also was a millionaire businessman who ran successful baseball teams (two American League champions -- the 1948 Indians and the 1959 White Sox) and owned race tracks. He cooked up a financial scam called a debenture-stock deal that was such a sweet loophole that the IRS fought him for 11 years -- then gave up. Because he loved the look of beautiful buildings, he studied blueprint design on a whim and, in a pinch, directed the construction of the Wrigley Field scoreboard, which still stands.
Some might think Veeck's guiding quality was his enthusiasm, his appetite or, perhaps, his enormous childlike playfulness. More likely, it runs deeper and darker.
It's been said that courage is man's chief virtue because it makes all the other virtues possible. That's Veeck.
As a marine in World War II, he lost a foot. Of course, he was incapable of pampering the wound and, for 40 years, did basically what he pleased. This led to more and more surgery, less and less leg. For years he started each day soaking his stump in a warm bath so he could tolerate his artificial limb.
Veeck loathed euphemisms and insisted on saying he was "a cripple, but never handicapped."
When he ran the White Sox in recent years, Veeck was deaf in one ear and half-deaf in the other. He had permanent walking pneumonia, which required that his lungs be drained periodically.
Once, a few years ago, the lungs became so bad he couldn't breathe. Veeck hopped in a cab to the hospital and told the driver, "Go as fast as you can." Then, he stuck his head out the window so air would be forced down his throat. That's when he stopped smoking. "The moral is that courage is usually abject cowardice."
Veeck had so many major operations he once said, "I count sodium pentothal shots. I'm up to 32."
Veeck's life had been despaired of for 25 years, ever since he retired from baseball temporarily in 1961 after chronic concussions caused him to blackout every time he had a coughing fit.
"They thought they were rid of me," he recalled. "All the owners presented me with a huge, embossed, illuminated book listing all 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 federal court 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.' "
Four years ago, when Veeck's health was particularly bad, he said, "I remember a book by Ernest Seton Thompson, the great nature writer, called "Waab, a Bear." It was about grizzlies. You never see their carcasses left to rot in the wild. I lived in the Southwest and it's true. When their time comes to die, they go off to places where they know they won't be found. They just disappear, start the exodus to some remote canyon. You never know what happened to them.
"I feel like Waab. The time has come to depart the premises."
The wire services say the cause of death was a heart attack. No doubt accurate, but not good enough. It would be closer to true to say Bill Veeck died from the best and most natural of all causes: too much life.