Everyone will have a different memory of Bill Veeck, but I will recall him on a bright sunny afternoon in Havana in 1977, trying to stand (peg leg and all) on a sloping concrete ramp at the National Stadium between innings of the Cuban league championship series, demonstrating to the Cuban commissioner of baseball the intricacies of the major leagues' new balk rule.
There were two problems: First, the disparity in length between Veeck's good leg and his partly artificial one was not the same as the difference required by the slant in the ramp. Second, he was not entirely sober, having put away rather more than his quota of beer for the afternoon. (Bill had one dependable phrase of Spanish -- "I'll have a bottle of beer, por favor.")
Come to think of it, there was a third problem: Veeck didn't have the rule absolutely straight, and kept on insisting there was one rule for throwing to first base, another for the whirl and throw to second. The commissioner wasn't impressed.
We had come to Cuba together through the good offices of mutual friends. I was on sort of a diplomatic mission, which took me all of an hour to discharge, and from then on it was all baseball. Veeck had come armed with scouting reports on about eight top prospects (Barbaro Garbey, the first Cuban refugee to make the majors, among them -- third baseman for the Agricoltores, as I recall).
Veeck's plan was simple, and he explained it to every Cuban official we met, including, late in the visit, one-time major league prospect Fidel Castro. Veeck would, he offered, take as many of the players as wished to come and sign them for the White Sox. The contracts would provide that, as soon as U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations were restored, the players would be free to return to play for any Havana team in the majors or the minors.
Veeck's dream was a new alignment with major league teams in Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan and Cuba. He thought the owners would raise no objections. He was a trusting sort of fellow.
But the Cubans wouldn't hear of it, mostly because they didn't trust Bill Veeck, probably the only people to make that mistake. They just couldn't believe that a major capitalist entrepreneur had anyone's welfare at heart but his own and that of his class.
So, between beers (and during them), Veeck kept on talking about his proposal. He discussed it with as much fervor with Raul Castro, Fidel's brother who is No. 2 in the Cuban government, as with ex-Senators pitcher Connie Marrero, one of the coaches of a team playing in the Cuban league. In the stadium that day, he tried to convince the commissioner. He was doing all right until he thought the umpire, down on the field, had blown the balk call.
So, the future of U.S.-Caribbean relations in the balance, Veeck abandoned the discussion and leapt to his feet to demonstrate the balk rule. He lost the commissioner, and probably the chance for a major foreign policy breakthrough. Veeck was always more fan than diplomat.