Bill Veeck is best remembered for one moment in his colorful — and often courageous — career as a baseball executive. In August 1951, while he was running the hapless St. Louis Browns, Veeck sent 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedelup to pinch-hit in the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. It was a cheap stunt, designed to generate publicity for the beer company that sponsored the Browns, and it branded Veeck as a clownish hustler who debased the game. He even speculated that the incident would be enshrined on his tombstone, although with typical wit he hoped the inscription would read, “He helped the little man.”
But as Paul Dickson, a writer living in Garrett Park, Md., shows in this lively and informative biography, Veeck should be remembered more for Larry Doby than Eddie Gaedel. Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball 65 years ago with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Veeck signed Doby for the Cleveland Indians and breached the color barrier in the American League. “Signing Doby was Veeck’s first defining moment as a major-league owner,” writes Dickson. “It gave him a voice as a progressive and social critic.”
Though Doby played for Cleveland, I was intrigued by his impact on Washington. This was a segregated city in 1947, and Griffith Stadium, where the Senators played, restricted black customers to a section along the right-field foul line. Doby was deluged with racial slurs in many parks, but in Washington, because he played right field, he “felt welcome.” As he said later: “I had cheerleaders there at Griffith Stadium. I didn’t have to worry about name-calling.” In fact, the Indians used to stay at the old Statler Hotel (now the Capital Hilton on 16th Street), and Doby was “the hotel’s first Negro guest.”
The Chicago-born Veeck owned the Browns, Indians and White Sox at different times in his career, but one prize always eluded him: the Senators. In 1961, he moved his vast family (nine kids in all) to an estate on the Eastern Shore, guarded by a sign that said “Beware of Puppies.” The Senators played in Washington for more than six decades and won exactly one championship (in 1924), and Veeck regarded Washington “as a great untapped baseball market ready to be developed.” He was particularly sensitive to the city’s large black population, and if he had bought the team, he intended to make Elston Howard, the great Yankee catcher, the game’s first black manager. But Veeck had many enemies — in part because of his progressive racial views — and his ambitions were always thwarted by the lords of baseball.
Since Veeck’s father was a baseball writer turned club executive with the Cubs, he grew up with the game and decided by age 12 that he “was going to own a baseball team.” The man was always part carnival barker, and he loved exploding scoreboards and greased-pig contests. But he also loved to sit in the bleachers and talk to fans, and many of his innovations were designed to make the game more fun for the paying customers, especially women. Sprucing up the women’s restrooms was always a top priority, and he was the first owner to put players’ names on their jerseys because “the increasing numbers of women coming to the ballpark wanted to know who the players were.” He also despised artificial turf, one of mankind’s worst inventions, because “when you go to the ballpark, you are entitled to the smell of grass freshly cut.”
Veeck never hid his left-wing politics, and during World War II he spurned an officer’s commission to join the Marines as a 29-year-old private. War wounds suffered in the South Pacific eventually cost him a leg. He lived in constant pain but always made light of his disability, even carving an ashtray into his wooden prosthesis.
He called the reserve clause, a contract system that bound a player to one team, “both illegal and immoral,” and he was later vindicated when an arbiter threw the rule out and created free agency.
He always argued that big-market teams such as the New York Yankees had an unfair advantage because of their lucrative TV contracts, and he wanted baseball to adopt a system similar to pro football’s, where all broadcast revenue is shared equally. I’m a lifelong Yanks fan, but Veeck was right. Small-market teams should have an equal shot at winning, and they never will until his plan is adopted.
Dickson deftly captures this complex character, whose legacy reflects both Gaedel and Doby, hucksterism and heroics. Veeck wrote his own epitaph one boozy night (and there were many of them) when he and his pals debated for hours whether Veeck was a “phony.” Their conclusion: yes, but a “sincere phony.”
Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
By Paul Dickson
Walker. 434 pp. $28