Eddie Gaedel, weighing 65 pounds, and standing 3-feet-7 inches tall makes his only Major League Baseball apperance in a St Louis Browns uniform during the second game of a double-header at Sportsman's Park in St Louis on August 19, 1951.
This summer, when you pass through the turnstiles at any major league baseball stadium around the country, and you’re suddenly handed a free t-shirt, a bobblehead look alike, a beer stein, or a drawstring bag with your team’s logo on it, you owe a special thank you to William Louis Veeck, Jr., known to the baseball world as Bill Veeck or more affectionately ``Sport Shirt Bill.’’
Paul Dickson, author of the ``Baseball Dictionary’’ has knocked another one out of the park with ``Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick’’, a skillfully written biography, scrupulously researched, brimming with revealing anecdotes and historical detail, while unpacking Veeck’s views of social injustice (inside and outside the park),along with his quest to provide fans with a show even if their team wasn’t on the road to clinching a pennant.
It’s hard to believe that when Veeck took over as owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1946; baseballs that landed in the stands were considered property of the club and were promptly retrieved by the stadium personnel.
When Veeck, the son of a sports columnist and former president of the Chicago Cubs, came on board, Cleveland Indian baseball games, believe it or not, weren’t on radio; there wasn’t even a telephone service for fans to reserve tickets. The Chicago native changed all that almost immediately and would embrace a host of other publicity innovations, including, introducing Ladies Day and giving away nylon stockings to the first 20,00 women who entered the stadium, dressing track star and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in an Indians uniform to run a 100-yard dash against Indians’ speedster, George Case, socializing with fans in different sections of the stadium; while the unconventional owner frequently would be seen outside the gates at the end of the game thanking fans for attending.
Imagine, Veeck even answered his own phone if anyone called his office. Even ushers were rebranded under Veeck, requiring a strict dress code of meticulously ironed blue coats and trousers, gold stripes and immaculate white shirts.
Despite a 6th place finish, the Tribe’s total attendance for 1946 was over one million, a milestone never reached in franchise history. Two years later, in 1948, the last year the Indians won a World Series, attendance had soared to over two million, a league record until the Los Angeles Dodgers broke it in 1962.
Years later, when buying 80 percent stake of the St Louis Browns in 1951, the maverick owner worked his magic again: during one game, he told fans the drinks were on the house and personally passed out two buckets of beer in the bleachers. By the time the game was over, 6, 041 soft drinks and 7,596 bottles of beer were passed out.
Veeck was so interested in hearing from the real fans of St Louis that he once went down in a coal mine with 200 other miners in order to listen for ways to improve his moribund team.
But by far, Veeck’s most legendary stunt while with the Browns was in signing a midget from Chicago, Eddie Gaedel, who with such a small strike zone, pitchers would find near impossible to strike out. The idea sprang from the Browns struggles to get their leadoff man on base. The brilliant move was short lived, however; the diminutive Gaedel only saw one at bat-he drew a walk from Detroit Tigers pitcher Bob Cain and was then replaced by pinch runner Jim Delsing. As the 3-foot-7 Gaedel waved his cap to the thunderous crowd at Sportsman's Park outside of the Browns dugout- he quietly faded into the sunset, never be seen in a major league uniform again. The American League president, William Harridge, quickly voided his contract and prohibited midgets from ever playing in the majors.
A Footnote: Gaedel died of a heart attack on June 18, 1961, age 36, from injuries sustained after being mugged on a Chicago street corner for $11.
One of Veeck’s most distinguishing hallmarks was in knowing which side his bread was buttered on; and that was in keeping the fans happy. With the Chicago White Sox (during his first stint on the South Side, 1959-1961), when the steelworkers went on strike, Veeck saw to it that more than 7,000 steelworkers were given free tickets. He also held other special nights for the working class of Chicago, including teachers, transit workers and even holding a Good Neighbor Night for residents who lived near Comiskey Park. And in the first game of the 1959 World Series , he sprang for 20,000 red roses for every woman who entered the park.
Today, with pyrotechnics and dazzling firework displays practically a standard feature at most major league facilities, we need to remind ourselves, every now and again, exactly when this tradition first began. And that was with Veeck, again, in Chicago, when in 1960, he unveiled a flashing light scoreboard with exploding fireworks after each home run. The novel scoreboard soon earned it the nickname: ``The Monster.’’
Sewing player’s names on the back of uniforms and players donning shorts were more Veeck innovations while with the Sox.
But his most publicized gimmick, which unfortunately turned out to be his most infamous, came during his second tour of duty with the White Sox on July 12, 1979, when Disco Demolition Night was scheduled. Hoping to feed off the anti-disco frenzy sweeping the country, the event was designed with a simple task in mind: blowup a crate filled with disco records. But more was destroyed than just disco records, bonfires were seen everywhere, disco records were being flown in the air like Frisbees, more than 60,000 fans (well beyond capacity) flooded Comiskey with the smell of hot dogs and beer being overtaken with the distinct smell of marijuana wafting through the air; fans poured out on the field ripping up the grounds, while police tried to control the pandemonium riding horses through the field. ``Riot at Comiskey’’ was the screaming headline the Chicago Sun-Times published the next day.
Despite all the gimmicks, publicity stunts and pyrotechnics, it would be a mistake and gross misreading of Veeck’s contribution to baseball to think of him strictly as the ``Barnum of Baseball’’ or a publicity ``showboat’’ who cared more about stunts than in the integrity of the game.
Dickson reminds readers over and over of Veeck’s distaste for the discrimination blacks had to endure. Well before Jackie Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, Veeck was at the forefront, advocating the inclusion of blacks into the game. He recruited Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League with the Cleveland Indians, signing him to a $15,000 contract on July 5, 1947. Veeck even took his chances signing the well seasoned Satchel Paige at age 42. ``Satch’’, in fact, is in the history books as the first African American to take to the pitcher’s mound in a World Series game (1948), while Doby (also in 1948) became the first African-American to belt a home run in a World Series game.
Veeck’s passionate liberalism that he was never afraid to voice on a number of social issues raging in the country, along with clearing a path for many African Americans to display their talents in the major leagues, earned him the title of being the ``Abe Lincoln of Baseball’’ by the New York Amsterdam News.
In addition to his notable social activism, Veeck also left an enduring stamp on the game inside the lines as well, especially with his creative groundskeeping methods. When with the Indians, he instructed his groundskeeping crew to slant the foul lines to favor the Indians, while making the infield ``soft and slow’’ to give time for his slow infielders time to catch up with the ball. ``A good groundskeeper’’, Veeck liked to say, ``can be as valuable as .300 hitter.’’ Ready for another legendary Veekism? `` The best trades are the ones you don’t make,’’ the sentiments he expressed after deciding not to trade Lou Boudreau, a local fan favorite.
For those who think Veeck cared more about the circus than the game, just remember, despite all the publicity stunts he’s best remembered for, what many often overlook is that from 1946 through 1963, the New York Yankees only lost three pennants and Veeck’s teams (1948 and 1959) won two of them.
In addition to his questionable signings and his flair for spotting talent, Veeck also gave an untested Knoxville Farm club manager, Tony LaRussa, his first managerial job in 1979 at the tender age of 34 with the White Sox.
Given all that stood in his away: with seven amputations, a collapsed lung, deaf in one ear, a hearing aid in the other, is it any wonder that this brash unconventional owner with a predilection for thinking outside the box accomplished all that he did in such a short amount of time?
In one of the most profound ironies of Dickson’s remarkable book is that even though Veeck was born into a life of luxury, the road he went down as an adult was far from luxurious, as he tethered himself to the neglected , the forgotten; and most importantly, lending his ears to the voices of the fans.
As Veeck’s second wife, Mary Frances liked to say, ``Bill was born on the right side of the tracks, and dragged himself to the other side-and then lived comfortably on both.’’
So if you’re planning your summer reading list, I recommend you place Dickson’s enlightening and highly entertaining biography on one of baseball’s most combative if influential owners at the very top of your list.
April 4, 2012
Thinking Outside the Box
As usual, there will be plenty of promotions and giveaways at Major League Baseball stadiums this year, from t-shirts to bobbleheads, but in honor of Bill Veeck, I thought I would single out those teams who came up with the most innovative promotions; promotions in other words, which Mr. Veeck would have tipped his hat if he was here today.
Here’s some which caught my eye:
• The Detroit Tigers will be hosting a Christmas in July" night at Comerica Park which includes Christmas music, decorations and visits from Santa Claus and Santa PAWS!
• The Cleveland Indians will have a Puppypalooza for two games at Progressive Field season in which fans are encouraged to bring their dog to the ballpark.
• The Oakland A's will have a Youth Sports Movie Night in which kids will be able to watch the film ``Sandlot’’ on the field which comes with a snack and an autograph session.
• The Chicago White Sox will be holding a Sports Marketing Career Fair in which participants will have an opportunity to network with representatives from different companies.
• The White Sox will have Grandparent's Day and Seniors Stroll the Bases.
• Kansas City Royals will be having a George Brett Mini Pine Tar Bat Day, in which the first 10,000 fans will be given pine tar.
• The Toronto Blue Jays will be featuring ``Tweeting Tuesdays’’ as fans and @bluejays followers will have the opportunity to interact and communicate with the Blue Jays and other Blue Jays fans while watching the game.
• The Seattle Mariners will have a special military night in which military personnel receive $5 off select View Level seats or $10 off select Main Level seats on all Tuesdays and July 4th.
• The Arizona Diamondbacks will be giving away Mother's Day Earrings to the first 5,000 moms.
• The Chicago Cubs will feature a Social Media Night Budweiser Bleacher ticket package, where fans will receive a six card set of Cubs "Social Media Series" baseball cards featuring Cub players that are on Twitter. As an added bonus, there will be randomly inserted cards autographed by Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, David Dejesus and Ian Stewart.
• Wrigley Field will also be hosting a Law Enforcement Appreciation Night in which fans give thanks for the great courage and bravery of the men and women in Law Enforcement. Budweiser Bleacher Special event ticket holders will receive an exclusive Cubs/Law Enforcement themed shirt.
• The Milwaukee Brewers will be having a Stitch N' Pitch Night when fellow needle artists, speak to shop owners and visit teaching tables when gates open. The first 1,000 needle artists to buy tickets and attend Stitch N' Pitch Night at Miller Park will receive a free special edition Brewers Stitch N' Pitch Bobble Head.
• The New York Mets will give away Texting Gloves to the first 25,000 fans sponsored by Verizon.
• The San Diego Padres will have Play Catch on the Field Day for Kids.
• The San Francisco Giants will be holding a Slumber Party for Kids in which they set up camp on the field, play catch in the outfield and dream of their baseball heroes while sleeping under the stars.
• The St Louis Cardinals will have a Great Clips Charity Haircuts presented by Great Clip in which all fans will be able to get a haircut, with all proceeds going to Cardinals Care.
Source: Major League Baseball (Individual Team Home Pages)