- Changed the makeup of stadiums, players and fans.
- Signed the first black player in the American League.
- Turned venues into carnivals.
- Produced Cleveland's last World Series triumph.
- Hired the first black front-office executive.
- Put the Go in Chicago's pennant-winning Go-Go Sox of 1959.
- Added names to uniforms and pregame shows to radio.
- Made millions of dollars while having a blast.
"I would rate him on a separate scale of innovation," Paul Dickson, author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," told IBD. "He could take a team down in the dumps and make them a winner financially and on the field. He was one reason the Dodgers could sell for $2 billion just a few years ago. With Veeck, baseball ceased to be a system of men in white shirts and fedoras in the stands and became family entertainment. He was the most innovative owner I ever covered. "Other owners have called me and thanked Veeck: 'This is what we do now.' " And he did it all on one leg. "How he endured his pain from his wound, infection and amputation was extraordinary," said Dickson. "He took adversity and turned it into a gag."
Tom Weinberg, a Chicago TV/film producer who was a minor shareholder during Veeck's second stint with the White Sox, said: "I loved him. We hung out together a lot the last 10 years of his life. He was always my hero. When I was at NYU, I got an assignment with the question: Who is your hero in business? While the other students were writing about stiff company men, I wrote about Veeck. He did what he cared about doing, and he did it very well. He was a fan, not a businessman. He loved the fun of it. The corporate owners -- remember that CBS once owned the Yankees -- were playing a different game."
The Veeck lesson? "Be genuinely interested in what your customers want," said Weinberg, president of the video archive MediaBurn.org. "It's not about giving discounts in the Thursday paper. It's about caring, being with the fans all the time. People who worked for him would jump out of windows for him. Why? They drank together, did everything together. They were pals."
The smoking, drinking, hurdling stadium seats while reveling with fans, boosting baseball for half a century, fathering nine children with two wives -- no wonder the baseball scribe Tom Boswell anticipated Veeck's death with "His cause of death should read: Life."
Said son Mike Veeck: "Dad was a guy's guy with zero pretense -- he built an ashtray into his wooden leg, for crying out loud." Upon falling at an airport, he heard an attendant ask, "Can I call you a doctor?" and replied, "No, it's a wooden leg -- get me a carpenter." Chicago sportswriter Bob Verdi quoted Veeck as saying: "I have an advantage over you. ... People say I can drink beer as though I've got a wooden leg."
More applause came from:-
- Lou Boudreau, who managed Veeck's Indians to the 1948 world title: "Bill introduced entertainment to baseball. ... He was in the fans' corner at all times."
- Harry Caray, the announcer who sang "Take Me out to the Ballgame" for Veeck's White Sox before taking that act across town to the Cubs, said: "He's the only owner I've run across who really thinks about the enjoyment of the fan."
- Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman and Veeck business partner, put it this way: "Before Veeck, it was just going to the ballpark and winning and losing. Veeck made it fun."
Mary Frances Veeck, his widow, said in "Bill Veeck: A Man For Any Season," a documentary produced by Weinberg and Jamie Ceaser: "He introduced Bat Day, Jacket Day, Cap Day, a Music Day and many others. He was criticized by other owners for innovations such as putting names on uniforms, but they didn't hesitate to copy the ones that worked."
Veeck (1914-86) was born where he made his grandest mark: Chicago. His father was a sportswriter who became president of the National League's Cubs in 1919. The son never finished high school, but he passed the test that got him into Kenyon College in Ohio. He played football and left early to join the Cubs' front office before his dad's death in 1933. That decade saw Veeck already wreaking havoc on habit. As an aide to Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, the youngster remade their stadium with new bleachers, an electronic scoreboard and vines on the outfield wall, or as Veeck called it, "The world's best-known horticultural display." He kept his eye on the ball, forever aiming higher.
In 1941, at the ripe age of 27, he bought the Milwaukee Brewers and promoted them from minor league slop to Triple-A dynasty.
How dire were the Brewers when he took over? "We found 22 loyalists in the stands," he wrote in his memoir, "Veeck -- as in Wreck." "Theoretically, it was supposed to be Boy Scout Day, but all except three of the Boy Scouts had apparently decided to stay home and tie knots."
Veeck wasn't about to be roped in by a foul stadium and sour team. He quickly cleaned up the ballpark with paint and refurbished restrooms, especially for female patrons. He gave away wacky prizes such as a keg of nails, a stepladder and livestock: turkeys, geese, rabbits and pigs. Milwaukeeans loved it, flocking to the tune of 15,000 to Opening Day of 1942. In one season, attendance vaulted from 98,000 to 280,000. The Brewers rewarded the crowds with winning performances. In the midst of that, Veeck tried buying the Philadelphia Phillies and turning them into an all-black team, reports Dickson, but National League owners said no.
With America in the thick of World War II by 1943, Veeck wasn't about to miss the biggest show on earth, even at age 29 and as the father of three. He dived in as a Marine private and soon headed to the Pacific. He couldn't pull rank, but he sure pulled strings, drawing baseball equipment to his outpost for a sportin' life between bombs. Yet Veeck paid dearly in the combat zone. After his right leg was crushed in an artillery accident, he faced marathon operations and the loss of that limb.
Veeck's wound came while he still owned the Brewers. Returning to the States and out of uniform just as the atomic bomb ended hostilities in 1945, he sold the team for a profit of $275,000, worth $3.4 million today. Now Veeck was ready for the big leagues again, this time as owner of the Cleveland Indians by the middle of the 1946 season. "He had a talent to attract investors," said Dickson. "His genius was managing packages, such as teaming up with Bob Hope to buy the Indians. More important than good wealth was his goodwill."
On the new ownership's first day, the Tribe drew a paltry 8,000 fans. Veeck gave notice: "You don't sell your baseball without dressing it up in bright colored paper and red ribbons." The Veeck touch soon gripped Municipal Stadium: mirrors in the restrooms, Ladies' Day flush with free nylon stockings, radio broadcasts, posting of National League scores, telephone service for reserve ticketing, snappy ushers, delicious hot dogs. Attendance sped past the 1 million mark for first time in Cleveland history that first Veeck season.
Then came 1947. Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson of the National League's Dodgers became the first black big leaguer in modern baseball, Veeck signed outfielder Larry Doby as the first American Leaguer to break the color barrier while getting advice from Louis Jones, the majors' first black PR man. Attendance rocketed to 1.5 million. The next season, Cleveland broke baseball's record with 2.6 million fans, a record that lasted 14 years. Veeck juiced the team by signing the great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige, who at 41 was the oldest of all rookies. He packed stadiums and helped the Indians win the world championship.
Veeck lasted one more year in Cleveland before selling for a profit of $500,000, worth $5 million now.
From running a contender, Veeck in 1951 veered to the St. Louis Browns, perennial American League deadbeats. How to jazz up a team playing second fiddle to the city's Cardinals? With curves.
Veeck tuned into the crazy idea of a pregame radio call-in show. He had 3-foot, 7-inch tall actor Eddie Gaedel step to the plate to walk and promptly leave for a pinch runner. He brought Paige back at age 45, helping boost attendance in 1952 to half a million, the second-best number in Browns history.
Then Veeck sold them for a 38% profit in 1953 to investors, who soon moved the team to Baltimore.
Veeck might've been out of the majors as an owner, but he made major waves. He produced a report for Phil Wrigley that paved the way for the National League's move to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958. He also joined executives in buying a minor league team that became the Triple-A Miami Marlins, forerunners of the current Florida big-league franchise. The high point came in 1956, with Paige back on the mound and filling the Orange Bowl with 57,000 fans, who also cheered the pregame show of jazz legend Cab Calloway and TV star Merv Griffin.
Veeck made a solid profit selling the Marlins that year, and then in 1959 returned to the bigs. Now he was in his kind of town, Chicago, running a team that hadn't won anything since the Black Sox Scandal 40 years before.
Veeck wasted little time zipping up Comiskey Park. He painted much of it white, tore down useless pillars, laid cloth towels in the restrooms, had ushers escort women to their seats and redecorated powder rooms. Forever courting female fans, he gave free tickets and orchids to women with pictures of children on Mother's Day. And for kids came a circus between games of a doubleheader. Fans loved it, pouring into Comiskey at a record rate of 1.4 million in 1959, while watching the Sox capture the American League flag. The next year saw the gate rise to 1.6 million as Veeck sparked fireworks and electrical sound effects from the scoreboard to celebrate home runs. Veeck sold his part of the Sox in 1961 for today's equivalent of $20 million.
But he was hardly through with them. In December 1975, he retook control of the White Sox in time to keep the perennial losers from moving beyond Illinois. Veeck woke Chicago to the Sox via -- what else? -- promotions. He held a Greek Night, replete with belly dancers. He turned on a shower in the bleachers to attract women in bathing suits. He adorned the team in shorts and pullover tops. The gate rose by 200,000 in 1976, despite the club's lousy play. Veeck changed that in 1977, bringing in sharper players. They rewarded him with a pennant run, leading the division after the All-Star break. The "South Side Hit Men" eventually fell out of the race, but they became legend with the adopted Sox theme song, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." And drew 1.7 million fans.
In January 1981, unable to afford the high salaries of players as they became free agents, Veeck left baseball for good, selling the Sox for today’s equivalent of $45 million. "It was the bitter end, but 66-year-old Bill Veeck was laughing," wrote sports columnist John Schulian. "Looking back on the career of baseball's reigning Barnum, with his pinch-hitting midgets and exploding scoreboards, there's really no other way he could leave. Sadness for another time, another place."
A decade later, in July 1991, Veeck posthumously entered the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was the same year the White Sox moved into their new digs, U.S. Cellular Field.
Veeck's ultimate message?
"Pay attention to your customers," said Dickson "He turned that huge interest into creating loyalty. He wasn't afraid to push the envelope, to give away nylon stockings when that was a wild idea in the 1940s. Every team today is a reflection of what Bill Veeck did."
Revolutionized baseball's entertainment as owner of three major league teams.
Overcame: Wartime wound and subsequent leg amputation.
Lesson: Deal with pain by diving into inspiring endeavors.
"I happen to have a very ridiculous theory. Baseball should be fun."