Book it! Veeck bio a must-read classic
Updated: June 4, 2012 10:49AM
Maverick aptly is described in the dictionary as “an independently minded person who refuses to abide by the dictates of another person or group.”
That was Hinsdale’s Bill Veeck, whose brilliant Hall of Fame baseball career as a team owner and promoter now is detailed in a fulfilling new biography “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick” by independent author Paul Dickson, a meticulous researcher who spent three years compiling this engagingly written tome.
Owned three teams, including the White Sox twice.
Pinch hit a midget (3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel, 1952).
Integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby in 1947 and signed the oldest rookie in Satchel Paige (42) in 1948.
Was first to put names on backs of players’ uniforms
Staged ingenious promotions, including Comiskey Park’s exploding scoreboard, Disco Demolition Night, marriages at home plate, morning games for wartime swing-shift workers and Harry Caray singing the seventh-inning stretch.
Veeck would have built a ski jump off the top of Wrigley Field’s scoreboard if he had succeeded in buying the Cubs.
It’s all there and more in this easy-to-read book (Walker & Company, $28) that Sun-Times reviewer Dave Hoekstra rates as “essential baseball literature.”
Veeck’s nephew, Fred Krehbiel of Hinsdale, was invaluable to Dickson as a source, especially Krehbiel having stumbled in 1963 upon a long-lost ledger book and legal pad detailing testimonies of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox.
Veeck, who lost a leg in World War II when an artillery piece recoiled over his foot on a remote Pacific island, was the most-interesting person I met in 27 years of covering baseball for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Going … gone
Bill left his Hinsdale grammar-school window slightly ajar on baseball’s opening day to be able to sneak out and catch the 11 a.m. train to the city where he’d catch the trolley to Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park. His mother could count on teachers phoning after school to say Bill had ditched his afternoon classes.
“I caught holy heck when I got home, but it was worth it,” Veeck said.
Just for fun
I still can hear Veeck’s voice, especially in Sarasota, Fla., spring training when he’d sit on an electrical utility box alongside the practice field with his shirt off. I knew a hypothetical situation was coming when he’d say, “Let’s suppose …” and off we’d go on some weird subject that wasn’t always about baseball.
He asked me once, “If cows really could fly, where would they land?”
His answer: “Catcher, to be in on all the action.”
The dawn patrol
My most memorable assignment was a “Day in the Life of Bill Veeck” offseason feature that started at 6 a.m. in Bill’s Chicago Hyde Park apartment where I found him soaking his leg stump in the tub while reading a book and listening to jazz from his Smithsonian collection.
Veeck made four speeches that day, all different. The night ended for me at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. for him.
Veeck’s artificial leg “sprunk a leak” once in an airport, sending screws and bolts flying across the lobby. Ticket-holders collected the pieces like jewels and gently placed them on a handkerchief for Veeck to reassemble.
Veeck toured Comiskey Park every morning before home games, looking for structural defects like girders separating from the upper deck, unhinged seats and flaking walls. He demonstrated one day by having a maintenance man tap a concourse wall lightly with his hammer, bringing down chunks of concrete and gagging dust.
The park is long gone, but the memory of Veeck the Maverick lives on.