Bill Veeck: A Baseball Mastermind
By Mike Brewster
It's often said that St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa is one of the most daring bosses in Major League Baseball. LaRussa likes to employ strategies like the hit-and-run, double steal, and the suicide squeeze bunt.
That said, it's a good bet that LaRussa won't be sending a 3-foot, 6-1/2- inch, part-time actor to hit against the Boston Red Sox in this year's World Series. Equally unlikely would be a LaRussa decision to employ a circus clown to coach third base or to allow a group of fans sitting in the bleachers to decide whether Boston slugger David Ortiz should be intentionally walked.
No, those gimmicks -- or tactics, if you prefer -- were famously used not by a managerial genius, but by a marketing genius, Hall of Fame team owner and baseball showman extraordinaire Bill Veeck. Twenty-five years ago, Veeck gave LaRussa his Major League managerial start by hiring him to run the Chicago White Sox. Now, both are leaving their imprint on the World Series in different ways.
"My dad and Tony LaRussa had sort of a father-son relationship," says Marya Veeck, a daughter of Bill Veeck working as a painter in Chicago. "They had a great relationship because they were both great at what they did."
What Veeck did better than any baseball executive in the game's history of the game was to get fans in the seats. Other than Babe Ruth in the 1920s (whose supposed curse on the Red Sox is wavering this post-season), no one did more to draw people to Major League Baseball games than Veeck when he was the owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox. Veeck introduced ballpark crowd-pleasers like fan-appreciation night, player names on uniforms, fireworks displays, electronic scoreboards, and culinary alternatives to peanuts and Cracker Jacks. More than anything else, Veeck made going to the ballpark a family outing.
He was born on Feb. 9, 1914, in Chicago. His father, Bill Veeck Sr., was a Chicago Cubs beat writer for years before being hired as a team employee and eventually becoming Cubs president. By the time he was 13, Bill Jr. was selling popcorn, showing patrons to their seats, and checking turnstile numbers. He even had the idea, as a teenager, to plant ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field.
In 1941, Veeck led a group of investors who bought the then-minor league Milwaukee franchise, where he hired fellow raconteur Charley Grimm as manager. The two initiated a series of giveaways designed to get more absurd as the season went on. Early in the year, orchids were given to all the women attending one game. Then, a customer went home with three live pigeons. A midsummer night's 200-pound cake of ice followed for one lucky fan, only to be topped later in the season by the gift of a horse.
World War II interrupted, though, and Veeck lost his right leg in the South Pacific to the recoil of an anti-aircraft gun. The wooden leg he had for the rest of his life -- and never complained about -- was noticeable to others only because the fun-loving Veeck had an ashtray built into the bottom of it.
After the war it was back to baseball, and in 1946 he bought the Cleveland Indians. In 1948 the Indians took home the only World Series championship for a Veeck-owned team. That year the team drew over 2.6 million fans, a figure that dwarfs attendance numbers of most Major Leagues teams today.
But Veeck, the un-Steinbrenner, couldn't stand success for that long. In 1951 he took on a challenge that no one else would have dared, buying and trying to revitalize the moribund St. Louis Browns. Back then, St. Louis was a two-team town, the Stan Musial-led Cardinals and the hapless Browns. The rumors were that Veeck wanted to take the team west to Portland, but his plan, in fact, was to stay and challenge the mighty Cardinals.
That first season -- one in which the Browns would go on to lose over 100 games -- Veeck realized that he could at the same time help his team put some runners on base and draw a crowd. Veeck signed Eddie Gaedel, who occasionally performed in plays calling for dwarfs or children, to a contract that would pay him $100 a day. In his first and only at-bat, on Aug. 19, 1951, against the Detroit Tigers, Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches -- all high.
"He often said later that he had a trained sniper on Gaedel if he tried to swing at a pitch," laughs Marya Veeck. With the Ted Williams-led Boston Red Sox coming into town, Veeck was ready to use Gaedel again when the commissioner's office effectively barred the player by establishing a minimum height for the start of the strike zone on a hitter. Like the Gaedel experiment, Veeck's St. Louis run didn't last long, and he eventually sold the team to a group that brought it to Baltimore.
THREE TEAMS AT ONCE.
Veeck wasn't just a promoter. His "firsts" included signing the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby, just a few months after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. He also signed Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro League pitcher, to hurl for both Milwaukee and Cleveland. Later, he and his wife, Mary Frances, were active in civil rights, even hosting movement leaders at their Maryland home during marches in Washington, D.C.
Veeck's experience with desultory teams in Milwaukee and St. Louis also encouraged him to become an innovator in terms of baseball personnel, shuffling players on and off the team from year to year, much like teams do today with free agents. In St. Louis, Veeck once told a reporter that he had three teams: the one that had just departed, the one on the field, and the one coming in.
Veeck died on Jan. 2, 1986 at the age of 71 in Chicago, six years after he sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf. Though he never owned the Cubs, he spent his last years as a fan of the team he and his father had both worked for, visiting Wrigley Field on a regular basis. While Veeck didn't live to see the 1991 summer day when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he couldn't have summed up his impact on the game better than the last words on his Cooperstown plaque: "A Champion of the Little Guy."
As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation
Brewster is a New York-based writer