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Bill Veeck was born into professional sports: his father served as president of the Chicago Cubs and his first job was at Wrigley Field. But Veeck’s sprawling career as a baseball executive affected many people outside the world of sports. He paved the way for integration in the American League, and rewrote the rules for how teams do business with their home cities and fans. We chat with biographer Paul Dickson about Veeck’s life and legacy in sports and the Washington region.
- Paul Dickson Author, "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick (Walker & Co.); and contributing editor at Washingtonian Magazine
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. For a lot of people, baseball is nothing more than a leisurely pastime, a game best enjoyed from a comfortable seat with an iced-cold beer. No one understood that part of baseball better than Bill Veeck, the former owner of the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, who practically invented the modern ballpark experience, from the ivy crawling of the walls in Chicago's Wrigley Field to the quality of the hotdogs at most big league parks to the nameplates on the backs of the jerseys of most Major League teams.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut during the lifetime Veeck spent in baseball business, he also learned about the game's potential to affect societal changes far outside the confines of a stadium. He effectively integrated the American League by signing Larry Dolby to the Cleveland Indians, and once chased a dream of buying the Philadelphia Phillies and fielding an entire team of black players smack dab in the middle of the Jim Crow era.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore where you can still see Veeck's legacy every time you head out to the ballpark and the grip professional sports have over so many of us and our lives is Paul Dickson. He is the author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." Paul, good to see you again.
MR. PAUL DICKSONYou too, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you are interested in joining the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Paul, if you're not a diehard fan, you may hear the name Bill Veeck and say who, but if you've ever been to a professional sporting event in the modern era, you've probably seen Bill Veeck's legacy all around you.
NNAMDIIf we were lucky enough to score tickets for the Nationals' game tonight against the Giants in San Francisco, where would we see Bill Veeck when we step through the gates of that ballpark?
DICKSONYou would see Bill Veeck in virtually everything outside the lines. The racing presidents will not be in San Francisco tonight. But the whole idea that you take a ballpark and you turn into a sort of oasis, a surcease from the urban universe around you. And Veeck did -- Veeck looked at this in a really holistic manner. I mean, very early on, he realized that baseball spectators -- this is back in the 1930s when he first came up with the Chicago Cubs as an employee.
DICKSONHe realized it was really a predominantly male game, and he started bringing women and one of the -- every time, he bought a ballclub, even in the minor leagues, he would rip out the women's ladies rooms and put in brand-new beautiful ladies rooms with carpeting and indirect lighting and he -- at one point, he actually built a ladies room in Chicago that was so elaborate, so palatial that he actually had a contest to name it.
DICKSONWhen they named it, it was the Hall of Fem. But he also brought in kids. And when he first goes to -- right after World War II, he goes into Cleveland, and he wants to set attendance records, he built a nursery -- two nurseries into the ballpark with a 10 -- with nurses so that if you brought in an infant or a toddler to the game, you could park the child with a professional nurse. So he had this whole idea of making the game bigger, more universal.
DICKSONAnd I think one of the reasons the Dodgers, the Los Angeles Dodgers just sold for $2 billion with a B is because Veeck actually opened it up, opened the ballpark to minorities, opened the ballpark to women, families, children. I mean, there are people back in the day who really didn't think kids belong in a ballpark. It was sort of they were allowed to go up in the bleachers maybe, but they were really -- it was too sophisticated a game for them.
DICKSONIt was really for their parents. So -- but everywhere you look, the giveaways, just the idea that it's an experience rather just going to see a team win or lose. It's a whole experience where there's music, and there's fun, and there's belly dancers in the seventh inning stretch and...
NNAMDIAll of it coming from Bill Veeck's idea. Some people may be familiar with the stunts that Veeck pulled. This is a guy who once put in a man who stood all of three-foot-seven as a pinch hitter in St. Louis, but in the business world, he's still remembered as one of the greatest salesman of all time. We came across an op-ed a few days ago from a newspaper in Connecticut about a new busway system there, and the writer's argument was that we need a Bill Veeck to sell this thing. To what extent is Bill Veeck's name associated with anybody trying to sell anything or convince people about anything?
DICKSONHe -- basically, what -- he had this tremendous charm. He was, you know, a maverick. He was anti-establishment, but he could get to people in a very, very meaningful way. He could sell people a bad team. One of the reasons he brought in the -- you mentioned that he could tell -- the midget that he brought into a game and...
DICKSONThree-foot-seven. Veeck had gotten this idea from a New Yorker short story by James Thurber in which -- the idea was to bring in a very short fellow, a midget who would crouch at the plate and therefore his strike zone would go down virtually nothing and get an automatic walk. This was Bill Veeck's idea of how you bring people to the ballpark. He had run-your-own-manager night.
DICKSONHe had all these different -- he would give away early on his career in Milwaukee when he owned a minor league team, he would give away -- I'm going to give away 100 silver dollars tonight. Somebody would win the 100 silver dollars. They'd be in the lucky seat, and the 100 silver dollars would come in a wheelbarrow, frozen in an immense block of ice. So he could do -- and, of course, that -- then all the festivities that go with it, everybody trying to help the guy melt the ice.
NNAMDIWell, when he set in three-foot-seven Eddie Gaedel -- how that's...
NNAMDIEddie Gaedel, apparently he even speculated that the incident would be enshrined on his tombstone. You remember exactly what he said?
DICKSONHe was a friend to the little man.
NNAMDIHe helped the little man is what he said.
DICKSONYes. But he also -- the way he could sell a team, when he goes into Cleveland, first -- one of the first things he does -- this is 1946 -- he buys the team. What does he do? He wants -- he realized that no women go to the ballpark. He immediately gives away a truckload of nylon stockings to any woman coming to the ballpark. Well, anyone who's old enough knows that right after World War II there were tremendous shortages of things like nylon stockings.
DICKSONOn Mother's Day, he brings in orchids flown in from Hawaii. Then one day, a guy writes a letter to the ballpark and that -- a guy named Joe Earley, he's a night watchman at an automobile plant. And Joe Earley writes this angry letter saying, you know, you honor all these big stars, Bob Feller -- you honor -- have these big nights. You give their wives a mink coat. You give them a new car. You have these huge nights.
DICKSONI'm just a guy. I'm a night watchman. Why don't you do something for me? So Veeck has a Joe Earley Night. They give the guy a car, a new house, and they give him -- he's a night watchman. They give him 10 suits, brand new suits. But he had this ability to see that what people wanted and then give them...
NNAMDIAnd he had -- he started playing morning games for people who work night shifts, correct?
DICKSONOh, yeah. And that was -- right through in when World War II, he was in Milwaukee, and he had a ball club there. And he realized that Milwaukee as the war was getting underway was going to three shifts, and he realized that people in that midnight shift, you know, 12 to 8 a.m. shift, couldn't get to see a ballgame. So he starts running ballgames early in the morning. Of course, he does it up big.
DICKSONHe has -- he shows up with cornflakes and Wheaties, and he has, you know, has -- wakes up his manager, who's in a big four-poster bed, and so he's got this ability to sell the teams like nobody else probably before or after.
NNAMDIWell, the guy who was -- we were talking about in Connecticut, the -- writing in the Hartford Courant, Tom Condon writes this: The state Department of Transportation needs to start selling this idea, the idea of the busway before the public assumes that the critics are right and forgets about it. What the DOT needs is a Bill Veeck, he writes.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Paul Dickson. He is the author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What kind of influence do you think the owners of professional sports franchises have when it comes to broader issues outside of the games, issues like race, like gender rights? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. These days, you need the wealth of a small country to buy a professional franchise.
NNAMDIThe group that just bought the Los Angeles Dodgers when you mentioned that paid about $2 billion for the team, but Veeck's father was a sports writer who parlayed his job into a position with the Cubs almost a century ago, and Veeck himself came into the business without a personal fortune. How do you think that kind of background ultimately shaped the businessman he became?
DICKSONI think he was -- he had this great ability to finance teams. He would get all sorts of coalitions of people. He's a -- when he first buys the Cleveland Indians, he brings in Bob Hope, the comedian. He brings in meatpackers from Chicago. He brings in bankers. He has an ability to return people a vast amount of their money. And when he first -- when he goes to Cleveland, for every dollar an investor put in, he got $20 back when Veeck sold the team.
DICKSONHe also did an amazing creativity when it came to financing and things like taxes. One of the -- he had studied the -- all the pollution allowance, where if you own an oil well, you can deplete the value of the well over time. Well, he's the one who got -- comes up with the idea of depleting the value of a player. As a pitcher's career advances, he would depreciate the value of the player on his taxes.
DICKSONThe other owners were really fearful the IRS would find this to be highly offensive and would be some sort of repercussions. But the IRS declares it okay. They declared this isn't -- and one of the reasons that modern owners are so happy to have the money they're getting or willing to pay so much for a team is they can, in fact, depreciate the value of a player. And this basketball strike earlier in 2012 was, in fact -- part of the anger from some of the older basketball players, very few people realize this, was that the owners were making more money as they depreciated the value of the players. So he -- as the players' talents diminished, the value of the owner increased.
NNAMDIHe could claim that on his income taxes.
NNAMDIWhen he bought the financially troubled American association Milwaukee franchise in partnership with Charlie Grimm, he arrived in Milwaukee with $11 in his pocket.
DICKSONYeah. That's amazing. He just -- well, he had backers that were playing for the ball team, but that was his only personal -- and he immediately goes in and starts these amazing promotions. Night after night, he would give away livestock. He would give away -- one night, he gives away 10,000 -- after he gets some money coming in and the money starts coming in after he cleans the place up and really starts to buy some good players or get them from the other teams. One night, he gives away 10,000 cans of beer, and you can do that in Milwaukee in 1943. So he gives away 10 -- and he...
NNAMDIWhat's with the block of ice, the 200-pound block of ice?
DICKSONWell, that was where he would put the money in. He would give -- somebody would -- well, they would -- he would give somebody like 12 turkey -- live turkeys or something in a giveaway. But one night, he gives away 10,000 cans of beer, and he said, well, to each -- to adults. And he said, well, that's not very funny. So the next time, he gives away 10,000 cans of beer to one guy, and he wants to see what, you know, the whole reaction that is but...
NNAMDIStaged weddings at home plate.
DICKSONYes. So weddings at home plate. He had strolling minstrels. He had put together almost all of his players...
NNAMDITalk about the cake for his manager.
DICKSONThe -- oh, the cake. Oh, yeah. One of his managers, Charlie Grimm, becomes a certain -- he's having a birthday. He want -- what he really wants is a -- he really wants is a great relief pitcher, and, of course, they present him with this cake. And the cake burst opened, and here's the relief pitcher already to go into the game and fully clothed and, you know, breaks out of the cake. And, of course, he deducts part of it from Grimm's salary, but that's another story.
NNAMDIThis was an interesting time to be around baseball, certainty in Chicago where the White Sox were reeling from that 1919 scandal when players were banned after they threw the World Series. How deeply did gambling affect the game back then, and how did it -- how did Veeck respond to it?
DICKSONI think his father, Bill Veeck Sr., I think the reason he got the job when -- going from a newspaperman to the president of the Cubs, Veeck actually managing the Cubs is because he spotted actually cheating with gamblers earlier, 1918, when the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox are involved in a World Series that appears now to be have been fixed for the gamblers.
DICKSONWhen his father comes in, his father takes an extremely hard line against gambling. That's one of the reason they brought him into the Cubs was to clean up baseball. So I think his father and Bill Lauder are very much involved in the anti-gambling movement, the anti -- making -- cleaning up baseball as well as they can 'cause Veeck has got a wild personality, but he's dynamically honest.
NNAMDIReading about Veeck's father, one is struck by two things. First, the influence that writers like him had on the baseball business, which ultimately paved the way for him to become an executive of the Chicago Cubs, and second, the fact that he wrote anonymously under the byline Bill Bailey. What did you find was most illuminating about studying Veeck's father, and what did those things tell you about how much the news business has changed since those days?
DICKSONWell, one of the things his father did, I think his father set Bill us as a man of great fairness in terms of race, religion, origins, whatever. His father once -- when Bill was a very young kid and was working at the ballpark on summer vacation, his father brought him in, and he had a big amount of cash on the desk. And his father said, look, you see that money over there? What color is that money? And Bill Veeck says it's green. He said, that's the only color that matters at the ballpark.
DICKSONAnd so his father is very early on involved in the idea of bringing -- of creating a much more diverse group -- spectators and opening up. He doesn't -- he can't get to the level of actually racial integration. But Bill becomes determined -- Bill himself becomes determined at a very early age to integrate baseball.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Alex in Richmond, Va. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXHey, Kojo. This is a great story. I really been enjoying it so far. I just wanted to share kind of a funny baseball anecdote for showmanship that happened here in Richmond, Va. I recently went to a game of the Richmond Flying Squirrels that's in itself as kind of a strange name for a baseball...
NNAMDIThe Richmond Flying Squirrels. I like it.
ALEXYeah, strange name for a team. But they had a kind of country impresario that had collie -- Border collie dogs with monkeys riding on top of them, rounding up pigs in the outfield in between the games. And the -- I believe the entertainer said, they asked me, why do the monkeys ride under the Border collie? What, do you have to glue them on or tape them on or something? And I said, no. They just like to ride.
DICKSONBut, you know, that you bring up a fascinating point.
NNAMDISounds very Veeckian.
DICKSONYeah, and -- I've had actually emails and letters from minor league owners who say that the whole minor league experience, which is now proliferating in this country, is, in fact, the -- based on what Bill Veeck did in the minor, I mean, in the majors with these wacky promotions. If your team is losing, Veeck would do things like he would stand outside the gate and shake hands and thank people for coming. He loved to sit in the bleachers with the people in the cheap seats.
NNAMDIHe believed that a person's knowledge of baseball was inversely proportional to the cost of his seat.
NNAMDINow, thank you very much for your call, Alex. Here is Mark in Washington, D.C. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKYes. Hi, Kojo and your guest. I'm enjoying this tremendously. I have a question -- I'm sorry, the gentleman -- the author's name, and I -- it'll...
NNAMDIIt's Paul Dickson.
MARKOkay. Mr. Dickson...
MARK...my question is really about my feelings. You know, I grew up in the '50s and '60s in New York City. I had the luxury of three of 16 teams in the country.
DICKSONSo did I, by the way. Born in 1939.
MARKYeah, yeah. And I love -- and I've been all over this country and stadiums, and I love -- my son and I, in fact, and I love the purity of the game. And so I have tremendous regard for Mr. Veeck and what he did, especially on social issues. And I also understand the need to promote at a time when the game is not quite where it is today.
MARKAnd yet, when I travel the country and I see slinging T-shirts, hotdogs in the stands, a swimming pool in Phoenix, a shoot in Milwaukee, a playground in Comerica in Detroit, I feel that something has dramatically been lost about watching these tremendous athletes play this beautiful game. Would you like to respond to that?
DICKSONSure. I mean, one side of me says you're absolutely right. On the other side of me says baseball would never have survived, the minors would not be surviving in (word?) the way they are today unless you turn that whole experience into something of a minor circus. And one of the things that Veeck did, I think, most dramatically was in doing that, he basically saved baseball.
DICKSONEven something like the Eddie Gaedel incident or the -- another incident that same summer was you got to be your own manager or the spectators actually got up the hold up signs that say, steal or not steal, and he put his manager out of the game, was baseball -- in the early 1950s when Veeck goes to the St. Louis Browns, which later become the Baltimore Orioles, but they -- baseball was suffering, television was headed on the ropes.
DICKSONI mean, there were people now staying from those game. The minors were starting to dribble down. Less and less parks are being filled. When --what Veeck did when he brought the people back, instead of watching Milton Berle on a Tuesday night or Ed Sullivan on a Sunday night, people were coming back to the ballpark. And so in a large respect, that was baseball salvation.
DICKSONAnd some of it, I think over -- I think Veeck today would be appalled by the over amped rock and roll between innings where you can't even talk to your seatmate or maybe some of the shooting of the T-shirts into the stadiums. His promotions were one a kind. They were clever. You know, at one night, he would show up at the ballpark and there'd be an elephant on the field. I mean, but they were created to create that sort of vitality the whole thing.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mark. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you haven't yet, we still have the lines open at 800-433-8850. How do you think sports have shaped America's political culture? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. Our guest is Paul Dickson. He is the author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Paul Dickson about his latest book. It's called "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." I'm inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What kind of experience are you looking for when you go with your family to a ballpark? How have those experiences changed in your view over the years? 800-433-8850. You mentioned, Paul, how both Veeck and his father were deeply committed to making their businesses more popular with women.
NNAMDIBut before we get into the barriers that Veeck helped to break down in the American League by signing its first black player, Larry Doby, to the Cleveland Indians, we should note that you spent a great deal of time digging into Veeck's commitment to breaking baseball's color lines even before that. You dug in the one story in particular from when Veeck was still trying to become a Major League owner, that he wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and filled an entire team with black players only?
DICKSONYes. This was in 1942. This is late in the season, he hears that the Philadelphia Phillies, which were in the National League, then as now, were in terrible trouble. They couldn't make payroll. The owners were -- had to get rid of the team, and Veeck goes in and arranges for, very secretly, arranges to buy the team, gets financing -- arranges to buy the team and his plan -- he's working with Abe Saperstein, who was famous for the owning and running the Harlem Globetrotters.
DICKSONBut he, Saperstein and a couple of other guys, one black writer -- reporter -- they are -- they go in and they try to buy the Philadelphia Phillies. They're thwarted. But their idea is the war is on, this is '42. The old players in the Negro leagues, as they were called -- the old players are in fact these big major stars. They're never allowed to play against the whites players.
DICKSONAnd he's going to take the top guys out of the Negro leagues, older men mostly, guys like Satchel Paige and others, Cool Papa Bell, up and down the line, Oscar Charleston -- legends, who are almost all now in the hall of fame -- belatedly in the hall of fame. He's going to feel them as a team. He knows he can just beat up on the rest of the leagues. He knows they'll win the World Series. He stopped. They thwarted and the league itself buys it back. They don't want him...
NNAMDIHe made the mistake of revealing his plans to the commissioner.
DICKSONYeah. And he also -- he was also somewhat brash in that moment too, and it was a pretty radical idea. He wasn't talking about -- he was really not talking about racial integration. He was talking about racial equality. He was going to be -- his father had actually been -- had an idea proposed to him to put an all-Negro team in each league.
DICKSONSo what Veeck was after at that moment was not integration as much as equality, making a total black team who could get and compete against all-white teams. And of course, he's sitting with this idea. He's thwarted. It's all over. Next -- soon after that, he goes in the Marine Corps, where he is wounded. He demands to go into combat. He's a very singular guy in that respect. But it's only after the war when he gets to Cleveland that he -- I -- he really know he's going to integrate the baseball.
DICKSONAnd even before Jackie Robinson, one of the interesting, really interesting things that Veeck does before Robinson -- 1947, Robinson has not come up yet. That winter, he also tries to get at least one other black player to sign. But the most dynamic thing that he does, he brings in an African-American PR guy -- actually the guy was Lena Horne's husband, very well-known guy in Cleveland who, they say, to set it up because he knows there's going to be resistance in a very ethnically diverse city like Cleveland. There's going to be resistance to bringing up African-American.
DICKSONSo what he does is he hires an African-American PR guy to set up, which is a form of sort of real brilliance. You know, the way he could -- he would sell the idea for what happens. He's got his eye in a couple of players. Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson comes up, he brings in Larry Doby, who is this marvelous guy who Veeck have been very careful to choose. Just like in choosing Robinson, you couldn't -- you had to pick a guy who was mature, ready to do it and knows he's going to be subjected to racial slurs and other things as he integrates baseballs, as he integrates the American League.
DICKSONAnd then to top it off, Veeck brings in Doby. Doby is pretty much accepted, although Veeck gets 20,000 angry letters. Twenty thousand people write to him, cursing him for this integration move.
NNAMDIBut then there were people who were praising him here in Washington, D.C. We had longtime Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson Jr., who grew up in D.C., on the show this spring. He told us that as a black kid growing up in Washington, Larry Doby was one of his heroes and that he used to go to Griffith Stadium to watch him play. You write that the reception that Doby got here in Washington, D.C., not only affected Doby but affected Veeck himself. How so?
DICKSONWell, partially, he was given a hard time. The first time he comes in, he actually tells Wendell Smith who was a reporter for the Pittsburg Courier, a African-American newspaper, the first time he comes here, he is -- he believes that the people are using the N word so many times in opposing him that he actually thinks that the people in Washington think that he's middle name, and that was his way of dealing with it humorously. But it does affect Veeck in the sense that he realized that there has to be done.
DICKSONVeeck actually integrates one of the hotels when he brings Larry Doby to Washington. He starts to integrate Washington. Veeck always has his idea in Washington as a great market. But as -- but Doby is really tremendous here. And, of course, when John Thompson was a kid, that part of the D.C. stadium, if you were African-American and bought -- went in and bought a ticket, you would be ushered into an area around the right field. There was a de facto desegregation going on there. And, of course, Doby becomes...
NNAMDIDoes he play right field?
DICKSONHe plays right field, and that's where the -- all the African-Americans are sort of ushered. I think if you were an African diplomat, you might have been allowed to sit in the other parts. But if you're a native person, you are carefully sort of segregated out of that part of the field. And, of course, Doby gets a great of, you know, thing -- interest here. And, of course, what happens in the next year, not to jump ahead of the story, but -- that when Veeck really wants to win the World Championship, he brings in Satchel Paige.
NNAMDII was about to say he was also the force who brought the legendary black pitcher Satchel Paige into the Major Leagues. You write that Paige himself understood just how complicated baseball integration was going to be before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were playing in the Majors. Where does Satchel Paige fit into Bill Veeck story and the philosophy he ultimately developed about race?
DICKSONWell, what Veeck saw in, say Paige -- he had followed Paige for years. He knew Paige. He'd actually hire -- had him play in exhibition games when he was in Milwaukee. He knew Paige, and he was very much like Paige. They were both showman. They were both aphoristic in the sense they were fun, and they could always come up with a great line. They were great promoters. But when he brings in Paige, he knows he's going to -- the other owners are going to rise up because Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were World War II veterans.
DICKSONThey were young guys. But for years, the white owners have said, these guys are clowns. They can't play the game. They don't take it seriously. That's why we don't want them. They're no good. When he knew that he brought up Paige who now is in the decline of theoretically...
NNAMDIHe claimed he was 42 at the time...
NNAMDI...but, of course, nobody really ever knew how old he was.
DICKSONAnd he probably was a little bit older, but that's neither here nor there. But that he knew -- Veeck knew the reaction on the other owners because they would now prove what they were saying to be a lie. And so when he brings up Paige and, of course, they are immediately writing editorials, the sporting news said this is a crime against humanity that -- bringing up this poor old man.
DICKSONAnd, of course, Paige immediately fills Yankee stadium, which is not going to integrate, fills all these other venues, sets new records, pitches. And Doby in the '48 World Series, Doby is the African-American to get a homerun in the World Series. Paige is the first African-American to pitch in the World Series. Paige puts them over the top. And then as if the really -- this is his crowning glory, I think, in a lot of ways, and a lot of people don't recognize this.
DICKSON1949, the following year after he's won the World Series and, you know, won the whole championship with two African-American guys, he brings 14 African-Americans to spring training. Now, some of them, Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter become great stars. Some of them don't become great stars. But what Veeck says at the time, whatever league integrates first will dominate baseball for generation.
DICKSONOf course, the National League integrates, the American League's fights and that's where Veeck is. I think it's a great contribution to racial integration, and racial pride is very real in that -- those three years.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned Minnie Minoso because the book says a small glimmer of satisfaction was achieved in September when Veeck reactivate a 50-year-old Minnie Minoso for eight at bat so Minoso could say he played -- so that Minoso could say he had played in four decades. As a designator, he got one hit, but apparently that episodes caused a fairly obscure low-level operative from the Eugene McCarthy campaign to call Bill Veeck to suggest that his candidate in the presidential sweepstakes Eugene McCarthy be offered the same opportunity. Tell us that story.
DICKSONThis would be Mr. Plotnick who is then...
DICKSONYeah. About Mark Plotkin. Yes, Mark was working for Eugene McCarthy. He was on his campaign. And Mark called up and said to -- got Veeck on the phone. Veeck would pick up the phone just about for anybody, including Mark, and he said, could he allow Eugene McCarthy to suit up. And, you know, Mark, of course, McCarthy is running for the presidency at this point, and Veeck suit up, just warm up for at least for one game. And McCarthy love baseball. And Mark said -- there was a long pause.
NNAMDIWhat question? Can he hit?
DICKSONYeah. Can he hit? Veeck said, can he hit? Can he hit? And then -- and he said, yeah. And then Mark -- Veeck finally said -- there's a long, long pause. And he said, no, I can't. Mayor Daley would kill me for this 'cause Mayor Daley was...
NNAMDIYou mentioned that Bill Veeck would take a phone call from anybody, so will I. Mark Plotkin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. MARK PLOTKINWell, thank you so much for telling that story. I really was (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIThe former obscure, low-level operative in the McCarthy campaign.
PLOTKINI'm so glad you're devoting this time. I'm reading the book and smiling throughout. And I'm so glad Paul Dickson wrote it. I just want...
NNAMDIHe's read the page with him on it at least 20 times.
PLOTKINI just want to say one thing that has not been mentioned, which I brought up to Paul before. In the '50s and the '60s, he used to go to a restaurant at Chicago called Morton's, and it was Sunday night, and everybody in the restaurant wore a tie. But Bill Veeck didn't wear a tie. And my blessed grandmother, I said, well, look, Bill Veeck isn't wearing a tie. I shouldn't have to wear a tie. She says, when you grow up and become like Bill Veeck, you don't have to wear a tie.
PLOTKINAnd the other thing you told about the accessibility is anybody who grew up in Chicago on the south side -- and I'm beaming, talking about that -- remembers that Bill Veeck brought a pennant to the White Sox in '59. And maybe Paul will remind people what happened when they beat the Cleveland Indians, and they were going to the World Series for the first time in 40 years and what dour, stern Mayor Daley did. Do you remember that, Paul?
DICKSONYes, sir. Yes, sir. They set off all of the civil defense sirens and many people -- I heard this from several people or young people at the time, including yourself, that a lot of people were watching the game on television. It was an away game. And then one moment they're saying, aha, the White Sox are now going on. They've won the pennant. Huzzah. And then, all of a sudden, they heard the signal for an atomic attack, and they said to themselves, okay, the White Sox won the pennant, and now I'm going to die in a nuclear firestorm. This is going to be the end of it.
NNAMDIFor those of you who may have thought that I was insulting Mark Plotkin, yes, I was, because he's a colleague and a friend, so I can do that. Mark, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Paul Dickson about his book, "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls.
NNAMDIIf the lines are busy, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Paul Dickson is our guest. He is the author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," and we have a lot of callers who'd like to address this issue. I've got more questions, but allow me to go to the phones first. Here now is Jim in McLean, Va. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHi. Mr. Dickson, if I'm remembering correctly that there was either a biography or an autobiography of Bill Veeck called "Veeck -- As In Wreck."
DICKSONThat was his autobiography, written in 1962, yes, sir.
JIMIt was that long ago. My goodness.
DICKSONYes, sir, 50 years.
JIMMy question is regarding Curt Flood's experience as the initial free agent. Was Veeck involved in that in any way?
DICKSONYes, sir, directly. He had opposed the reserve clause. For those of you who don't know, the reserve clause was a form of indentured servitude, which held a player to a team for as long as the team wanted to hold him, without a chance of becoming a free agent. And Veeck, at the age of 18, had written his first letter to the commissioner, Commissioner Landis, saying he thought that the reserve clause was not only immoral, but illegal.
DICKSONAnd then along comes Curt Flood, who is going to -- sues baseball. He actually doesn't become the first. The case is finally decided, but Curt Flood does an amazingly courageous thing: He sues baseball. And, of course, the only owner at this point, a previous owner and a future owner, is Bill Veeck, who testifies for Curt Flood. And he knows that -- Veeck knows he's bringing down the reserve clause.
DICKSONHe also will realize later in life that it comes around to bite him because he can't afford the players. The free agency brings this huge change in the salaries. But what happens, too, with Veeck, Veeck understands the morality of the thing from the very first, and he knows there are going to be consequences that he's not going to want to live with as an owner. But he still -- his conscience is more powerful in supporting Flood than -- of course, the other two people who supported Flood were Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg. And they're actually...
NNAMDIFirst black player, first Jewish player. Yeah.
DICKSONRight. Right, right. And not only the first Jewish player, but probably the most famous Jewish player. But...
DICKSONAnd, of course, Veeck was himself in the trial. One of the great stories is Veeck has a wooden leg. He's lost his leg in the war. He's had many amputations. He's living this very interesting life with -- through a lot of pain. As the Curt Flood trial is starting -- Arthur Goldberg is the lawyer for Curt Flood. They're sitting in the courtroom in New York, and Veeck has a cigarette lit.
DICKSONAnd he's -- and Goldberg, Arthur Goldberg, runs in the -- and says, you can't smoke in the courtroom. So Veeck takes his wooden leg, and he has built an ashtray into the wooden leg. It's like a small drawer. He pulls out the drawer and stuffs out the ashtray in his wooden leg. But, yes, indeed, he was very much involved in that, and that's an interesting question. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jim. At what point did Veeck start flirting with the idea of buying the then-Washington Senators? You write that the response of black fans to Larry Doby struck a chord with Veeck about the black audience for baseball in Washington, D.C.
DICKSONHe saw it as huge, and he's also saw it -- Washington, D.C., and the Baltimore -- Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Senators were in the same league, the American League. He thought he would build this great rivalry. He tries twice to buy the Orioles. He tries to first bring them to Baltimore, but later he tries. He tries first time in 1962. He tries to buy the Washington Senators. The other Major League owners oppose him.
DICKSONHe's demanding things like TV revenue sharing. He's pushing very hard for integration at a time when many of the American League teams are not integrated. They don't let him take -- that time, the Senators become the Minnesota Twins. In April '68, he tries again to buy the Senators, and he was going to bring in -- in fact, he was going to bring Elton -- Elston Howard in as the first black manager. He had it all set up.
DICKSONThat deal fell through. The other owners didn't want him. Again, in 1970, he beat attempts to buy the Senators from Bob Short, who turns the other way and takes the team to Dallas, Texas. He tries to keep the Senators in Washington three times. So it's -- he -- but he saw this as a huge audience. He saw a great resurgence of sort of black interest in baseball, but also he saw it as a great rivalry. He thought he could promote baseball in this town and make it a major, major deal, and they never would let him do it.
NNAMDIBought a house on the Eastern Shore, moved his family there, put up a sign, saying, beware of the puppies.
NNAMDIWhat influence did Bill Veeck have on the Washington Redskins?
DICKSONThat's really interesting. In '61, the Washington Redskins were totally white, and the owner, Edward -- president Marshall, I mean, wanted -- basically was not going to integrate. And Veeck went to a guy named Robert Paul, who was working then for Secretary of the Interior Udall. Udall had a problem. He had a federally owned stadium that would not integrate, which was -- would later become called RFK Stadium, but it was the D.C. Stadium.
DICKSONAnd Veeck came in, and part of this was bluff, but it actually worked or helped work, helped get the integration of the Redskins. He came in and he said he and Edward Bennett Williams were about to buy an American Football League, AFL franchise, and bring them to Washington and force the Redskins out of the federal stadium. Now, again, it was -- a lot of it was bluff, but at that moment, he gave Udall one extra tool to use in forcing the Washington Redskins to integrate.
NNAMDIAnd thus Bobby Mitchell was born, so to speak.
NNAMDIOn to Eric in Fairfax, Va. For those of you who don't know, Bobby Mitchell was the first black player to play for the Washington Redskins. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIYes, yep. Eric, your turn.
ERICHey, I always heard Bill Veeck paid the black teams their due for the players, unlike Branch Rickey, who didn't seem to care at all. And I'll take my answer off the phone.
NNAMDIThank you, Eric.
DICKSONThat's -- it's exactly true. He -- when he goes and purchases the contract from Effa Manley, who is the owner of the Newark African-American team, Negro League team, he actually pays $15,000 cash. And he -- all of the players that he takes from the Negro leagues he pays cash. And he and Abe Saperstein do this, and they regard this as a moral obligation because they know, in the end, the integration of baseball will, in fact, kill the Negro leagues because the fan base will shift from one to the other.
DICKSONAnd so Branch Rickey has always said no, he wasn't going to pay them -- the Negro leagues because he considered the Negro leagues something of a racket. He didn't think they were really leagues. Veeck had a much different opinion of them.
NNAMDIOne of the other sportswriters we talk to regularly is Dave Zirin. He wrote an entire book about owners who he feels strongly are ruining sports for everyone else. You talked about George Preston Marshall being the owner of the Redskins here who had to be forced to admit black players onto the team. One of Dave Zirin's biggest beefs is that owners now routinely get access to public money from cities to finance stadium construction.
NNAMDIHe wrote last year that the Washington Redskins' owner, Dan Snyder, offends everyone and is the worst owner in professional sports. How do you think Veeck would have seen today's owners and maybe a Dan Snyder?
DICKSONI'm not going to pick on Dan Snyder, but I think he would have been such an -- still such an outcast. I think -- I asked Andy MacPhail, who was the general manager of the Orioles a couple of years back -- and Andy knew Veeck growing up growing up as a kid. His father and his grandfather were both in baseball -- and I said why did they hate them so much? Why did they -- why did the other owners hate Veeck so much? And he said, well, a whole lot of reasons.
DICKSONHe always had these different -- he didn't feel that the anti-trust exemption for baseball was fair. He would say, why doesn't ballet have an anti-trust exemption? It was that kind of thinking. He was that much of a maverick but he's -- what MacPhail said was he said he -- what drove them crazy was he sat in the bleachers.
NNAMDIGot it. Got it because, as I said earlier, you mentioned that he believed that a person's knowledge of baseball was inversely proportional to the cost of the seat. And he spent a lot of time sitting in the bleachers with the fans of his team, the people in the inexpensive seats. What kind of window did you think that gave him into his customers that other owners did not get?
DICKSONI think he broke down that glass-enclosed, you know, the owners now sit up in these glass booths and stuff and they look down upon these people. I think Veeck was out there every night. He would hang out with the people. A kid would come up to him and say, hey, Mr. Veeck, the hotdogs are lousy today, and Veeck would give the kid five bucks and tell him to go outside and buy other hotdogs. I mean, he had this unbelievable common touch.
DICKSONOne of the -- you mentioned -- in the introduction, you mentioned, you know, mustard and hotdogs. Well, that goes the clean one. This is the kind of mentality that he had. He realizes that Cleveland's got all these ethnicities, you know, Lithuanians and Poles and all these other people, and he's got to figure out a mustard that would appeal to all of the ethnicities.
DICKSONAnd so he basically works with all of these different people to come up with a mustard, which they still sell in Cleveland, at the ballpark, that would somehow be just, you know, bitter enough for the Lithuanians and just sweet enough for the Germans. But it was the idea that he was that close to the fans.
NNAMDIThat's what drove the other owners crazy.
DICKSONBecause they were guys in double-breasted suits who smoked cigars who basically follow themselves as executives, whereas Veeck saw himself as the leader of a club, as a head of a ballclub, which is different than a, you know what I'm saying? He had this feeling -- even with his own players, they would -- he would get rid of a player, he'd bring him into his office and say, I hate to tell you this, but I just traded you. And I'm only doing it for the team, but I really -- I hate to do this to you. That's -- that was unique then. It's impossible now.
NNAMDIWell, he was not above giving his team extra home field advantage. What's the story behind the removable chicken wire fence that he experimented with that he moved in for this team's batters and back for his opponents?
DICKSONHe did that in Milwaukee. It only lasted one night, and they immediately stopped him. But he was always willing to bend the rules. He was -- he would look at the rulebook and he said, oh, there's nothing in the rulebook that says you can't move the fence. He was -- and he was always bedeviling other people with these ideas, and he was not beyond creative -- what they used to call creative grounds keeping. In other words if he had the right -- if you had a slow team, he would let the grass grow a little higher so that the other team would slow down. He knew how to use those...
NNAMDIWell, of the moving of the chicken wire fence, he said, the league declared it illegal, immoral and so I stopped. We move on now to Mark in Herndon, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. There's a lot of kids these days playing soccer. One of the things that's kind of been a challenge -- and you've touched on it with marketing for baseball -- is how do you market professional support or a professional support and get a lot of interest? So I guess the question is what learning lessons could Major League Soccer could take on baseball's history to improve its marketing and get more people out to the games?
DICKSONYou know, I'm glad you asked that question because I was -- I did a big tour of this book. I went over to the Midwest. I was in Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, all of those places, and I'm finding, in the Midwest, a lot of what they call Minor League Soccer, which is a professional soccer although at a much lower level than Wisconsin and Illinois and places like that are using the same techniques that the Minor League Baseball companies are using. They're giving away sandwiches. They're having autograph nights.
DICKSONThey are letting -- they're -- one of the things Veeck used to do was he would set up all of his superstars. He'd put them out in the field, and he'd let the kids come on the field and get their autographs. He didn't want the dealers and the adults to get the autographs.
DICKSONHe made sure the kids -- I think the thing is to make it -- what I think they're learning in the Minor League Soccer now is to make is more accessible, to make it more of a family experience, man, and just make it absolutely -- make people feel safe to be there, make them happy to be there. If they bring little kids with them, make sure that little kids have some place up on the side to play.
NNAMDIWhich is not to say that Veeck did not make his fair share of mistakes. Could you tell us what happened that Disco Demolition Night, for example.
DICKSONOf the hundreds and hundreds of promotions that he did over the lifetime, right at the end of his career, he had a promotion in Chicago that went terribly -- as they say in the news, terribly wrong. It was an idea that people are going to get burn disco records -- it was an anti-disco movement at time -- during the halftime of the game.
DICKSONIt turned into a more or less of a riot. It was -- he had to forfeit the game. It's the last game that's been forfeited in Major League Baseball. It was, in fact -- of all the probably several thousand promotions that Veeck exacted over his lifetime, it was, in fact, the worst and the most ill-conceived.
NNAMDIA disc jockey's plan to explode disco records between games of a double-header resulted in thousands of fans jumping onto the field, police have been futilely trying to restore order and the umpires postponing the second game. The next day, the Tigers got the victory via forfeit. Probably didn't like that very much. Here is Lee in Falls Church, Va. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking the call. I'm really glad that you guys are covering this topic. I've loved Bill Veeck for, I don't know, 30 years. And as an organizational consultant and executive coach, I use Bill Veeck often as an example of -- and we need more Bill Veecks not more Wayne Gretzkys in organizations. And he was so much of an out-of-the-box thinker. He did the right things, many of which you guys already have talked about, in terms of women and minority players, sitting in the bleachers and the whole chicken wire fence thing.
LEEWe need more of that. And we need more of that creative -- creativity and innovation in all aspects of our society. And so now, I started to work with kids and talk to them more about the lessons of Bill Veeck, so this whole conversation has really inspired me to finish the book I've been working on in terms of Bill Veeck and leadership so...
NNAMDIDo you think a lot of executives could learn from Bill Veeck's examples, Paul Dickson?
DICKSONI do. I think a lot it is just that common touch, that getting down to know your -- know who your customers are and encouraging them. I mean, there were times even when Veeck was running Major League ballclubs that he would get outside the gates after a game after -- especially if the team lost and thank people for coming. You know, he said, we really acknowledge the fact that we're happy were here tonight. We're sorry. We'll try to do better the next time.
DICKSONPlus, he also got very involved in spotting talent. He spots a very young Tony -- Harold Baines on the Eastern Shore, spots him in a little league. He's really interested in talent.
NNAMDIBeware of the puppies. I love that, what he said at his house. Paul Dickson is the author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick." Paul, always a pleasure.
DICKSONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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