Southwords

The Show Must Go On

Lessons from the Barnum of baseball

By Jim Moriarty

I only have one story about fireworks that doesn’t reflect great discredit on me. That’s because it involves a member of the baseball Hall of Fame, Bill Veeck. If you don’t know who Bill Veeck was, buckle up. You’re in for a wild ride.

The hand-operated scoreboard at Wrigley Field in Chicago and the ivy covering the outfield wall bricks? Bill Veeck did that when he was a 20-something front office executive for the Chicago Cubs.

Veeck lost his right leg to injuries he received as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. He was so profoundly addicted to cigarettes he had an ashtray built into his wooden limb.

He owned the Cleveland Indians (1946-49), the St. Louis Browns (1951-53) and the Chicago White Sox, twice (1959-61 and 1975-80). In ’51Veeck sent Eddie Gaedel, 3-feet, 7-inches tall, wearing a uniform with the number 1/8 on the back and a strike zone the size of a buffalo nickel in to pinch hit for the Browns against the Detroit Tigers. He walked on four pitches, and the next day Major League Baseball banned little people. Veeck told the baseball reporters he hoped his tombstone would read, “He Helped the Little Man.”

Three months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Veeck signed Larry Doby to a Cleveland Indians contract to make sure the same thing happened in the American League. The next year he signed Satchel Paige, then 42. Someone wrote that if Paige had been old and white, no one would have given him a second thought. “If Satch were white, he would have been in the majors 25 years ago,” Veeck said. Paige was 6–1. The Indians won the World Series.

Even though he was a marketing and money-making machine, when it came to presidential politics Veeck cast his lot with Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas, who ran for the office six times. He even voted for Thomas after the man had died. “I’d rather vote for a dead man with class than two live bums,” Veeck said.

Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch? It became a more recognizable trademark for Caray than his raspy, mouth-full-of-marbles voice and it was Bill Veeck’s idea.

Go ahead and Google “worst sports uniforms ever.” I guarantee you’ll find the flared collars and black shorts of the 1976 White Sox. People liked to blame Bill’s wife, Mary Frances, for those unis, but it was all Veeck.

The disastrous “Disco Demolition Night” promotion? That was Veeck.

Exploding scoreboards? That was Veeck, too.

The man wrote two autobiographies. Two. And he didn’t run out of stuff.

I was only in his presence once. It was during Veeck’s second stint as owner of the White Sox. I don’t remember how a kid reporter from South Bend, Indiana, managed to talk his way into the press box at old Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side, but it happened.

The Bard’s Room was then, and probably still is, a hospitality lounge near the press box where you could get a cold beer and a hot dog before the game. For all I know Veeck invented beer and hospitality, too. The day I was there, Veeck was sitting in the Bard’s Room surrounded by eight or 10 of the usual suspects, the baseball writers from AP, UPI, the Trib, the Sun Times. Guys I knew only by their bylines. Veeck had a telephone in front of him. He was calling the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and everyone was laughing.

A shipment of fireworks on its way from Mississippi to Illinois, meant to explode from the top of the centerfield scoreboard when Bucky Dent or Carlos May or whoever hit a home run, had been interdicted by ATF agents. The show couldn’t go on. Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were attached to the Department of the Treasury. So, Veeck gathered the local reporters, picked up the phone, dialed a number in Washington, D.C., and asked to speak to the secretary of the treasury.

And he got him.

Veeck demanded satisfaction. He paused long enough to accept the sincere apologies of the secretary, which he dutifully relayed to one and all. Funny stories were written. At least that’s the way I remember it.

Here’s the thing. None of us gathered around Bill Veeck actually knew whether or not he was talking to the secretary of the treasury. Hell, it could have been a hot dog salesman on the other end of the line. But it didn’t matter. The P.T. Barnum of baseball knew that, even when they take your fireworks away — no, especially when they take your fireworks away — you can still put on a show.  PS

Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

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