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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Comparison and Contrast of two Baseball Owners: Bill Veeck (the legend) and Bud Selig (the bum)

Veeck as in Wreck (or Cheque)
I've read a lot of books over the years, I like to throw in a baseball biography book every so often. I recently read Bill Veeck's "Veeck as in Wreck." In it, Veeck states that he began reading at a young age and by his teenage years until his late years he read at least five books per week. Judging by his insight, I believe that Veeck did indeed read five books a week throughout his life. This guy was a real renegade and it's too bad that all real renegades brains operate 20 to 50 years ahead of their time.

Backstory on Veeck

Veeck's father (Bill Veeck Sr.) was a sportswriter who in 1919 wrote a critical article of how the owner of the Chicago Cubs (Phil Wrigley Jr.) was operating his club, the article was poignant and sharp-cutting to the bone, enough so, to land him a phone call from Wrigley stating that if Veeck Sr. thought he could do a better job than why doesn't he come down and do it. Veeck Sr. did, and Wrigley hired Veeck Sr. to be president of the Cubs.

Eddie walked on 4 pitches...
Veeck Sr. gave his son (our protagonist Bill Veeck) a job counting tickets. After the years Veeck Jr. was promoted by Phil Wrigley into higher and higher posts with the Cubs. Veeck was in charge of all concession operations at Wrigley. According to Veeck, he was the one who had the idea of putting the now-iconic vines on the Wrigley Field brick outfield wall.

In 1942 (five years prior to the fall of segregation in baseball), Veeck had a great idea, he wanted to gather up some investors and pool up money to purchase the struggling Philadelphia Phillies. The team was horrible, posting only 43 wins and 111 losses in the previous 1941 campaign, and only drawing 231,401 fans for the entire season. Veeck knew he could get the club cheap and had a brilliant idea to turn a last place club drawing only 0.2 million fans into a first place club who could draw 2.0 million fans. What was his brilliant idea? After he purchased the club, he planned on stocking it with superstars from the Negro Leagues (Paige, Doby, Robinson, etc.).

Now, the color line in baseball was never written in any rule books. Black players were playing in baseball leagues with other white players with no problem in the late 1800's. The color barrier arose in 1884, when the premier white star player Cap Anson refused to take the field when his team signed a black catcher named Moses Fleetwood Walker. The league responded to Cap's protest by forming a "gentlemanly agreement" made between all the owners to not sign black players. The owners, being very racist but also men of their word it seems, kept their "gentlemanly agreement" in effect for over 60 years.

So, in 1942 as stated above, Veeck (who was also the midwest promoter for the all-black Harlem Globetrotters basketball club) wanted to buy a Major League Baseball club and load it with superstar black players from the negro leagues. How do you think the stuffy, conservative, old boys club, owners felt about this suggestion?

Charlie "Tokohama"
The only previous attempt to break the "gentlemanly" agreed upon color barrier, was in 1901 (as written about in Robert Peterson's book "Only the Ball was White") when Baltimore manager John McGraw tried to sneak a quick one by baseball's stuffy owners. He wanted to get second baseman Charlie Grant onto the Baltimore roster and his plan was to tell the owners Grant was a Cherokee Native American. Other Native American players were on rosters in that era (including Chief Bender, Bill Phyle, and Louis Sockalexis), only players of African decent were systematically kept out of baseball. McGraw listed Grant on his roster as "Charlie Tokohama" and hoped he could sneak him past the league officials and onto the Orioles. Unfortunately, McGraw's guile didn't slip past the stuffy owners, and his clever ruse ultimately failed.

Larry Doby
The same end met Veeck's attempt to sign black players. Since black Americans were fighting for their country in World War II, Veeck felt that times had changed and the owners wouldn't mind if baseball's 60 year color barrier was broken. He was confident enough to let the cat out of the bag too early, by letting the owners in on his plan. The crusty old commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the owners took over the Phillies before Veeck could buy the club. The owners jointly owned the club running at a loss until a new interested owner could be found (one who wouldn't sign black players). Eventually they found a stuffy old businessman named William D. Cox to purchase the league owned club and Cox surely did not sign any black dudes.

Max Patkin
Veeck eventually did purchase a team, the Cleveland Indians. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers, Veeck was able to sign black players and did so by adding hard hitting lefty Larry Doby and 50 year old legend Satchel Paige to the Indians roster.

Veeck went on to stints operating the Browns, and White Sox as well. He did not have an inherited family fortune like all the other owners, he had to keep his clubs afloat the old fashioned way, by giving his customers entertainment and satisfaction. Over the years he sent a midget to pinch hit, he hired colorful ball players like Max Patkin and others to play or coach bases, installed a fire works spouting "exploding" scoreboard, and accidently caused a punk rock riot at Comiskey Park by holding "Disco Demolition Night," where the blowing up of disco records turned a little unruly (as shown in the video below)...

With all due respect, credit for this idea should go to Canada's own punk rock icon Joey "Shithead" Keithley of D.O.A. who one year prior in 1978 held a "Disco Sucks" rally in Vancouver, Canada...

Ahead of his Time

Veeck brought up all kinds of things at owners meetings that were laughed at and scorned at by the stuffy shirted and cranky pantsed owners.

He had the foresight to see that the reserve clause (which kept players as being owned by their team) was not right and wanted to take it out of baseball. He even testified at Curt Flood's Supreme Court hearing when Flood challenged the reserve clause (Flood called the clause similar to slavery).

(newspaper article on Veeck's testimony at Flood's anti-trust suit)

Veeck proposed things from alterations to the minor league system, inter league play, and a slew of other things which were adopted by baseball 20 to 50 years later but at the time he proposed them they were considered as the ridiculous ravings of a jerk.

At the end of Veeck's book, "Veeck as in Wreck", there is a very omnious portion which sheds light on present day problems in baseball. After being out of baseball for years and finally returning as owner of the White Sox in the 70's, Veeck held a press conference in a hotel lobby and let in all the fans to chill and sell wares and whatnot. The new owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (a city where Veeck operated his first club, the minor league Brewers back in the early 40's and laid the ground work for baseball there), one Bud Selig, a young ugly punk, told Veeck that he is ruining baseball and turning it into a "meat market." Veeck knew that baseball may have had some new younger owners, but he realized that they were as stuffy and narrow minded as the old ones.

20 to 50 Years Later

Fast forward to the year 1997, and Bud Selig unvails the revolutionary concept of Interleague Play and the orthodox fundamentalist owners faction proclaims him a renegade genius who's "outside the box mousy radical" thinking is saving the game. Gee, I wonder where he got that idea from? 

Selig has been the commissioner for over over twenty years now, and the last twenty years is where baseball has gotten out of control. Salaries are out of control, steroids are out of control, the inequities between small and large markets are out of control, a World Series (1994) was cancelled, and a slew of other nonsense. He is the first owner to be commissioner which is an obvious total conflict of interest. Baseball really is a "meat market" now, but it wasn't Bill Veeck who made it this way, it was that bum Selig.

I think Bill Veeck is still alive somewhere having a beer with Elvis Presley, Andy Kaufman, and Bigfoot. I think he's taking cabs around whatever town he's in, hitting all the local bars, trying to drum up support from investors to buy a club. I hope he's telling them it's all in debentures and they'll get half their returns next quarter and the other half when "they can catch him." 

Who Selig? Yeah, we should jerk the bum.
Here's an ending quote to conclude this article from Mr. Bill Veeck himself,

"And who knows, the status quo of baseball might just look at the track record the next time I push for something like interleague play and say, 'alright let's humor this jerk for once.' And you know something? That's when it's time to start worrying. When they listen to your ravings with indulgence and, heaven help me, affection, you know you've joined the herd". 

-Bill Veeck