If Casey Stengel was the greatest character I've met in the 40 years I've been writing sports, Bill Veeck couldn't be far behind.
I don't quite know how to describe Bill in a few words, because he was a complicated guy. He was a rugged individualist who gave in to absolutely nothing. And, goodness knows he had every reason to give in to a lot of things, especially his health.
Despite his many physical handicaps, including a wooden leg, he had a long career in baseball management, including owning and running the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, when they either won pennants or otherwise had great success. Did I say handicaps? He'd have my head for that. Bill always insisted he wasn't handicapped. He'd say, "I'm crippled, but I'm not handicapped," and he wasn't.
Once you saw Bill Veeck, you never forgot him. His face went with his character. It certainly wasn't handsome, but it was rugged, with deep lines and crevices. And, a lot of us used to refer to him as "the old burrhead," because he kept that curly, woolly mop of hair cropped short and constantly was rubbing his fingers through it.
During World War II, at Bougainville, Bill's right leg was injured so severely that doctors recommended it be amputated. He held out, and still had it in the late 1940s when he owned the Indians.
One of the problems was that he loved tennis and continued to play it against all medical advice. The wear and tear, complicated by bone and skin infections he never could shake, finally gave him no choice. It was either the leg or his life. They tell me his stay in the hospital was one big party. And, later, when his wooden leg arrived, he rented a ballroom and threw a bash.
He was a chain smoker, and one thing I never forgot was that he carved a hole in that leg and used it as an ash tray. I never saw him drink hard liquor, but he could be a terror on beer and wine. He'd get started on stories -- of which he had a million -- keep the spirits flowing, cross the leg over his good one and eventually fill that hole with ashes.
When Bill got on one of those kicks, there was no way anyone else could even split the check. Once, he showed up during spring training when the Orioles trained in Scottsdale, Ariz. Four of us platooned him for the night he was in town, because no one human being could be expected to keep up with him. Fairly late in the evening, Hugh Trader, a reporter for the Baltimore News American and a character in his own right, said, "The next round is on me, see," and he tossed a $20 bill on the bar.
Without so much as a pause in the flow of words or even an explanation, Veeck picked up that bill, and, while continuing his story, slowly tore it into a zillion pieces, then deposited them in Trader's hand. Hugh didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
After winning the pennant with the White Sox in '59, Bill developed another condition that caused him to cough so violently he would pass out. That time, doctors advised a long and complete rest, and he wound up buying a home on Peach Blossom Creek, near Easton.
During that period, I ran into him at the airport one time, when we were both on our way to work the World Series, me for this paper, Bill doing a guest column for a Chicago paper. Walking toward the plane, his wooden leg disintegrated, just flew into pieces. No problem. He laughed it off, asked for crutches and covered the Series on them.
Eventually, that leg had to come off above the knee. Then later, because of all the pressure on what he called his "good leg," partly from continuing to play tennis, he needed a knee operation on that. It was done at Children's Hospital.
The last time I talked with him was from another World Series. When I inquired of Bill from his old friend and business associate, Rudie Schaffer, he said, "He's in the hospital, and I don't think he has long to go. It's lung cancer this time. Why don't you give him a call?"
I went to a telephone immediately, and the way the conversation went, you'd have thought there was nothing wrong with him. All he wanted to do was talk baseball. In all the years I knew him, if he complained once about his health, I never heard him.
He was a great character, among the best promoters in baseball history, and one heck of a man.