Even in Hall, Veeck will be just one of boys

John Steadman

February 27, 1991|By John Steadman

Unconventional, compassionate and irreverent at times. Yet always his own man. Bill Veeck was a perpetual breath of fresh air baseball always needed and now he's to receive its highest honor: the Hall of Fame. It's a fitting distinction to an owner who never ignored the public. He thrilled to take a seat in the bleachers and buy beer for those around him.

If he went into a bar, Bill bought a round of drinks for the house, ordering two, never one, for each patron, regardless of the cost. That was a Veeckism. There were others. Riding in a taxi meant he was always in a front seat, next to the driver. He didn't want to sit in back because, to him, it was the height of pomposity, making it appear the passenger felt the chauffeur was subservient, which wasn't Veeck's style.

His home telephone was listed in the directory in every city he lived. At the ballpark, operators were instructed to never ask "Who's calling?" and "What's the nature of your business?" On those occasions, the next voice you heard was that of Veeck. Anyone, be it a fan or the commissioner, found reaching him was never a problem.

His salesmanship was infectious. He would, if requested, make three or four speeches in a day. Always accommodating. He once erected blackboards in stadium restrooms because he said he wanted to provide a service for those visitors who enjoyed writing on the walls. They could take chalk in hand and inscribe their own message without obscuring the paint.

When he owned the Chicago White Sox, he held "Smith Night," a way to honor Al Smith, an outfielder, but anyone with Smith for a name was admitted free to Comiskey Park. Veeck genuinely liked people and enjoyed catering to the ticket buyers, such as giving away orchids to mothers present at the game or other gestures of fun and friendship.

When he lived in Maryland, prior to his death in 1986, he resided at Peach Blossom Creek, outside Oxford. He'd frequently come to Baltimore by cab and return the same way, a distance of 68 miles. Again, always in the front seat.

Drinking beer (maybe a case a day) and smoking were his vices. When he wanted to shake the ashes off a cigarette, he'd pull up a pant leg and, where the knee hinge met his prosthesis, he would use it as a portable ash tray. Although he could consume beer at a record rate (always the product of the team sponsor) his tolerance was staggering for fellow drinkers.

Others would be on their way to a state of inebriation but not Veeck. On one leg, he could negotiate better than any collection of half-drunken sportswriters. Every morning, it was necessary for him to get in a tub to bathe the stump of his amputated leg. He used those minutes to read weighty volumes of Supreme Court decisions for no other reason than he was fascinated by the judicial process and the legal precedents he found therein.

Veeck was not a one-dimensional figure. To be called a promoter, or a carny, smacked of being a "medicine man" and he didn't like the connotation. He was loyal to friends, such as Rudy Schaeffer, longtime financial adviser and traveling companion; Hank Greenberg, Minnie Minoso and Bill Norman, whom he affectionately called "Willie Card." Bill was at his sociable best talking into the night and on to dawn's early light, about baseball characters and scenarios he had been involved in over the years.

He loved the humor of the sport, which, unfortunately, barely exists anymore. Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Clint Courtney, Jackie Price and Max Patkin offered him a levity he could identify with and totally enjoyed. But regardless of the hour, he never failed to call his wife, Mary Frances, to see how things were on the home front, even if it was after 4 a.m.

It was his hope to own a franchise in Washington because he said it offered potential that was never tapped. Had he gotten a club in D.C., his plan was to name a black, Elston Howard, as manager, which would have been a precedent-setting development. But Veeck, remember, also had the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby, with the Cleveland Indians.

There wasn't an iota of prejudice within him. As a youngster, he had helped plant the ivy along the outfield walls of Wrigley Field, when his father was Chicago Cubs' general manager. When he sent up a midget to pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns, it was Veeck, the entertainer, trying to provide enjoyment for followers of a team that had been eliminated from the pennant race and not, as some critics suggested, to denigrate the game.

Bill Veeck was a caring human being, gifted with a touch of genius but, mostly, it was his love of the world and for creating smiles that provided an individuality rarely approached.

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