Baseball at last puts Veeck in his place: Hall of Fame

MIKE LITTWIN

March 03, 1991|By Mike Littwin

Somewhere, a scoreboard is exploding, and a man with wooden leg is smiling. Just when you start to wonder about the world, they put Bill Veeck in the Hall of Fame, and suddenly everything is all right again.

This is good news. They say there isn't enough of it in the papers, and maybe that's because there aren't enough Bill Veecks.

He was full of good news and strangely wonderful ideas that washed from his brain like waves onto the shore. He was a different kind of baseball owner. He wasn't rich, for one thing. He wasn't made for a business suit either. In fact, what he most loved to do was to join the fans in the bleachers, take off his shirt under the afternoon sun and order a couple of rounds of brew.

He was different mostly because he truly loved the game, even if those who ran it didn't necessarily love him back.

It's understood that your typical owner doesn't love exploding scoreboards or nights in which the fans are invited to destroy disco records right there on the field. Today's owner - hell, yesterday's, too - likes it orderly. He likes it safe.

Bill Veeck didn't care for safety. If he had, he might not have lost that part of his leg in the Pacific back in World War II. And if he had, he might not have been the first American League owner to employ a black player. That was Larry Doby, who came to Cleveland after Jackie Robinson went to Brooklyn. He blazed his own trails, but to less publicity. Veeck was there to blaze with him.

And if Veeck had played it safe, he never would have sent Eddie Gaedel, the midget, out there to bat for the old St. Louis Browns.

The guys in the suits, who look and act like accountants, thought that Veeck had made a travesty of the game. They even tried to have the record expunged, as if it never happened. Veeck thought it was entertaining, and he had the radical idea that entertainment was somehow the point.

Nobody was more excited than Roland Hemond, the Orioles general manager, to hear that Veeck, at long last, had made Cooperstown.

"I was afraid they'd wait so long that everyone would have forgotten," Hemond said from a car phone somewhere in Florida. "That would have been a disaster."

No one is going to forget Veeck, though. That's the least of it. He's the guaranteed most unforgettable character anyone ever met.

"He always said to let your imagination run rampant," Hemond said.

Imagine that. He said to play the rules a little differently. He said not to be afraid to be innovative. And Hemond remembers Veeck's last stand, when he came back to own the White Sox in 1975 - his fourth tour as an owner - and brought Hemond along with him.

"We were searching for an idea for Opening Day," said Hemond. "A young fellow who worked in the office pointed out it was 1976, the bicentennial year. And Bill turned to me and said, 'Roland, I don't know if Paul will go along with this, but he's the only man I know who knows the fourth stanza of the national anthem.' "

That was Paul Richards, the manager. All Veeck wanted from Richards was to dress up in a Revolutionary War uniform and carry the flag. Veeck would play the fife. Another executive would play the drum. Is the picture coming clear now?

"Paul said he'd do it for Bill," Hemond said. "They came out from under the stands, wearing white wigs, the works. It made all the papers, which was Bill's way of saying he was back."

It was the same year that spring training fell victim to another labor dispute, but Veeck told Hemond to announce that the White Sox would open on March 1.

"I didn't want to ask him how he was going to do it, because I liked to be surprised by what came out of his fertile mind," Hemond said. "We were down in Florida, staying in a Days Inn, never anything fancy with Bill, and he told me to put together a 25-man roster from minor-leaguers. It may have been the worst major-league team in history, but it was the most covered team that spring, because we were the only team there."

He just kept thinking. That's what he was good at. He read two or three books a week and drank lots of beer and told wonderful stories and never seemed to be depressed. They forced him out of baseball a couple of times, including when he wanted to move the Browns to Baltimore. The owners made him sell before approving the transfer.

They didn't let their imaginations run rampant. They still don't.

And, in today's game, there's certainly no room for a Bill Veeck, who left the game for good in 1980. It's too bloodless. Even with that wooden stump, he was all flesh and bone - a real-life real person who died five years ago. It's too bad he didn't live to see them hang his plaque in a baseball museum, because a museum is where he belongs. He was a dinosaur.

They don't make his kind anymore. And we're all poorer for it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.