Hall of Fame is a much friendlier place today with Veeck as member

John Steadman

July 22, 1991|By John Steadman

Now that Bill Veeck, or plain "Ole Will," as he called himself, has been memorialized in bronze and put on the wall in the Baseball Hall of Fame, there's a certain welcome irreverence introduced to this hallowed sanctuary that was created for the purpose of highlighting the heroes of the game's historic past.

Had he been alive, Veeck would have "set up" the house, as when he ventured into saloons and told the bartenders (his favorite kind of people, along with barbers and taxi drivers) to give everyone "not one but two of what they're drinking on me" -- be it straight ginger ale or a stinger on the rocks. That was a favorite calling card of his.

Veeck enjoyed taverns, he said, because of the chance to associate with the so-called common man. He abhored formality and thrilled for the chance to always be on a convenient conversational level with the public. When he rode in a cab, as he often did from near Easton, Md., where he once lived, to downtown Baltimore (a distance of 64 miles), he would be an up-front passengerbecause he didn't want the driver to feel in any way subservient.

He used the knee-hinge on his wooden leg as a walking-around receptacle for the ashes on his cigarette. Veeck owned teams in Milwaukee (then in the American Association), Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis. The one he wanted with a passion -- and never got -- was Washington.

"Imagine what you could do in our nation's capital," he said. "With all those government workers, you could salute a different state every game and have special entertainment." When in Milwaukee during World War II, he scheduled some games at 10 o'clock to accommodate the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift of plant workers, who were served breakfast. A visit to a park when Veeck, who liked to watch from the bleachers, was in charge became an exciting experience.

Look under your seat and if a lucky number was taped there you might be the winner of a thousand ice cream bars, a Mexican burro, a ton of salt, a barrel of pickles, a truck load of fertilizer, 50,000 nuts and bolts, baby sitting service for all night games or a new car.

nTC There was the time he honored Al Smith, outfielder of the White Sox, and to make the party complete invited anyone named Smith to be his guest at Comiskey Park. On another occasion, he engaged the waiters of Chicago's celebrated Pump Room to serve such delicacies in the stands as fried caterpillar, eel, seaweed, smoked sparrow and barbecued snake.

The restrooms were fitted with blackboards because Veeck said so many visitors had a compulsion for writing on the walls, he'd make it easier for them, even providing the chalk. In 1951, with the Browns and visiting Detroit Tigers out of the pennant race, he sent up 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel, a circus midget, to pinch-hit for Frank Saucier.

It was a stunt that infuriated some purists but if you admire imagination and genius there was no way not to respect Veeck. He could never be prejudiced and the black athletes he hired, such as Larry Doby and Leroy "Satchel" Paige, knew of his sincere love of all mankind.

In fact, in 1943, he wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phils from owner Gerry Nugent and stock the roster with players from the American and National Negro Leagues. But Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner, told Nugent to find another owner and he did -- Bill Cox, who was later banished from baseball for gambling.

Veeck once had pitcher Early Wynn, disguised as the Lone Ranger, ride in on horseback and execute rope tricks at Comiskey. And he summoned second baseman Nelson Fox to home plate, where he was presented a string of hot dogs that stretched 400 feet to the centerfield fence. If the give-aways were perishable Veeck encouraged they be presented to orphan homes.

If you wanted to reach Veeck, his name was in the telephone book. In the early 1950s, he was in a remote part of Arizona, where he went to a general store once a week to take calls. We were charged with offering him the Baltimore Colts' franchise for nothing. "I wouldn't take them as a gift," he said, which he admitted later was a deal he shouldn't have refused.

Every day was revelry for Veeck and those around him. There have been imitators but none to compare -- regardless of whether the team was winning a pennant (Cleveland 1948, Chicago 1959) or confined to last place (St. Louis 1952) before being shipped off to Baltimore to become the Orioles. Bill Veeck's individuality never allowed him to put a price on laughter.

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