Series circus back in Chicago, but its ringmaster is missing

October 23, 2005|By RICK MAESE

CHICAGO — Chicago-- --The owner was wearing a brand-new White Sox World Series jacket and watched the pre-game circus from behind a pair of dark-rimmed eyeglasses.

How exciting it all must be for Jerry Reinsdorf, the easy-to-hate Sox owner who once again has given this city something to be excited about. If there was any real enthusiasm, though, it was buried deep.

"Right now, for some strange reason, I feel very calm," he said.

That's not how it should be, not here, not with the White Sox. I flipped open my phone and dialed. Mary Frances Veeck answered.

Her late husband, Bill Veeck, used to be the spirit behind this franchise, serving as Sox owner from 1959 to 1961 and again from 1975 to 1981. In a time when sports was morphing into big business, he made sure a ballgame felt more like a birthday party than a board meeting.

"No, I'm not coming out there," Mary Frances said.

It's too bad. Any link to the old owner would've been welcomed at the ballpark. Bill Veeck died in 1986, but he is still a part of every single game. You can't have enough reminders of a guy like Veeck. This a man who almost single-handedly revolutionized the smile.

He put an exploding scoreboard in old Comiskey Park. He staged minor league promotional stunts in a major league park, marrying fans, giving away live animals, staging morning games so that night-shift workers could attend.

When he owned the St. Louis Browns, he sent a midget to the plate. With the Sox, he sent a 54-year-old Minnie Minoso out there.

He allowed fans to manage a game from the stands using placards. Veeck put his players in Bermuda shorts on hot days. He once sent his manager a left-handed pitcher -- in a giant birthday cake. It's no wonder they called him the Barnum & Bailey of Baseball.

His contributions to the game weren't all extra-inning giggles. He signed the first black player in the American League. Veeck had Harry Caray sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. And he helped pave the way for free agency as the only owner to testify on behalf of Curt Flood in his 1970 lawsuit over baseball's reserve clause.

Not surprisingly, Mary Frances Veeck, 82, is still full of life. After spending several years living in St. Michaels, she's back in Chicago again. She attended a half-dozen White Sox games this season, sitting in the stands with fans.

Despite friends' offers of free tickets, she preferred to watch Game 1 at home with family and friends.

"I've always known when to get off stage center," she says. "We've had our time and it was wonderful. But I don't need to be out there. It's not our ballclub. It's all of Chicago's."

This city is still indebted to the Veeck name. There weren't a whole lot of championship baseball teams in Chicago in the 20th century. Veeck led a group that bought the White Sox in 1959. In that first season, they won the American League pennant.

The memories linger for Mary Frances. She didn't watch those World Series games from the owner's box. She stood next to her 8-year-old son, Mike, on the stone steps of the upper deck.

Her warm voice paints a Rockwellian picture of a charmed life. Mary Frances still gets a special feeling every October as the playoffs heat up. She watches a team clinch a spot in the Series and her mind races back to one magical fall.

"I can really identify with those teams every single year," she says. "You feel physically a little different. It's hard to describe, but it's the same way we all felt back in '59."

Mary Frances met Veeck in 1949. They were engaged within two weeks. At the time, she had been working as a publicist for the Ice Capades, a job for which she had little training. She asked what being a press agent entailed. She was told, "Just be you."

"That's the only person I know how to be," she quipped. Such a Veeck thing to say, too.

While Bill Veeck's fingerprints can still be found in today's game, it was the people he hoped to touch.

"He had such a great approach to life," Mary Frances said. "I could hear her smile through the phone.

"We should all try to approach life just like he did."

We hung up the phone, and I went for a stroll through the concourse.

The White Sox were playing their first World Series game since 1959. I watched strangers exchange high-fives. A friendly chant broke out by the beer cart. Kids chased each other, clutching leather gloves as if they were winning lottery tickets.

Everyone was smiling; everyone was excited. Mary Frances didn't come to Game 1. You had the feeling, though, that Bill Veeck wasn't about to miss this one.

Points after -- Rick Maese

Converting faiths: Overheard on a Chicago train: What do you call a Cubs fan who's suddenly rooting for the White Sox? A transoxual.

Ready for today: I arrived in Chicago on Friday. You could just feel excitement in the air. Who knew playing against the Ravens could energize a city so much?

Tighten your tie: Professional basketball is the only sport in which you'd find men who earn millions of dollars a year whining about having to tuck in their shirt and wear a tie a few times a week. My hope is that by the All-Star break someone breaks out a Bill Walton throwback suit.

Series beard: The Astros aren't shaving until the postseason is over? Well, neither am I. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone will be able to tell the difference.

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