1. Time, at least one generation, if not two.
2. A thorough biographer with a good sense of balance.
For famous figures who were dogged by controversy during their careers, the above pair of items are what’s needed for a better understanding of the subject’s life and work. Bill Veeck, the late (1914-1986) Major League Baseball owner (Browns, Indians, White Sox) must be happy to see both of those things finally coming to him. A quarter century after his passing, acclaimed author Paul Dickson has written the definitive history of a man whose life was rich with content and colorful character.
“Veeck As In Wreck.” That’s the title of his 1962 autobiography, and if you’re like me, that’s about all you remember about him. Between that, and the confidence I had in Dickson as a stickler for accuracy, I was motivated to read his new book, “Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.” In fact, I nodded my head in agreement upon reading the very first sentence of the Prologue – “The tendency today is to remember Bill Veeck as the guy who would do anything for a laugh or publicity – an irascible showman.”
Dickson covers all the bases of a life that included service in WWII with the Marines. It’s an enjoyable read and fully researched effort. Bonuses are glossy photos and the author’s research into a subject that has turned into a controversy itself. Did Veeck attempt to buy the 1943 Phillies in order to assemble an all-black, or nearly all-black team?
Three prominent baseball researchers believe Veeck made up the story. Dickson lays out 10 points to the contrary and notes, “During the three years that I researched this biography, I came to the conclusion that Bill Veeck was telling the truth – not only on the Phillies story but also on other matters of substance.”
I enjoyed two aspects of Veeck’s story the most. The first covers the 1948 season. I knew the basics, a great pennant race between Veeck’s Indians, the Yankees, and the Ted Williams-led Red Sox. This one was a newspaper’s dream, with more than just the day-to-day drama on the field to report on.
Needing to bolster his bullpen, Veeck, who had signed Larry Doby the year before (the first black player in the American League), inked Satchel Paige to a contract in July. The reaction was quite predictable. While black fans in Cleveland and beyond were thrilled, the magnates and some baseball publishers called it classic Veeck. In other words, another publicity stunt and exploitation of an older star.
The results speak for themselves. In 72 innings, most of them as a starter, Paige gave up just 20 earned runs. On August 20, the “Oldest Rookie” tossed a three-hit shutout in front of 78,382. Overflow and record crowds (remember the days of such big crowds?) filled Municipal Stadium to see the former Negro League superstar and the Indians, who set the single season attendance mark. Cleveland lost on the final day of the regular season, but beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff.
The Tribe then dispatched the Boston Braves in five games to win the World Series. Veeck also tasted pennant champagne in 1959 with the Chicago White Sox.
Veeck earned the respect of his countrymen with service as a Marine in World War II. As an ammo passer and gunner with the “Third Defense Battalion,” he hauled and loaded 23-pound shells. The Leathernecks were fighting on the island of Bougainville (“a tropical hellhole”) and endured harsh conditions and constant shelling from the enemy. Veeck injured his right foot in combat. Three years later, he required an amputation. Doctors had to also take away part of his leg. In true Veeck fashion, he often made light of his medical challenges.
Dickson also covers the role Veeck played in helping to integrate the game. Of this he writes:
The Bill Veeck portrayed in the leading black newspapers of the time was different from the one-dimensional showman who appeared in the mainstream press. "To my estimation, Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians did more for the Negro than any other man last year,”wrote Jesse Butler in February 1949 in the Cleveland Call and Post. His liberalism and giving Negroes a chance to show their real ability as major leaguers helped spearhead the attack on racial discriminations and segregation in the country.
The 2012 Major League Baseball season opened a few days ago in Japan. The game also made headlines earlier this month by adding two additional wildcards. Polls reflect the grumbling among some fans and writers, who don’t like the messing with the traditions of our great summer pastime.
You can just see him, sitting somewhere in the bleachers, cold beer in one hand, a box of Cracker Jack in the other, new friends beside him, and he’s smiling.
Note: Dickson’s book is due out April 24. The author will be making three area appearances.
Tuesday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the Zenger Room at the National Press Club. Reservations are required at firstname.lastname@example.org free for NPC members and $5 for non-members.
Tuesday, May 1, at noon at the Library of Congress.
Sunday, May 6 at Politics and Prose.
Copies of his book will be available for purchase and signing at each of these events.