Perhaps best remembered for sending midget Eddie Gaedel to bat in a game against the Tigers at St. Louis in 1952, Veeck was baseball’s most imaginative promoter. He grew up in a ballpark and was never happier than when he was roaming the grandstand and bleachers, mingling with fans. An admitted publicity hound and an imaginative innovator who frequently upset other club owners with his proposals and stunts, he was also a sound baseball man who created winners in Cleveland and Chicago.
His father, William Veeck, Sr., was a basebal writer when William Wrigley installed him as president of the Cubs. By the time he was eleven, Bill Jr. was selling soda in the stands, mailing out tickets, and helping the grounds keepers. When his father died in 1933 Veeck quit Kenyon College and went to work full-time for the Cubs. He became treasurer, but at twenty-seven he quit and bought the near-bankrupt Milwaukee team in the American Association. With $11 in his pocket he arrived in Milwaukee in 1941; four years later he sold the club for a $275,000 profit after setting minor league attendance records and winning three pennants. He gave away live pigs, beer, cases of food; he put on fireworks displays, staged weddings at home plate, played morning games for wartime swing shift workers. But he considered such stunts as extras, not lures, and usually produced them unannounced.
In 1943 he had the backing to buy the Phillies and planned to sign several Negro League players, but he felt the risk was too great and backed out, a move he later said he regretted. Wounds suffered fighting in the South Pacific with the Marines in WWII forced him to undergo several operations on his leg and eventual amputation. But it didn’t slow him down.
In 1946 he put together a syndicate and bought the Cleveland Indians. In 1947 they doubled attendance to 1.5 million; a year later they drew an AL-record 2,620,627 while winning the pennant. He signed Larry Doby, the first black player in the league, and Satchel Paige. After selling the Indians for a large profit, he took over the moribund Browns, then in debt to the league for $300,000, a number about equal to a season’s attendance. In 1952 attendance “soared” to 518,000; Veeck said he lost close to $200,000. Despite the opposition of his three partners, Veeck planned to move the team to Baltimore in 1953. August Busch had bought the Cardinals, who were paying $35,000-a-year rent to the Browns for the use of Sportsman’s Park. The deal was to sell the park to the Cardinals and raise money by selling shares to the public in Baltimore. Believing he had seven votes lined up, he put it to the league on March 16, 1953. He lost 5 to 3; only former partner Hank Greenberg and Frank Lane of the White Sox supported him. Reasons given for the turndown were too many debts, not enough money, and too little time before the season was to open. He had failed to confer with the president of the International League over the Baltimore territory and had not contacted Washington and Philadelphia officials personally. Veeck said, “I am the victim of duplicity by a lot of lying so-and-sos. Every reason they give for voting me down is either silly or malicious, and I prefer to think they were malicious.” Most of the press agreed with him. He was forced to sell out. A year later the club was moved to Baltimore.
Out of baseball, he tried to buy Ringling Brothers circus, researched the Pacific coast for major league possiblities for Phil Wrigley, publicized a passenger ship in Cleveland, worked for ABC sports and NBC game of the week, tried to buy the Tigers in 1957, and went after an NBA franchise for Cleveland. He was back in the game in 1959, heading a group that bought the White Sox. They won their first pennant in 40 years and drew a club-record 1,423,000. In 1960 Veeck unveiled the exploding scoreboard and drew 1,644,460 for a club record that still stands. On advice of his doctors he sold the club and retired to his Maryland farm. But after operating Suffolk racetrack, writing book reviews for newspapers and his own story, Veeck as in Wreck, he was back in Chicago in 1975 with Greenberg, paying $7 million for the White Sox. Five years later they sold the franchise for $20 million.
A heavy smoker and light beer drinker, Veeck gave up both in 1980 and underwent two operations for lung cancer in 1984. His tieless attire was due to a skin condition which made tight collars unbearable.