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September 12, 2012

Overthinking It

All I Really Need to Know About Baseball, I Learned from Bill Veeck

by Ben Lindbergh

The title of this article isn’t completely true. In fact, it’s mostly false: I learned a lot of things I needed to know about baseball before I’d ever heard of Bill Veeck. But if one wanted to learn about baseball, and if one were to start from scratch, reading a book about Bill Veeck—or even better, a book by Bill Veeck—wouldn’t be a bad way to begin.

Bill Veeck, I think, would have been a BP subscriber. Not just because he had an instinctive urge to read everything he came across, though that wouldn’t have hurt. Mostly because he liked to take on tradition. “Thinking about it,” he wrote, “it seems to me that all of my life I have been fighting against the status quo, against the tyranny of the fossilized majority rule.” In a way, BP was fighting the same fight 15 years ago. What people remember most about the Hall of Fame owner of the Indians, Browns, and White Sox are his promotions—Eddie Gaedel, the exploding scoreboard, Disco Demolition Night. But while Veeck enjoyed thumbing his nose in the face of authority, he usually had a more cerebral motive for his more adventurous experiments. He was a visionary and an innovator, and he wasn’t bound by old ways. He championed integration, westward expansion, interleague play, and a whole host of other important advances long before the other Lords of Baseball fell in line. And he frequently paid a price for his forward thinking. 

Veeck wasn’t a stat guy where his players were concerned, but he took a scientific approach to the off-the-field aspects of baseball business, particularly bringing fans to the ballpark and extracting as much profit from them as possible. Consider his approach to concessions:

By working in the concession stands myself, I had come to understand the importance of space. In a baseball park, people run up to the concessions between innings or stop off briefly on their way out. I found that when I was able to get from the red hots to the beer and coffee without having to move, I would sell both the red hot and a drink. If I had to take but one step, the beverage sales would begin to drop. I was even able to reduce it to a precise formula. One extra step costs you 10 percent of your gross. I therefore designed the concession stands myself and have been designing my own ever since. An architect will draw you a beautiful stand. So beautiful and spacious that you’ll go broke.

In other words, Veeck’s concession stands didn’t sell jeans. They sold hot dogs. Had Bill James come along a little earlier, you can bet Veeck would’ve hired him. For one thing, Veeck was often close to broke, especially during his years with the Browns and his second stint with the White Sox. He would’ve welcomed any extra edge, even if it came from a computer. For another, he never hesitated to seek advice from outsiders. During games, Veeck would roam the ballpark, soliciting opinions from fans. He’d hail taxis just to talk to the driver about his team. And he’d never turn up his nose at actionable intelligence, whatever its source. Veeck was once asked what he knew about a minor leaguer by the well-informed representative of a gambling syndicate. As it turned out, he knew nothing, since his scouts hadn’t seen him. Thanks to the tip, Veeck kept his eye on the player and eventually drafted him. The player turned into Gus Zernial, who went on to have an 11-year career in the majors. “If these people have better information than my scouting force,” Veeck wrote, “I’m not proud. I’ll use them.”

Last year, Tim Marchman wrote a BP piece about Veeck’s TV appearances.* In that article, Marchman called Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck’s first book, “the best book ever written about baseball.” I’m inclined to agree. It’s full of fantastic, funny stories, a couple of which I’ve slipped into Unfiltered over the last few days. But it’s more than an excellent source of anecdotes. It’s also a source of decades of distilled baseball wisdom.

*Here’s how Marchman opened his article: “I like to think Bill Veeck and I would have been friends.” Not so different from my line about Bill Veeck subscribing to BP. It’s impossible to read about Bill Veeck without wanting to be his buddy.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Veeck as in Wreck. A lot of 50-year-old things seem dated today, but Veeck’s (and co-author Ed Linn’s) writing remains fresh. In 1962, Ball Four was still several years away from upending baseball journalism. There were only 20 teams, there was no free agency, and there was no amateur draft. But most of what Veeck wrote remains relevant. Here are 10 (actually, let's make that 11) takeaways.      

On Attendance

…[Phil Wrigley] taught me perhaps the greatest single lesson of running a ball club. Wrigley compared the Cubs’ won-and-lost records with corresponding daily-attendance charts and showed me that the two followed a practically identical pattern. His conclusion was inescapable. A team that isn’t winning a pennant has to sell something in addition to its won-and-lost record to fill in those low points on the attendance chart.

This passage explains Veeck’s promotional tendencies pretty well. Whenever Veeck took over a team, it was invariably down in the dumps. He always pulled for the underdog, possibly because he almost always was one. Veeck’s bankroll was never very big, which meant he had a better chance of buying an unsuccessful small-market team and building it up than he did taking over an already profitably enterprise. Hence his many axioms about attendance and the additional incentives it takes to sell tickets to long-suffering fans: “There is no known substitute for winning, and no known cure for losing. We are dealing here only with remedial action.” “You can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence.”

With Veeck running the show, even short silences were few and far between. One of the many promotions he pioneered was the use of fireworks after (and sometimes during) games. Veeck loved fireworks, but he also loved what they did for his bottom line. Remember that scientific approach to attendance I mentioned? Here’s how Veeck assessed the impact of fireworks, where X equals business at the ballpark:

Lose game; no fireworks: X
Lose game; fireworks: 1.4X
Win game; no fireworks: 2X
Win game; fireworks: 3X

Naturally, the other owners objected to the practice. But only until they saw how well it worked:

Many of the club owners who accused me of making a travesty of the game when I first began to use fireworks as an innocent form of entertainment now feel called upon to entertain their customers with frequent and full-blown postgame fireworks displays themselves. Any questions?

Ethnic nights, giveaways, post-game concerts—we owe them all to Veeck. Not just because they made baseball games better, but because they made sound financial sense.

On Decision-Making

My main objection to Lou [Boudreau] was that he managed by hunch and desperation. You ask Casey Stengel why he made a certain move and he will tell you about a roommate he had in 1919 who had demonstrated some principle Casey was now putting into effect. You ask Lou and he will say, ‘The way we’re going, we had to do something.’ If there is a better formula for making a bad situation worse, I have never heard of it.

When Paul DePodesta, Andrew Friedman, or another brilliant executive du jour stresses the importance of “good process,” this is more or less what they mean.

On Untouchable Players

There is no almost no such a thing, I have found, as an untouchable player. When you trade a long-time favorite, the writers find kind words for such forgotten virtues and sentiment and loyalty and speak most darkly about front-office ingratitude. Three days later, they are back to telling the manager how to run the ball club. The fans vow never to enter the park again; a few zealots even picket the park carrying banners proclaiming their unyielding purpose. The next time the Yankees are in town for a Sunday doubleheader, they’re all there pleading for two tickets behind first base.

Veeck may have done more to build local goodwill toward his ballclubs than any owner before or since, but with few exceptions, he didn’t make his roster moves based on what he thought the team’s fans would want him to do. Fans have short memories, and they almost always come out to see a winning team, regardless of how it got there.

Given Veeck’s remarkable powers of turning around attendance, I would’ve loved to see what he could’ve done with the Tampa Bay Rays.

On Baseball as a Business

[I] have never operated on the theory that a city owes anything to the owner of a baseball franchise, out of civic pride, patriotic fervor or compelling national interest. Baseball has sold itself as a civic monument for so long that it has come to believe its own propaganda. There is nothing owed to you. A baseball team is a commercial venture, operating for a profit. The idea that you don’t have to package your product as attractively as General Motors packages its product, and hustle your product the way General Motors hustles its product, is baseball’s most pernicious enemy.

Okay, so the GM example might be a bit dated, but the rest is more pointed than ever in the era of publicly funded parks and threats about relocation. Veeck recognized that it wouldn’t be easy for baseball to maintain its privileged position in the public eye, writing, “We are in the entertainment business, competing for the entertainment dollar. Competition is tougher. In 1902, there wasn’t much you could do unless you wanted to stay home and sing along with the player piano.” And hustle he did, traveling from speaking engagement to speaking engagement in an effort to drum up interest in his product.

Veeck urged the other owners to be proactive about protecting baseball from the incursions of other sports, but his warnings went unheeded. (In fairness to the other owners, Veeck could be less than diplomatic when attempting to get his way, a failing he often acknowledged.) As Veeck remarks elsewhere in the book, “Baseball did not become our national game because of some divine plan and it will not necessarily remain the national game because of some divine protection.”

On the Fans

You do, of course, have a small, loyal cadre of perhaps 83 technicians who will come out, regardless of the standings, to watch the geometric pattern of the game unfold in all its beautiful precision and balance. To them, the game’s the thing. You will generally find them sitting in the bleachers. I have discovered, in 20 years of moving around a ball park, that the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.

If you depend solely on people who know and love the game, you will be out of business by Mother’s Day.

Inside the echo chamber of the internet, we wonder why, when everyone despises a certain announcer, that announcer has been allowed to keep announcing from time immemorial. The answer, of course, is that you, and I, and everyone else reading this article, are the “83 technicians.” We’ll watch the games regardless of the announcer’s identity. We might mute, and we might mock, but we’ll continue to tune in. And if broadcasters base their decisions on what we statheads want, they’ll run the risk of alienating the rest of their audience. That’s why you still have to put up with [announcer who annoys you]. It makes sense. I’m sorry.

On Trades

As a rule, trades are not nearly as complicated as the ones I’ve cited. Nobody fools anybody. You know what you want; you know what the other man needs; and you know what you can offer. It is always wise, I think, to trade different positions. If I have a surplus of outfielders and am weak at third, my best bet is to find a team that has a surplus at third base and needs an outfielder. In that kind of a trade, both of us know we are doing ourselves some good. If I offered a man one of my outfielders for one of his outfielders, his automatic reaction would be to ask himself what I know about one of them that he doesn’t.

“Nobody fools anybody” would be news to some people who analyze transactions on the internet, but not every trade involves pulling the wool over another team's eyes. While it’s probably a bit of an overgeneralization—someone has to fool somebody sometime—it’s probably more accurate ever today.

On Marginal Value

To ask what a player is worth to you is like asking what the deuce of clubs is worth to you in a poker game. Generally, it’s the worst card in the deck. But if you need the deuce of clubs to fill a straight flush, it’s worth everything in the post.

Veeck didn’t need Nate Silver to tell him that wins were worth more to certain teams at certain times. At the 1948 trade deadline (which was then on June 15th), Veeck paid the Browns $100,000 for Sam Zoldak, a slightly above-average left-handed pitcher. Zoldak was so taken aback that someone had paid that amount of money for him that he later broke down in tears and confessed to Veeck that he wasn’t worth it. Veeck was well aware that he wasn’t under normal circumstances. As he wrote, “Zoldak wasn’t worth $100,000 or even $50,000 to a team fighting for third place. He wasn’t worth $20,000 to a team in the second division. But at that moment, with that team I had in Cleveland, he was worth whatever I had to pay.” Zoldak pitched to a 2.81 ERA in 105 2/3 innings for the Indians, who won the pennant by one game. Had he known that would happen, Veeck probably would’ve paid more.

On Managing

The manager of a major-league baseball team is first of all a personnel man. I have always maintained that you could take a good personnel manager from any company, and if you could create a fictitious baseball background for him so that the players would accept him, he would do an excellent job of managing. Any of his coaches could take care of such secondary matters as making out the lineup and calling the plays.

Baseball is not a complex game. You could find 100 fans in the stands on any given day who could call the right strategy at the right time with the exact degree of accuracy as the manager. … There are few managers who will win even an occasional game for you by tactics or strategy. … The manager’s real job is to accommodate himself to 25 different personalities; to assess the amount of talent he has within that tool of 25 men and to exact the fruits of that talent—and maybe just a little extra for treating them well, personally and professionally.

Sound familiar?

On the Pace of the Game

The game has become too slow. There would be nothing wrong with the now standard three-hour game if we were presenting two and a half hours of action. We aren’t. Baseball is the best concession sport in existence, did you know that? Why? Well, how many times have you watched a game on television, going to the refrigerator for a snack and returned without having missed anything? Same thing at the park.

In 1957 and 1958, while I was ripening on an enforced sabbatical, I did the commentary on NBC’s Game of the Week show. Having little enough to occupy me during the play-by-play, I made it a practice to time the pitchers. For twenty minutes out of every hour, I discovered, the action on the field consisted solely of the pitcher holding the ball and looking at the catcher, a tableau which I find singularly lacking in drama. I suspect that the ratio is even higher now because the pitchers seem to become increasingly timid every year.

This probably sounds familiar, too. Veeck went on to pinpoint the source of the pitchers’ timidity: “Today, anybody standing at the plate with a bat in his hand is in scoring position, and the pitchers feel it necessary to nibble around the corners of the plate.” He proposed six possible solutions:

  1. Widening the plate by 25 percent
  2. Altering the count: three balls to a walk, two strikes to a strikeout
  3. Limiting or eliminating the practice of throwing the ball around the infield after outs
  4. Limiting the number of warm-up pitches allowed at the start of the inning
  5. Making the intentional walk automatic, rather than requiring four balls to be thrown
  6. Deadening the ball

All this has been written before. All this will be written again.

On the Winner’s Curse

I have had big-league operators tell me, ‘If fifteen other clubs are bidding for a boy and we’re not, then I want to know what’s the matter with my scouting system.’ One strategically placed shill can jump the price up from $15,000 to $65,000, because once the bidding contest gets underway the operators act like a bunch of old women at a boardwalk auction. Suppose, as an example, the operator has given his scout permission to go as high as $50,000, and the scout calls later and says, ‘The Dodgers are willing to give him $55,000, but I’m pretty sure I can get him for $60,000.’ The operator has to say to himself, ‘If I was willing to go to $50,000, I have to go to $60,000.’ And all the time he is raising his bid he is hoping he isn’t the lucky winner.

Veeck was talking about bidding for bonus babies, but bidding for free agents works the same way.

On Park Effects

Now, it is possible that a midget or a collection of Grandstand Managers can have some minor effect on a ball game. They cannot begin to compare with the influence of the playing field, which can be as important a factor in the game as the players themselves.

Veeck was a notorious tinkerer with his playing surfaces and the dimensions of his parks. His teams sloped and un-sloped infields, trimmed grass to different heights depending on which fielder it was growing in front of, stole signs, handed out mirrors in the bleachers to distract opposing batters, and most notably (and until it became against the rules), moved the fences in and out and up and down to tailor the park to the opposition. Veeck exploited loopholes in the rules wherever he could, but he never broke them. As he wrote, “…this was all perfectly legal, even if it did not necessarily qualify us for that season’s Abner Doubleday Award for sportsmanship above and beyond the call of duty. It is my job, as I see it, to get my players the greatest possible advantage within the rules.”

Underpinning all that gamesmanship was an intimate understanding of the effects a park could have on its players—something some of his peers sadly lacked.

There’s much more in the book, even if it seems like by now I must have excerpted all of it. Veeck’s thoughts on whether a team should be concerned with how its players live their lives off the field. His prescience about the distribution of big broadcast deals. His feelings about the impact of corporate control on teams’ ability to cultivate characters. And, of course, the thought process behind his integration of the American League. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and most importantly, you’ll learn about baseball. But be warned: you’ll probably hate Ford Frick.

*Update* This is excellent news: the Veecks are back in baseball.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Bill Veeck,  Veeck As In Wreck

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