June 10, 2011
Interviews with an Indelible Owner
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Tim Marchman writes about sports and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I like to think that Bill Veeck and I would have been friends. The greatest owner in major-league history lived along Dorchester Avenue in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago, as I do now, and he is still very much a neighborhood presence. If you’re bending an elbow at Jimmy’s on 55th Street, a rotted old bar where professors meet hoodlums and congratulate themselves over it, you have every chance of running into someone who knew him, or has a good story about him or his revered widow Mary-Frances. If you’re over at the Catholic Theological Union you can take in an exhibit at the Mary-Frances and Bill Veeck Gallery. A few blocks away, you can get your hair cut at the same barbershop he frequented, the Hyde Park Hair Salon, which lists him alongside such lesser, if still notable, clients as Muhammad Ali, Suge Knight and Barack Obama on their website.
Wander around the corner and you can read the street sign the Tribune placed in front of the place where he used to live as a tribute. (Enrico Fermi and the Marx Brothers are among the few others to have merited such a sign.) Among the Veeck achievements it cites: planting the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field as a teenager, sending a midget up to bat for the St. Louis Browns, giving 10,000 cupcakes to a single fan, integrating the American League, and writing three bestselling books. One of them, Veeck As In Wreck, is the best book ever written about baseball. I played a small part in getting another of them, The Hustler’s Handbook, back into print, which easily rates with covering the Steve Bartman game and watching Randy Couture train for a title fight as a career highlight.
Head a few blocks south and you can, as of this writing, see a display of volumes from the great man’s personal library in the window of Powell’s, the legendary bookshop. The advertisement for the display features four small people (children? midgets?) dressed as space aliens and stepping on what appears to be a second-base bag. The titles are terrific (Jimmy Breslin’s book on the Mets, Jerome Holtzman’s oral history of sportswriting, Lawrence S. Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times), and the inscriptions (“To Bill”) tell you a lot about what people thought of him.
Who in an age when one is not supposed to have heroes remains one of mine, Bert Sugar
With thanks for so many laughs from a fellow athletic supporter, Larry Merchant
Simply the most imaginative, most gallant—the best of baseball men—who knows life off as well as on the diamond—and to the delightful Mary Frances and those great offspring—with deep affection and admiration, Studs
The last is from Studs Terkel, who along with Saul Bellow, another one-time resident of Dorchester Avenue, ranks as one of the two main rivals to Veeck’s position as the quintessential Chicagoan of his time. One can easily imagine them sitting around a table, drinking and arguing politics, and if crochety sorts do have some sort of spectral presences, Veeck’s and Terkel’s, at least, are doubtless doing just that somewhere in Chicago right now.
That a man whose public prime is 50 years past (and who passed 25 years ago) occupies such a prominent position in Hyde Park says a lot about the neighborhood, the culture of which hasn’t much changed save for small particulars since Isaac Rosenfeld described it in 1957 as being “composed of such various elements as sports cars, bop talk, gin-and-tonic, Station WFMT, cottage-cheese-and-garlic, paper-bound books, short haircuts, IVI, foreign movies, Bordelon’s furniture, copper jewelry and earrings, a painfully ambiguous attitude toward the color question, guitars, folk music, skin diving, Dr. Spock, recorder-playing, hi-fi, open sandals, and hamsters as standard zoological equipment for introducing children to the facts of life.” (It also says a lot about why I choose to live here. The University of Chicago has decreed that it will always be 1957 in Hyde Park, and while that bothers some people, I rather like it.) My favorite bit of Veeckiana, though, isn’t even located here. It’s up in the northwest part of town, in the stacks of a digital preservation shop called Media Burn.
Run by a fellow named Tom Weinberg, Media Burn’s mission is to preserve all sorts of strange televisual material that he happens to have collected in an archive of thousands of videotapes. Many are kept on an unfortunately glitchy website at mediaburn.org, which is essentially the Earth-2 version of YouTube, where everything is compelling and nothing is worthless. Among the treasures: Footage of hapless former mayor Jane Byrne being viciously heckled during a visit to a housing project, a short documentary on a guy who liked to rifle through Bob Dylan’s garbage, endless hours of random Chicagoans speaking about everyday life in accents that have been more or less bleached out of existence, and the world’s largest collection of Bill Veeck video.
This amounts to something different than you might expect, because among the many other things he did—keep drinks in his wooden leg, own the last Cleveland Indians team to win a World Series, argue at every opportunity that jockeys are the greatest of all athletes, and so on—Veeck served for decades as a presence on the airwaves, and in fact anticipated the format that ESPN and the MLB Network use to cover baseball to this day. (Sadly, they haven’t taken up his practice of hosting shows from bars while making his guests drink beer with him.) Take Bill Veeck's Front Office, a pilot filmed in 1951 for a proposed show that would have had Veeck on the air every night talking the baseball news of the day.
”Yeah, I’ll call you back,” says Veeck as it opens, hanging up a phone. All man, dressed in a polo shirt—he hated ties and never wore them—Veeck looks off at the camera, as if it’s interrupting him in the conduct of important business, and addresses the audience with one of the great shows of qualifications in broadcast history.
“I suppose I should introduce myself,” he says. “My name’s Veeck, Bill Veeck, and I’m figuring on being here every evening to run over the ball scores and to give you a little information that you may or may not have noticed during the ballgame, something possibly that the papers have missed, or your radio commentator. Of course I, being very egotistical, believe I’m eminently qualified to do this thing, because I’ve been in baseball all my life. I started hustling pop around the ballpark in Chicago when I was about 11 years old. Then I worked on the grounds crew and worked behind the concession stands, sold tickets, took tickets, finally maneuvered my way up the office where I didn’t have to work so much.”
One gets the sense here that Veeck regards everything from this point on as superfluous as regards his authority to talk baseball. Still, he relents and allows that he does know things about the game that he didn’t learn hustling tickets at Wrigley.
“Finally,” he says, “a fellow by the name of Grimm and I—Charlie Grimm, who you possibly may remember as manager of the Cubs, and currently managing Milwaukee—got a few bucks together and went up to Milwaukee and bought a ballclub. Matter of fact, probably the worst ballclub that was ever bought, think we were some 22 games behind the 7th place club. In any event, we peddled enough ballplayers around to be able to, eventually, buy the Cleveland Indians. Bought those about five years ago, and we were pretty fortunate. We had a fellow by the name of Boudreau, who in 1948 won a world championship for us.”
While this is possibly evidence of a crippled imagination, I can’t think of more compelling viewing than Bill Veeck alone behind a desk discoursing on the day’s events in baseball, but as it turned out, the show never amounted to much, as Veeck was running several decades ahead of time, mainly for the better, if also for the worse. Witness his punditry on the problems posed to the Yankees by Joe DiMaggio’s rapidly advancing age, which anticipates every bit of bad analysis you’ve ever seen on your television.
“I spent a couple of hours talking to Joe in Phoenix, oh, let’s see, that was ten days ago," he says. "And Joe’s getting a little tired. He was having miseries earlier than usual in his legs, and he didn’t seem to have that enthusiasm that he normally has. So I kidded him about it and Joe said, ‘You know, they don’t pay off until the 17th.’ He says, ‘When the 17th comes, I’ll be ready.’”
So far, all to the well. DiMaggio’s miseries wereincreasing, and 1951 would be his last season. As Veeck noted, though, the Yankees had a decent replacement at hand. His appraisal was simultaneously prescient, and good reason to be thankful that he wasn’t operating in the Bronx.
“The Yankees have,” he said, “one of the really great young rookies that I’ve ever seen, a kid by the name of Mantle, Mickey Mantle, who is a unique ballplayer in one respect: He’s a switch hitter, but with good power. While he has a slight limp, which is enough to keep him with the Yankees for awhile, he has tremendous speed afoot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ballplayer run as fast, and he’s a good-looking hitter. He can really whack from either left side or right side, and he couldn’t catch a pig in a blind alley. It comes to fielding, he’s nonexistent. Of course, I’m in a good spot now, I can second-guess all these clubs, and I definitely would play the kid at first base.”
The existence of a one-man Baseball Tonight hosted by Bill Veeck and featuring a scouting report on a kid named Mantle is reason enough on its own to be thankful for the Internet, but then you have the rest of it—clips of the The Bill Veeck Show, for example, which surpass one’s expectations in all regards. Imagine Veeck hosting a colloquy on the kids and their dancing and the rock music in 1966 with Mrs. Veeck, a regional manager for Tower Records and a fancy lady dressed in a checkerboard dress. At what appears to be a kitchen table.
“Reports have filtered back to me,” says Veeck, “that we really don’t have enough culture in our saloon. Tonight I hope to rectify this grievous error, with this extended and very important observation of music and the dance.” (That last word is pronounced "dawnce," for obscure reasons.)
Cut to shots of teenage girls dancing to zany music behind bead curtains. Cut to the fancy lady explaining the lyrics to ‘Paperback Writer.’
“But not a hardcover?” grouses Veeck, disappointed by the lack of ambition of the then-modern youth. “I really didn’t know about this paperback, because I always wanted to be a hardcover writer myself.”
“I’m coming up on my 116th birthday,” says the young and attractive Mrs. Veeck. “A lot of women that are running around now with long hair when they are in my age group, I think it’s ridiculous.”
“It’s like shorts and slacks,” her husband says. “Those wear them who shouldn’t.”
Veeck’s forays into television of course more frequently related to sports, usually baseball, than to such topics of general interest as whether the kids ought to wear short pants. What survives is uniformly wonderful. I’m especially fond of a clip from 1970 where he introduces, along with baseball writer Cleon Waalford, one Allan H. “Bud” Selig, “a longtime friend, and the president of Milwaukee Brewers, Inc.,” who resembles an especially itchy CIA man in his short hair and black suit. The topic is whether there should be a club in Milwaukee, and more generally the rivalry between Selig and a group out of Chicago backed by MLB machers.
“If you’ll notice,” says Veeck, “there is a vacant chair between Bud and I. I felt that it would be very unfair not to give the Chicago group, the so-called carpetbaggers, the chance to defend themselves, if it’s necessary, or present their position, if they should so desire. And so I called, or had called, I should say, and invited all of the members of the group, any and all, if they should like to be present at our little discussion. I started with Mr. William C. Bartholomay, who suddenly is on the west coast.”
Veeck turns to the empty chair.
“Sorry to have missed you,” he says. “Mr. Tom Reynolds, Jr. is in New Jersey. Tom,” he says, again turning to the empty chair, “we’d hoped you would be here. Daniel Searle is in Europe. James B. McCahey is out of town. John J. Lewis is out of town. John McHale is out of town, Delbert W. Coleman is on the west coast, and Louis Parini is in South America. So I have cleared the city. Not, shall we say, a bad achievement for one small group of telephone calls.”
Veeck’s opinion of a young Mickey Mantle’s defense aside, this moment alone marks him out as the single most worthy baseball pundit in the history of television. A hundred dollars for any television personality these days who sets out an empty chair for Fred Wilpon, Frank McCourt or another vacant baseball big-wig and then addresses it as if it were endowed with life and vigor.
The height, though, of the remnant footage of Veeck’s television career may be an interview he and Mrs. Veeck allowed Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, done from their apartment along Lake Michigan. Murrow, smoking furiously, notes that raising children and serving as an accomplice in her husband’s various schemes must make it hard for Mrs. Veeck to maintain her figure, whereon she leads the camera to an exercise contraption that, she says, makes that easy. Pressed by Murrow on his theory of showmanship, Veeck lays out his ideas simply.
“Well,” he said, “I happen to have a very ridiculous theory, according to many ballclub operators, that it should be fun. You know, I don’t think that baseball’s such a grim, serious thing. Sure, I don’t want to interfere with the game, but I do want everyone who comes out to the ballpark to have fun and—look, let’s face it, often the ballgame is not the most exciting thing that ever’s happened, and that’s why we use fireworks. In St. Louis, they were often the only interesting thing that happened, and they woke everyone up and got them home at a nice hour.”
There don’t seem to be, Murrow notes, as many colorful personalities in baseball as there once were.
“That’s a very sage observation,” says the sage Veeck. “That’s one of the greatest difficulties that baseball faces. It used to be that every ballclub had an exciting player or two, sometimes more. Today, after you go to see Williams and Casey Stengel and maybe Yogi Berra, Nellie Fox, you’ve had it in the American League. We don’t have those same exciting fellas.”
Veeck, says Murrow, seems not to be an advocate of conformity.
“No, I’m not. And you know, I think this is one of the things that’s hurting us as a nation. It used to be that every business—let’s take our courts of law, they had their Bill Fallons and their Clarence Darrows and their Sam Leibowitzes. They’re all gone today. We try to make everybody fit into a mold. If they’re too long, why, you lop them off, and if they’re too short, stretch ‘em. But make ‘em fit.
How would Veeck account for this strong trend?
“Ed,” says Veeck, “I think probably the most important thing is the exact, identical education that is given to everyone throughout the country. And of course then you add to that military service, in which conformation is almost a prerequisite, and when they get out, they’re more interested, instead of doing extremely well in their own particular way, they’re interested in, oh, pension plans and that sort of thing. And these are fine, except when they interfere with the development of an individual.”
The Media Burn archives have all sorts of tremendous footage of Veeck—here he is building models! here he is drinking in the Billy Goat with Studs, discussing unions! here he is interviewing Marvin Miller!—but one could really not ask more of a baseball owner than for him to use a national broadcast platform to chastise the nation’s youth for their obsession with pension plans at the expense of taking up matters of real interest, and one could not ask more of a neighborhood than for it to keep the memory of such an owner alive. If the dullness of baseball as it’s promoted today ever has me bored—and it does—I take a walk and think of Veeck, who on near-at-hand evidence is at this late date less dead than the operators of several major-league teams, and other people I've met besides.