• U.S.

Bill Veeck: 1914-1986

4 minute read
John Leo

In his later years, Bill Veeck had second thoughts about his most famous stunt, sending a midget up to the plate in a major league game. “Were it in my power to turn back the clock, I’d never send a midget to bat,” he declared two decades after the fact. “No, I’d use nine of the little fellows, including the designated hitter.”

One of them was enough to startle the staid world of baseball and set Veeck’s fellow owners fuming. As owner of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck (as in wreck) hired 3-ft. 7-in. Eddie Gaedel and trained him to crouch low so his strike zone was approximately 1 ½ in. Wearing uniform No. 1/8, Gaedel emerged from a giant birthday cake between games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 19, 1951, and stepped up to lead off for the Browns in the second game. As expected, Gaedel walked on four pitches and retired from baseball. Next day the American League barred all midgets. Veeck talked about demanding a ruling on whether Yankee Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, at 5 ft. 6 in., was a short ballplayer or a tall midget.

Veeck, who died last week of a heart attack at 71, was easily the most colorful baseball man never to play the game. A happy rebel against “the simple pieties of baseball,” Veeck limped along on an artificial leg, dreaming up outrageous stunts to lure fans to the ball park. He installed the first exploding Scoreboard, moved the fences at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in and out depending on the strength of visiting teams, and once gave away six pigeons to an elegant fan simply “to answer the burning question of how a dignified man would hold on to six squab while watching a ball game.” The son of a sportswriter who became president of the Chicago Cubs, Veeck planted the first ivy at Wrigley Field and once sent a letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis warning him that the reserve clause was doomed. He invented season tickets and bat days, and started the practice of printing players’ names on the back of their uniforms. In 1947 he hired Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League, and mercilessly taunted the Yankees for delaying integration of the New York team until 1955.

Veeck, who genially described himself as a hustler and publicity hound, owned major league teams four times: the Browns, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox (twice). His usual approach was to buy a rundown franchise, spruce up the ball park, then operate the team on the cheap while raising cash through promotions. Veeck had firm theories on how to promote. If you want to give away 50,000 beers, he once said, give them all to one fan–it will generate far more interest and conversation.

At 28, Veeck bought the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. He put on morning games for night workers, staged pig races and handed out outlandish door prizes, including a swaybacked horse. He installed a chicken-wire screen above the rightfield fence to turn opponent home runs into singles, then rolled it out of the way when the home team came up. The practice was banned after one day. In Cleveland he offered nursery care during games and staged a night honoring a fan who had written to ask why ballplayers always get the free cars and prizes. When the Indians started the 1949 season poorly, Veeck announced that the team was starting over and restaged opening-day ceremonies.

Veeck’s flair and zest almost eclipsed his reputation as a shrewd baseball man who managed to build contenders on low budgets. He predicted that his tombstone would inevitably bear the message HE SENT A MIDGET UP TO BAT. Once he asked that the epitaph be cleaned up a bit to read, more piously, HE HELPED THE LITTLE MAN. –By John Leo

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