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Veeck, William L., Jr. ("Bill")

VEECK, William L., Jr. ("Bill")

(b. 1 September 1914 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 1 February 1986 in Chicago, Illinois), owner of three Major League Baseball teams and one racetrack, most noted for his innovations in the game of baseball and particularly for marketing to a broader spectrum of fans.

Veeck was the son of William Veeck, Sr., a sportswriter and president of the Chicago Cubs, and Grace De Forest Veeck, a homemaker. Veeck once stated that he was the only human being raised in a baseball stadium. He spent much of his youth with his father at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Following his father's death in 1933, Veeck took a position with the Cubs. While working with Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, Veeck was responsible for two notable facets of the aesthetically pleasing stadium. He planted the ivy growing on the outfield walls, which eventually became a hallmark of Wrigley Field, and he completed the work on the imposing center field scoreboard.

Veeck worked for the Cubs until 1941, when he, along with Charlie Grimm, a retired Cubs first baseman, purchased the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. They took a moribund franchise and converted it into a winning venture both on the field and at the box office. Innovations included scheduling games at 8:30 A. M. to accommodate war industry workers who were finishing work on the night shift.

Veeck joined the U.S. Marines in 1944. His leg was crushed while in combat in the Pacific theater, and after ten surgeries failed to fix the infected and damaged leg, it was amputated in 1946. Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians from the owners of the team, the Bradley family, that same year, and by 1948 the Indians had won their first American League (AL) championship in twenty-eight years. Veeck moved all Indians games from the antiquated League Park into Cleveland Municipal Stadium, thus allowing the team to eventually draw over 2 million fans per year. Following Branch Rickey's hiring of Jackie Robinson in 1947, Veeck brought Larry Doby to the Indians as the American League's first African-American player. In the tight pennant race of 1948, Veeck added the legendary Satchel Paige to assist the team in winning both the pennant and the World Series championship, beating the Boston Braves. Veeck had become a hero to the fans of Cleveland, but at the expense of his marriage to Eleanor Raymond, whom he had wed on 8 December 1935. Their divorce in 1949 caused enough financial disruption that Veeck had to sell the Indians in order to facilitate a divorce settlement. He married Mary Frances Ackerman on 29 April 1950. They later had six children and together managed a Boston racetrack, Suffolk Downs.

Veeck disappeared from the active baseball scene until 1951, when he bought the St. Louis Browns, a team that had incurred great debt and lacked talent. In Veeck's first season as owner he increased attendance by 60 percent by using several gimmicks and promotions, the most famous of which was sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, up to bat in a 1952 game. In 1953 he attempted to move the team to Milwaukee because he felt that St. Louis could not support two teams. However, Veeck had not done the appropriate planning and did not get the necessary approvals to make the move. The result was that he had to sell the team because of insufficient funding. Other league owners, who had come to despise Veeck because of his showmanship, allowed the new ownership to move the team to Baltimore the next season.

This move opened the door to more franchise shifting, which had not occurred since the advent of the modern structure of baseball in 1903. Unprofitable teams switched cities in order to find more lucrative sites, and the baseball industry eventually expanded the number of major league teams beyond the original sixteen.

By 1959 the Comiskey family wanted to sell the Chicago White Sox. Veeck bought the franchise and brought life to South Side Chicago fans by winning the first pennant in forty years. Although the White Sox lost the World Series to the recently moved Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball on the South Side had become vibrant again. Veeck eventually added a memorable scoreboard to Comiskey Park, complete with a fireworks system that discharged every time the team won or whenever a White Sox player hit a home run. Under Veeck's ownership, the names of players appeared for the first time on White Sox uniforms. Unfortunately, working extensive hours, smoking several packs of cigarettes a day, and drinking excessively for years led Veeck to suffer serious health problems, and he was forced to sell the White Sox in 1961.

During the early 1960s Veeck began writing books. His first, Veeck as in Wreck (1962), became a sports classic. His later works, The Hustlers Handbook (1965) and Thirty Tons a Day (1972), reflect the humor and unconventional wisdom that Veeck brought to baseball and to sports marketing.

When the White Sox were again up for sale in 1976, and threatened with the possibility of being moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, Veeck bought the team once again to keep it in his home city. His purchase of the White Sox for $7 million came a couple of weeks before free agency began. Veeck, short of money, kept the White Sox afloat during the late 1970s with his "rent-a-player" approach, bringing in well-known players for one year, knowing that he did not have the resources to offer them multiyear contracts. When his health problems resurfaced in 1980, Veeck sold the team for $20 million, this time pocketing a handsome profit.

During his final years Veeck was a regular fan, sitting in with the "bleacher bums" in the park of his youth. He died of congestive heart failure and is buried at Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago. "Barnum Bill," as his fellow owners sometimes called him, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

The best sources of information about Veeck are his own books, Veeck as in Wreck (1962), The Hustler ' s Handbook (1965), and Thirty Tons a Day (1972). Also see Richard C. Lindberg, The White Sox Encyclopedia (1997). Articles include Thomas Boswell, "Always Leave 'em Laughing," Inside Sports (Mar. 1981), and Steven P. Geitschier, "Bill Veeck," Timeline (May 1990).

Harry Jebsen, Jr.

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