Bill Veeck spent six decades fighting for his vision of the National Pastime.
When Veeck’s life journey came to a close, the fans of baseball were the winners.
Veeck passed away 27 years ago this week – on Jan. 2, 1986. As the owner of the Indians, Browns and White Sox, Veeck brought innovations to the game that remain staples at ballparks today.
“We can’t always guarantee the ball game will be good,” Veeck said. “But we can guarantee the fan will have fun.”
Veeck, born Feb. 9, 1914 in Chicago, was the son of Cubs executive Bill Veeck Sr. After working for the Cubs in several capacities – and planting the famous ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field – the younger Veeck struck out on his own and purchased the Milwaukee Brewers of the Triple-A American Association in 1941. Within four years, Veeck had turned the former moribund franchise into a winner at the gate and on the field.
After three years in the Marine Corps during World War II – where an injury led to the amputation of his right leg – Veeck returned to the baseball world in 1946 when he purchased the Cleveland Indians. By 1948, the Indians set a record by drawing 2.6 million fans – thanks in part to innovative promotions – en route to the team’s first American League pennant in 28 years. The Indians won the World Series that year by beating the Boston Braves in six games.
Powering the 1948 Indians were African-American players like Larry Doby, who became the first African American to play in an American League game in 1947, and Satchel Paige, who Veeck signed during the 1948 season at the age of 42. The colorful Paige proved to be no gimmick, going 6-1 with a 2.48 earned-run average for a Cleveland team that eventually won the AL pennant in a one-game playoff against the Red Sox.
Veeck sold the Indians in 1949 then bought the St. Louis Browns in 1951. In St. Louis, Veeck tried to work his magic on the lowly Browns, engaging fans with Grandstand Managers Day and infuriating fellow American League owners by sending 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate as a pinch hitter.
“My epitaph is inescapable,” Veeck predicted. “It will read: ‘He sent a midget up to bat.’”
But Veeck was unable to revitalize the Browns on the field. After failing in his attempt to drive the Cardinals from St. Louis, Veeck – with pressure from the AL owners – sold his interests in the club to a group from Baltimore, where the Browns moved in 1954 to become the Orioles.
Veeck, however, returned to the AL again in 1959 when he bought the White Sox – and the Go-Go Sox quickly responded to Veeck’s enthusiastic leadership by winning the AL flag – their first pennant in 40 years.
Veeck was forced to sell the White Sox in 1961 due to declining health, but recovered in the mid-1960s and eventually purchased the White Sox again in 1975. After approving trades that pushed the White Sox to 90 wins in 1977, Veeck found himself unable to compete financially in the new free agency era and sold the Sox again 1981. He spent his last years as a fan, often watching games from the bleachers in Wrigley Field just above the ivy he once planted.
Veeck was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, five years following his death.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum