Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick
Full disclosure demands I inform readers that in 1975, I asked Bill Veeck for a job. I was a young attorney, and Veeck had just begun his second tour as owner of my beloved Chicago White Sox. I wrote a letter directly to him asking for a job, any job at all in baseball. A few days later, I received a handwritten letter. Essentially, Veeck suggested to me that I was crazy to seek employment in baseball when I already had a job as an attorney. I was disappointed, but the letter was so warm and genuine that I was let down very nicely. I wish I still had that letter.
"BILL VEECK is as comfortable a read as a good seat in the bleachers along with a hot dog and beer.... While those days are now forever gone, they live on in the pages of Dickson’s masterful biography."
Paul Dickson’s BILL VEECK: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick is a definitive account of a man whose contributions to modern-day baseball cannot be minimized in any fashion. Anyone attending a baseball game in America may not realize that much of what they view and experience in contemporary stadiums were ideas hatched in the mind of Bill Veeck. Whether it is clean bathrooms, ticket promotions, quality food, fireworks, names on the backs of uniforms, or dozens of other sights and sounds at the ballpark, Veeck was the man who introduced those ideas to major league baseball. And he often did so despite opposition from fellow major league owners who belittled his ideas as contrary to baseball tradition.
A quality biography has many requirements. It cannot fawn over its subject, but should capture a sense and flavor of the times beyond the life and times of the person. In addition, it should be well-written. Dickson easily accomplishes these tasks in a book that’s elegant in its simple but precise language. He is not reluctant to point out Veeck’s foibles along with his strengths. Most importantly, he has captured the era of major league baseball when the game changed dramatically due to two cataclysmic events: integration and the death of the reserve clause.
While Branch Rickey is correctly credited with the signing of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in baseball, Veeck was as vigorous as Rickey in integrating major league baseball. He would sign Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League. Even before then, he had a plan to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and have a full roster of African-American players. The deal fell through when National League owners made certain that another buyer would be found for the Phillies.
For Veeck, integration was in keeping with his love for the common man and his belief in equal justice. He was committed to these goals in all aspects of his life. He treated people, fans and employees as human beings regardless of their standing in life. Many baseball owners, scions of industry and wealth, looked down on Veeck as a clown. But he knew more about baseball than the other American League owners combined. He would publicly berate the owners for their greed and lack of respect for fans. In return, any Veeck proposal was almost immediately rejected; the owners did not care that his ideas improved the game.
We will never see baseball as it existed in Veeck’s era. When he purchased the Cleveland Indians in the late 1940s, he paid $1.5 million for the entire franchise. He later sold the team for a profit for his investors. Interestingly, he devised methods for increasing tax advantages for baseball franchises. The owners who disdained him were not reluctant to use his tax ideas for their personal financial benefit.
BILL VEECK is as comfortable a read as a good seat in the bleachers along with a hot dog and beer. Not, of course, at the contemporary price of $7.50 for ale and $5.00 for a frankfurter, but at the comfortable price of a bygone era. For those who grew up in a time when a trip to the ballpark was an inexpensive and enjoyable event, this is a wonderful remembrance. While those days are now forever gone, they live on in the pages of Dickson’s masterful biography.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on June 22, 2012