Mention the name Bill Veeck to a baseball fan and what will likely come to mind is the back-and-white image of three-foot, seven-inch Eddie Gaedel at the plate of a Major League game, swimming in his St. Louis Browns uniform, the opposing catcher having just caught a pitch well over his head. Gaedel’s sole appearance for the Browns in 1951 is part of the lore of baseball, and it is often cited as the prime example of Veeck’s antics and his irreverence as a team owner. As owner of the Browns, the Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago White Sox, as well as owner of the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers and executive for the Chicago Cubs, Veeck was famous—and infamous—for his promotions and publicity stunts. Veeck wanted to bring people to the ballpark, and he was willing to try any scheme to do that: giving away 100 dollar coins frozen in a block of ice, serving free breakfast cereal for morning games, inviting fans to bring their detested disco records for an on-field demolition, or sending a midget into a Major League game.
Paul Dickson’s new biography of the owner, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick (Walker & Company, 2012), shows that there was far more to Veeck than Gaedel at the bat, Disco Demolition Night, or any other promotional stunt. Veeck had a genuine interest in serving his customers, in making a day at the ballpark an enjoyable experience for the whole family. The owners of the time judged his schemes as insults to the game. Even more than that, they resented Veeck’s willingness to mix with fans at the stadium gate and in the bleacher seats. Eventually, baseball’s owners came to recognize the wisdom of this so-called showman. The fan-friendly ballpark experience of today owes much to Bill Veeck’s innovations, from wider seats and widely available restrooms to specialty foods and promotional giveaways. At the very least, Veeck should be remembered for directing the renovations of Wrigley Field in 1936-37, a project that included building a brick wall in the outfield and planting ivy at its base (the Chinese Elms planted by the scoreboard didn’t survive the famous winds at the North Side park).
But perhaps Veeck’s greatest legacy was his commitment to the integration of baseball. As Paul explains in the book and the interview, Veeck had a bold plan to introduce black players into the Major Leagues already in 1942. League officials, however, intervened to scuttle the plan. Five years later, just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson first stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Veeck signed Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians, making him the first black player in the American League. The following year, he signed the legendary pitcher of the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige. And in 1949, Cleveland had 11 black and Latino players in spring training as well as African Americans working in the front office, the stadium staff, and the grounds crew. Veeck was indeed a maverick and a showman, but he was also a man of principle and resolve. Not many owners of sports teams merit such a description. Nor could many owners be the subject of such an illuminating and entertaining biography.