The Working Catholic: Bill Veeck, a Catholic convert
(POSTED: 9/4/12) Who was a leader in the racial integration of the National Basketball League (the predecessor of the NBA), the first major professional league to integrate?
Who was the first owner to integrate the American Baseball League?
Who, uniquely among owners, paid Negro League teams when he signed a black player?
Who saved the New England Patriots from being moved to a Southern locale?
Who saved the Chicago White Sox from being moved to Seattle or Florida?
Who led the expansion of major league baseball into California?
Who was a pioneer in applying research to athletic performances?
Who was the first to put players’ names on the back of uniforms?
Who devised what is today called the jumbotron?
Who planted the ivy inside Wrigley Field?
Who first started radio call-in shows prior to a sports contest?
Who campaigned for sharing TV revenue among all teams in a league?
Who was the only sports executive to testify against the reserve clause?
Who scheduled some morning sports during World War II so that second and third shift workers could attend?
What sports executive tirelessly promoted charity games plus blood drives and war bond sales at events?
Who was the first to experiment with “the over shift” against a power-hitting left hander?
Who brought Satchel Paige to the major leagues, the oldest “rookie” and became Paige’s steady?
And who was despised by fellow executives when he owned the White Sox (twice), the St. Louis Browns and the Cleveland Indians plus the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, the Syracuse Chiefs and the Miami Marlins; and who was so despised that he was denied ownership in other sports enterprises?
The answer to all these is Bill Veeck (1914-1986), the subject of a new biography by Paul Dickson (Walker & Co., 2012).
Veeck did all these things and more despite losing a leg during World War II — U.S. Marine service for which he volunteered. Despite numerous operations, Veeck consistently treated his handicap (a wooden leg) as an amusing challenge. He once fell in an airport. A skycap asked if he needed a doctor. “No, Veeck replied. “Right now I could use a carpenter.”
To begin the 1976 bicentennial season, Veeck and other team officials entered the field dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers. His peg leg augmented the costumes; the promotion gained national attention. Veeck challenged others to races in the outfield, was an accomplished swimmer (including saving the life of a child in a pool), and regularly participated in anti-gun violence marches.
Veeck, as Dickson writes, was the last person to own a major sports franchise who was not personally wealthy. In other words, investing in a team was his livelihood. His profit did not come from TV revenues or from government subsidies or from tax maneuvers — although Veeck was the first to successfully convince the IRS that a player depreciated in taxable value over time. Veeck made his money from the sale of tickets and from the sale of beer and hot dogs.
Plus, he believed that a sporting event is entertainment. Thus Veeck was preoccupied with attendance numbers and employed his genius for promotions to keep fans coming, even when his teams were losing. His most famous promotion (or stunt) occurred in August 1951, when Veeck was an owner of the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns. A scheduled game was designed to highlight one of his corporate sponsors. Veeck promised national publicity. Surreptitiously but abiding by rules, Veeck signed three-
foot seven-inch Eddie Gaedel as a leadoff hitter. Wearing number 1/8, he took four pitches and, of course, drew a walk. The photo was printed around the world.
The other promotion for which Veeck is infamously remembered occurred at the old White Sox stadium in July 1979. Actually, Veeck was hospitalized when his son Mike devised Disco Demolition Night. Fans flinging LP records mobbed and destroyed the field, resulting in a forfeit.
In between what Dickson calls those bookends, Veeck executed hundreds of amusing, thoughtful and now regularly imitated promotions. He genuinely cared about fans and treated players and other employees with compassion and generosity. Veeck never lied in negotiations over contracts or in financial statements; although he didn’t play every card face up. Veeck was consistent about racial justice, without ever moralizing. He took integration one step beyond whatever was current practice, but did not try to shame anyone else. He could not afford to be a pushover, but gave second chances to many players and other employees who experienced personal difficulty.
Veeck had faults. He neglected his first marriage. But he realized and took responsibility for his mistake. The word “wreck” in his book “Veeck, As In Wreck” (Putnam, 1962) refers to that phase of his life. His second marriage to Mary Frances Ackerman was the reason for his conversion to Catholicism. The priest who instructed Veeck insisted on the couple’s six-month separation prior to the wedding and on a six-week intensive education program. Characteristically, Veeck called a fellow executive and a Catholic asking him to plead with the pope for an exception to the priest’s rules. After a laugh, Veeck submitted totally and seriously to the requirements. He read a 600-page book on Catholicism and with sincerity asked the priest about a footnote.
Veeck’s Catholicism was the workaday type. He stood up for justice. He conducted business honorably, knowing when and when not to compromise. He donated without fanfare. He suffered greatly yet gave noble example to the handicapped.
Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald, another Chicago legend, preached at Veeck’s funeral at St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park: Some people will say, “Yeah, [Veeck] prayed in the late innings when the score was tied.” But, Fitzgerald continued, “prayer is not just multiplying words. It is really a state of mind, an acceptance of our littleness before the Lord and our need for his help. I think Bill had that fundamental posture.”
In my opinion, Veeck is a Chicago saint.
By Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He edits a newsletter on faith and work for the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).