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Happy 105th, Bill Veeck!

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Our man of the people succeeded even with his mistakes

You can’t beat fun at the ol’ ballpark: And no one embodied that more than Bill Veeck.
Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

On a sunny Sunday in the mid-’70s, a girlfriend and I drove up from South Bend for a doubleheader against the Royals. (Yes, children, once upon a time, in a land not far away, fairy tale though it may seem, baseball owners did not try to gouge every possible nickel out of fans and even occasionally scheduled two games in one day, with one ticket giving admission to both. You could look it up.)

I hadn’t remembered the date, but checking records it must have been Aug. 8, 1976. It turns out that was a famous day in White Sox history: The first time the team wore shorts. That was deemed an abomination, but the Sox have an historical win percentage of .667 with knees showing, and barely over .500 with knees covered ... so was it? Sure, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation — necessarily — but shorts sure seem worth another shot.

I had completely forgotten about the shorts, because of something that happened during the second game.

Our seats were in the upper deck, two sections up the first base line from the press box. At one point I looked over toward the box, and pointed out the bald old man sitting in the closest seat. “Look,” I said, “that’s Bill Veeck, the owner of the Sox and a true baseball legend.”

She wasn’t impressed. Not yet.

It was a really hot day, and the beer vendors were kept busy. So, sure enough, a fight broke out in the section between us and the press box. One bunch of big, burly guys, first shouting at another, then engaging in outright fisticuffs. Then a side door to the press box opened, and out limped Veeck on his one good leg, throwing himself right into the fray.

Seconds later, Veeck was flying one direction, his glasses another. Seconds after that, a cadre of security forces appeared, hauled off the fighters, and picked up Veeck. Someone got his glasses, and he limped back into the box.

Asked later by a reporter why he did that, Veeck said he couldn’t let the brawlers ruin the day for the fans.

Imagine that — a baseball owner putting himself in serious harm’s way for the sake of the fans. Sure, Jerry Reinsdorf is allowed to play the age card, but would anyone else in the White Sox organization do that today? In any organization?

But that was Bill Veeck.

Veeck has had more written about him than anyone this side of a man with whom he had much in common, Don Quixote. Given that, I won’t go into all the history, the huge successes, including the ’59 Sox ... or the failures, the hundreds of gimmicks from Eddie Gaedel to exploding scoreboards to moving fences depending on the opponent, an action intended neither by God nor Abner Doubleday.

It would be wrong, though, to let Veeck’s 105th pass without at least mentioning how important he was in breaking baseball’s color line, or how he was the only owner to support the end of the reserve clause — even though when free agency came, it doomed his ability to compete, given his comparably meager financial resources.

Whatever Veeck’s shortcomings, they never compared to his strengths and character. And those strengths sure provide a contrast to the character abyss of the current ownership of the team we will not name.

It also may be time to come to his defense on what is often deemed the lowest point of his promotional life — July 12 ,1979, Disco Demolition Night. Yes, it’s true that there was insufficient consideration of the aerodynamic qualities of LPs and the airheadedness of adamant rock fans, but maybe the event deserves a second look. The Sox having to forfeit a game was of no importance, given a 73-89 season, and Disco Demolition Night may actually have had a huge societal benefit.

Don’t take my word for that — go to the ultimate source for all information. Under “Disco,” Wikipedia says, “It began to decline in the United States during 1979-80, and by 1982 it had lost nearly all popularity there.” Disco Demolition Night July 12, 1979. Decline of disco 1979-80. Once again, correlation does not necessarily mean causation — necessarily — but if it hadn’t been for a little torn turf in the Comiskey outfield, every store you enter could be blaring the Bee Gees, every batter who has two strikes on him could get a jolt of “Stayin’ Alive,” every pitcher in a jam could get “I Will Survive,” and we’d still be inundated by posters of John Travolta in a weird white suit.

Thank Bill Veeck for that not being the case.

That night was an example of Veeck’s belief that “If you depend solely on people who know and love the game, you will be out of business by Mother’s Day.” I don’t like that belief, and I imagine few SSS readers do, but it’s an unfortunate reality, which is why the owners who decried Veeck way back when now bury fans in screwy promotional gimmicks from Dog Days to Kiss Cams.

Veeck began ownership in the minors, where he developed many of his gimmicks, and in the minors today baseball is almost an incidental interference with the foofaraws. I was a columnist in Dayton when the Dayton Dragons were created in 2000. The Dragons are a Reds affiliate that has become a sports phenomenon, with 19 consecutive years of sellouts despite being mediocre at best most years. Their loud, constant, in-park promotions consistently echoed through downtown.

Like Veeck, I would occasionally wander around the stands and listen to the chatter, and, like Veeck, was doomed to disappointment. The chatter covered every subject imaginable ... except baseball. The only reference to the game under way would be some Little League coach who brought his team to sit on one of the park’s grassy knolls, pointing out that while they could generally learn by watching the players, it might be best not to use that nice Mr. Dunn in left field as a role model for catching fly balls.

Bill Veeck, baseball guy first and promoter second, would have heartily applauded the observation.