Why did it take so long for the most colorful and perhaps most influential figure in baseball history to get a definitive biography? Probably because it took more than 20 years after Bill Veeck's death (in 1986) to put all the facets of his amazing life together. With "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," Paul Dickson, author of several superb baseball books, has done more than write the best baseball biography so far this decade. He's written an important piece of baseball history.
Walker & Co. ($28).
Veeck did so much to change baseball and even the country that it's amazing Mr. Dickson has captured so many of his accomplishments in one volume. Born in 1914 in Chicago, Veeck learned baseball from his father, William Sr., who became president of the Chicago Cubs and was so popular that when he was dying of leukemia, he received two cases of French Champagne, "compliments of Al Capone."
Bill Jr. sold popcorn at Wrigley Field and, in one of those apocryphal stories about him that appear to be true, suggested planting ivy on the brick outfield walls.
As an executive with the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, he developed some of the promotional ideas -- free lunches, vaudeville acts, swing bands -- that he would perfect in the major leagues. (His most egregious act with Milwaukee was constructing a chicken wire fence that he moved in for his team's batters and back for opponents; the league, he said, "declared it illegal, immoral, and I stopped."
During World War II, recalled his sergeant, "Veeck was a great Marine, gung-ho all the way." He lost his right leg to an artillery shell. Veeck simply accepted a wooden leg, cutting holes in it to serve as an ashtray, and went on to own the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox.
Veeck pricked the stuffed shirts of baseball's establishment with stunts that the fans loved. He hired Max Patkin, "The Clown Prince of Baseball," as a coach. He brought in Dizzy Dean, whose homespun English mangled the King's, as an announcer for the Browns. And, of course, in 1951, he sent Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf, to bat in a major league game. His most popular gimmick may have been giving thousands of fans placards so they could vote on game decisions. (The Browns won, 5-3.)
"Veeck," writes Mr. Dickson, "loved the game of baseball, both on the field and outside the lines. He would do anything to accomplish what he believed would make it better, no matter how outrageous. Increasing the fans' happiness and having fun were his sacraments."
He did far more than simply make Larry Doby the first black player in the American League. He gave the near-mythical Negro League star Satchel Paige, who was at least 41 years old, his chance to pitch in the major leagues. Veeck cared as much about his players as the fans; in 1976 he reactivated Minnie Minoso, one of the heroes of the 1959 "Go Go" White Sox, so he could qualify for a better pension. (Minoso, age 50, got a hit in eight at-bats.)
And he talked Harry Carey into singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch, thus creating an instant baseball tradition.
Perhaps Veeck's most courageous action was standing with Curt Flood in 1970 when he sued baseball for the right to free agency. No other active player dared cross the owners to testify for Flood. Veeck, writes Mr. Dickson, "suspected -- and was reminded by others -- that his testimony in support of Flood might be another nail in the coffin regarding his chances of getting back into baseball." But Veeck fought his way back anyway for one more stint as owner of the White Sox.
"Bill Veeck" is a book to match the man -- hearty, irreverent and outrageously entertaining.
Sportswriter Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," to be published by Crown this year.