Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Most Groundbreaking Owner

When people think of Wrigley Field, one image that pops into most of their minds is the ivy on the the outfield wall. When people think about the first black player to play in the American League, they think of Larry Doby. And when people think of some of the most disastrous promotions in Major League Baseball history, one that may come to mind before others is Disco Demolition Night for the Chicago White Sox. All of these are in thanks to one man: Bill Veeck.

Veeck grew up in Illinois. His father, Bill Veeck, Sr., was the president of the Chicago Cubs. Seeing what his father did for work, the young Veeck wanted to follow in his footsteps. Veeck never finished high school, but after passing the standardized College Board Exams (the precursor of the SATs), he was admitted to Kenyon College in Ohio.

In 1933, shortly after enrolling, Veeck’s father tragically died, leading him to leave college to become club treasurer of the Cubs. Throughout his time as treasurer, he attended night school, earning degrees in business and accounting at Northwestern University, as well as a degree in mechanical drawing at Lewis Institute. At the same time, Veeck was dating Eleanor Raymond. They married in 1935.

Veeck made his first major contribution to baseball in 1937. That year, he authorized the planting of ivy on Wrigley Field’s brick outfield wall.

Wrigley Field’s Ivy Wall Today. / Science Connected Magazine

In 1941, Veeck left the Cubs to become half-owner of the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. During his time as owner, he would organize numerous promotions, such as giving away live animals and holding weddings at home plate. These tactics were shown to be successful both financially and on the field, as the Brewers won three pennants in the five years Veeck owned the team. In 1945, Veeck sold the Brewers at a profit of $275,000.

At the same time as being half-owner, Veeck also served in the marines in World War II. He was enlisted from 1942 until his injury in 1945. Veeck was discharged that year when a recoiling artillery piece crushed his right leg, eventually leading to his entire leg being amputated.

Upon his return from serving in the U.S. military, Veeck became the majority owner of the Cleveland Indians, using $268,000 of his profit from selling the Brewers to buy the team. In 1947, Veeck signed Larry Doby of the Negro Leagues, making him the first black player in American League history. Doby would debut just a few months after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier.

Larry Doby Signs with Bill Veeck and the Indians. / American Heritage

Just one year later, Veeck would sign Satchel Paige. Paige, who was already a legend in the Negro Leagues, was 42 years old at the time of this signing, making him the oldest rookie in MLB history. That same year, in 1948, Veeck pieced together an Indians team that won the World Series, defeating the Boston Braves, 4 games to 2.

Success looked to be in Veeck’s future, but then personal troubles in the form of a messy and expensive divorce from Raymond led to him selling his stake in the Indians at the end of the 1949 season.

Once the divorce was settled, and he had married a new woman, Mary Frances Ackerman, Veeck looked to become an owner again. This time, he was able to purchase the St. Louis Browns. His first order of business was to attempt to run the St. Louis Cardinals out of the city. Although the Cardinals were the more successful team on the field, Veeck felt he could play mind games with the cross-town rivals. He started by hiring former Cardinals legends Rogers Hornsby and Marty Marion as managers, as well as Dizzy Dean as his announcer. He also took Sportsman’s Park, the home to both the Browns and the Cardinals at that time, and decorated it with Browns memorabilia. As part of the leasing agreement for Sportsman’s Park, the owner of the Browns was also the owner of the field. So, Veeck had free reign to do whatever he wanted with the stadium.

Veeck had some of his most memorable publicity stunts while as the owner of the Browns. His most memorable with the St. Louis team was his acquisition of Eddie Gaedel. Twenty-six-year-old Gaedel was 3-foot-7 and 65 pounds. Veeck signed him for the Browns’ August 19, 1951 game against the visiting Detroit Tigers. In the bottom of the first inning, Gaedel led off, wearing uniform number “1/8.” He stepped into the box against Tigers starter Bob Cain, who walked Gaedel in four pitches. Geadel was immediately subbed out of the game, completing the day of the shortest man to ever play in the major leagues. Although the Browns would lose that day, 6-2, Veeck saw it as a win from a publicity standpoint.

Eddie Gaedel in His Only MLB At Bat / ESPN

In the later part of Veeck’s stint with the Browns, he contemplated moving the franchise to Milwaukee. The issue was that the Milwaukee territory was already claimed by the Boston Braves. To force the Braves to move, Veeck purchased the claim to the Toledo area. He told the Braves that they either needed to move to Milwaukee and the Brewers move to Toledo, or Veeck was going to move in. The Braves eventually decided to move to Milwaukee.

During Veeck’s tenure as owner of the Browns, attendance skyrocketed. However, the team was still in the bottom of the American League in both 1951 and 1952. Veeck had no choice but to sell the team to developers in Baltimore who would move them and change their name to the Orioles.

Veeck was back in 1959 when he purchased the Chicago White Sox. In his first season as owner, he led them to a World Series berth. The White Sox would fall to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. In addition to the on-field success, Veeck also garnered a record 1.4 million paying fans. He also installed baseball’s first “exploding” scoreboard, and he added players’ last names to the backs of their jerseys.

Due to declining health, Veeck sold the White Sox in 1961, only to purchase them again in 1975. In 1976, he brought back Minnie Miñoso for four at-bats. Miñoso, who was the star outfielder for the White Sox during Veeck’s first stint as owner, and who had been retired since 1964, could now lay claim to have played in Major League Baseball in four different decades.

That same year, Veeck authorized the use of uniforms with shorts for an August 8 game against the Kansas City Royals. Despite the ridiculousness and impracticality of the shorts, the White Sox won the game, 5-2. They would wear them twice more that season, on August 21 and 23, but they have not made an appearance since.

Goose Gossage Delivers a Pitch on August 8, 1976, During Chicago’s 5-2 Win over the Royals. / Diamond Images

Veeck was also the one to convince then-White Sox television announcer, broadcasting legend, and future Ford C. Frick Award winner Harry Caray to start singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning of games. This was a tradition that Caray would continue through the end of his White Sox stint and over into his time as the Cubs’ announcer.

Possibly Veeck’s biggest blunder came on July 12, 1979 against the Detroit Tigers. That day, Veeck decided to hold Disco Demolition Night. At this point in time, disco was waning in the mainstream, and there was a major “Disco Sucks” push. Desperate for attendance at that point, Veeck decided to make tickets 98 cents for fans that brought disco records. Those records would then be collected and blown up on the field in between that day’s doubleheader.

Steve Dahl, a local radio DJ from whom Veeck got the idea of Disco Demolition Night, was hired to be the MC of the event. Dahl went onto the field, and directed the already antsy crowd of about 48,000 towards a giant box full of their disco records. A fuse was lit, and the box exploded, leading to shards of the records flying all over the field. “And records went everywhere, and parts of the box caught on fire,” Dahl said in an interview for WBUR about the night.

From there, chaos ensued. The fans jumped the fences and ran onto the field. Some lit parts of the field on fire. Chants of “Disco sucks!” echoed throughout. The riot police were called in to control the crowd. The White Sox had to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader, making it only the fourth forfeiture in modern MLB history.

ESPN Story on Disco Demolition Night

After Disco Demolition Night, Veeck slowed down with the promotions. His real last one came in 1980, when he re-signed Miñoso for two at-bats, making him only the second player in MLB history to play in five decades.

Veeck sold the White Sox for the last time in 1981. He passed away from cancer in 1986 at the age of 71.

Bill Veeck left his mark on the game of baseball. In his early years, he showed the importance of presentation through his ideas with the ivy in Wrigley Field, as well as the importance of desegregating baseball with his signings of players from the Negro Leagues to the Indians. In his later years, he proved promotions can garner revenue and success in any market. Between 1947 and 1964, all three non-Yankee teams to win the American League pennant were either directly or indirectly affected by Veeck: the Indians in 1948 and 1954, and the White Sox in 1959.

Veeck earned his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 as one of the most important owners and characters in the game’s history.

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