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The South Side Could Use Cuban, Too

Rick Telander's column about Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the Sun-Times last week stirred up memories of former White Sox owner Bill Veeck. The teaser on the back page of the print edition claimed that "Cuban might have been better suited to change Cubs' fortunes than Ricketts family is, but baseball didn't want him."

According to Telander, the commissioner and owners (he named Jerry Reinsdorf as being a mover and shaker) didn't approve of Cuban. Too unpredictable; a loose cannon; not to be trusted. And ya think Reinsdorf wanted the likes of Mark Cuban only 70 blocks away via the Red Line?!?

The owners didn't want Bill Veeck either. When he put together a syndicate to purchase the Sox in the mid-'70s, the lords were similarly unimpressed. Even though (or should I say because?) Bill had owned and operated the Cleveland Indians (1946-49), St. Louis Browns (1951-53), and the White Sox (1959-61), he was an outsider for some of the same reasons as Cuban.

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Bill was the owner who sent midget Eddie Gaedel up to bat for the Browns, had cow-milking contests (the players were the contestants) between games of a doubleheader, introduced the exploding scoreboard, gave unsuspecting fans a crate of live lobsters or 10,000 cupcakes, and multitudes of other promotional gimmicks which were fun and entertaining. And not to be remiss, he also won pennants in Cleveland (1948) and Chicago (1959).

A native Chicagoan - he worked for the Cubs in the '30s when his father was president of the team - Bill sought to re-purchase the Sox, who were in dire straits with little talent and fewer fans. His initial bid was rejected for subpar financing, said the owners. So Veeck raised more capital, went back to the lodge, and this time they couldn't turn him down without looking like the hypocrites that they were. He had met all of their criteria. Hence Veeck and his group took over the team for the 1976 season.

Much of this is common knowledge for those of us who witnessed this piece of White Sox history, but reading about and watching Mark Cuban during the NBA playoffs made me think how ownership of professional sports franchises has changed over the decades.
Veeck's office was at the ballpark, and he had the door to it removed, letting people know that he was accessible. If you didn't believe it, he also listed his number in the phone book. Bill used to claim that he would get calls in the wee hours of the morning from tavern patrons who phoned him to settle arguments about baseball trivia.

There was no owner's box or suite at Comiskey Park. Bill's dad was an old newspaperman, and Bill enjoyed the company of the writers. So he sat in the press box for home games in full view of anyone who cared to locate him.

And when his health permitted - Veeck lost his right leg as the result of a World War II wound - seeing him strolling around the ball park (often in the cheapest seats where he felt the most astute fans sat) talking to fans was not an uncommon occurrence. This was no marketing ploy. He valued what fans had to say about the team, and he simply loved hanging out with the folks who supported his ballclub.

He was a devoted and extremely competent beer drinker. After games Veeck would retire to the Bard's Room at Comiskey to talk baseball with the writers, his manager, and coaches. While others might tire and fade, Veeck - the man had incredible energy - would keep the beer flowing for hours, and the conversation never waned. And he would be back at the ballpark the next morning for another day of plotting ways to improve the team and entertain the fans.

Most owners today keep a low profile. Mark Cuban is not of that persuasion, nor obviously was Bill Veeck. Many of his evenings were spent in the community, giving talks to promote the ballclub. No group was too small or inconsequential for Bill to schedule an appearance. The few times you see owners today usually appear as items in newspaper columns.

Veeck at Comiskey.JPG (Enlarge)

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I was teaching at a small, independent school in 1978, and we constantly faced money problems. The Sox had regained some buzz, primarily with the 1977 South Side Hitmen, one of the most exciting seasons in team history.

We invited Bill to deliver a talk at a fundraising event. He agreed to do it, but that April night was cold and wet. By the time he arrived, we had no more than 30 or 40 people waiting for him. We knew that the co-owner of Sterch's tavern on Lincoln Avenue was a Sox fan, so we phoned over there and asked him to inform his customers that Bill Veeck was about to speak at 721 N. LaSalle, the Catholic Charities building where we rented space for our school.

It took the better part of 12 minutes for a few more half-inebriated fans to walk in the door. Bill couldn't have cared less if there had been 5, 50, or 500 people listening to what he had to say. He used some standard stories, most of which were about his days with the inept Browns.

For instance, a fan once called the Browns' office to find out the starting time for the next day's game. "What time can you make it?" was Veeck's response. Then the fan asks about the best seat available. "How about second base?" Bill would say. "We're not using it."

Of course, having Bill Veeck regale us with his anecdotes and stories was a huge hit. But there was more. Since we had plenty of beer left over, Bill stuck around until midnight or so with maybe a half-dozen of us. This is where memory betrays me thanks to Edelweiss beer, a Chicago-brewed wonder long gone from the scene.

I do recall that - to my consternation - the conversation was not about baseball but best-selling books. Veeck was a voracious reader who digested as many as four of five volumes a week. Apparently, since he was with a school group, he figured that his audience was as interested in literature as in baseball.

Bill Veeck was a legitimate baseball operator. He didn't have other business interests. He couldn't rely on capital from other ventures to offset the expense of owning a ballclub. He wasn't rich in a material sense. But he understood pro sports for what they are: entertainment. He sought to create a good time for each fan who walked into his ballpark.

After selling the team to Reinsdorf's group in 1981, Bill didn't go to Sox games but was a regular visitor to the Wrigley Field bleachers before he died in January 1986. His contributions to the game are far too numerous to mention here, and it was fitting that the Veterans Committee voted Bill into the Hall of Fame in 1991. He would have been shocked, but pleased.

"Life was not wasted on Bill Veeck," said Bill's wife Mary Frances at the HOF induction ceremony. "He was born with a great joy of living, tremendous energy, integrity . . . He was such fun to be around."

Minny Skirts
The Sox were not much fun to be around last week in the Twin Cities. The losses keep piling up for the Sox against the Twins - four straight this season in which our athletes have been no-hit and have scored a total of three runs.

I get tired of hearing that the Twins play the game the way it's supposed to be played. The hype is that they make few mistakes, that their organization is somehow superior to their opponents, and that Ron Gardenhire is the second coming of Joe McCarthy. Ozzie calls them piranhas.

The team they put on the field last week - with names like Revere, Casilla, Nishioka, Hughes, Rivera, Repko - was not one to instill fear. Try Ortiz, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Crawford, and Ellsbury to create butterflies. And the White Sox swept three games from those boys in Fenway just three weeks ago.

Alright, the Twinkies are playing better baseball, their pitching is improving, and they're gaining confidence by compiling a 14-3 record in June. But they're still human, and Morneau, Mauer, and Kubel didn't even play against the Sox last week.

The Twins are a formidable opponent during the regular season, but their recent post-season record is pitiful. Since the LCS in 2002, the Twins have dropped six consecutive playoff series', losing 19 of 22 games. So much for the Twins' mystique.

The Sox have 13 games remaining with Minnesota including a four-game set at home prior to the All-Star Game. The Twins will come back to Earth. If the Sox hope to move up in the Central Division, they'll need to swing the bats and treat Minnesota more like sardines than piranhas.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Barbara Finn:

Your memories of Bill Veeck and your skill in conveying them are a real pleasure and treasure, I might add. Thanks to your writing you honor the man and the extraordinary spirit, creativity and humanity he brought to baseball. Thanks, Roger.

2. From John Harrold (Olsen):

The article about Bill Veeck is excellent! I got to sit behind him at a Cubs' game once. People do not get any better than he was.


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