By John Owens, Tribune reporter
February 9, 2014
Mary Frances Veeck had to think about the question for a few seconds: How would her late husband of 35 years, the legendary baseball executive Bill Veeck, handle being 100 years old?
"Bill at 100?" she finally responded during a recent phone interview from the retirement complex where she lives on Chicago's South Side. "Well, we're all trying to imagine him at 100, because he was always so active. But I'm sure he would have been fine being that age if he were still alive."
On Sunday, Mrs. Veeck will have a low-key get-together with family and friends to commemorate the 100th birthday of her longtime husband, who was born on Feb. 9, 1914, in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood.
They'll celebrate the legacy of one of the most influential sports executives in the 20th century — the man who broke the color barrier in the American League by signing Larry Doby to play for the Cleveland Indians in 1947 and four years later famously had a 3-foot-7 inch Chicago actor named Eddie Gaedel pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns.
But while Veeck is recognized internationally, it is Chicago that claims the man who owned the White Sox twice and was a longtime resident in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where he died in 1986.
"He was real – a genuine person, and his personality helped identify Chicago to the world," said veteran television producer Tom Weinberg, a friend who co-produced the documentary "A Man for Any Season" about Veeck in 1985.
"He really loved living in Maryland (where his family resided from 1961 to 1975)," added Veeck biographer Paul Dickson. "But he had to go back to Chicago because it was where he belonged. All his friends were there – he was just a fixture in the city."
The Veecks' party on Sunday won't approach the centennial-related hype that has already started for Wrigley Field, which opened as Weeghman Park just a few months after William Louis Veeck Jr. was born.
But to some longtime baseball fans, Veeck's 100th birthday deserves the same hype that the Friendly Confines is getting. That's because attending a baseball game on both the North and South sides would be unimaginable without Veeck's influence
It was Veeck who, as a 23-year-old front-office executive for the Cubs, devised and oversaw the radical reconstruction of the Wrigley bleachers in 1937, which included the ivy-covered walls and hand-operated 150-foot scoreboard.
It was Veeck who helped revive the White Sox, during his initial ownership of the team from 1959 to 1961. In 1959, the Sox became the first Chicago team to reach the World Series in 40 years. And during Veeck's initial stint with the team, he also introduced the first-ever exploding scoreboard and made his team the first to display the names of the players on the back of their uniforms.
And it was Veeck who saved those same White Sox from moving to Seattle, when he gathered together investors to reacquire the team in December 1975 and keep it at Old Comiskey Park. During that second ownership stint, from 1976 to 1980, he introduced even more timeless innovations — including then-Sox announcer Harry Caray's singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch, which is still a staple on the South Side and has been more famously adopted by the Cubs, first with Caray, then with a steady stream of singing celebrities.
"Baseball in Chicago was special to Bill," said Roland Hemond, who was Veeck's general manager during his second ownership stint with the Sox and is now a special adviser for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"That's why he came back the second time," Hemond added. "It would have broken his heart if the Sox left town, so he made every effort to keep the team there."
Still, while Veeck's spirit will hover over Chicago baseball for years to come, some observers say his memory is somewhat slighted in the city today. True, a portion of Shields Avenue has been renamed Bill Veeck Drive near U.S. Cellular Field. And the press box at the Cell is also named after Veeck.
But after that …
"He's invisible," wrote David Fletcher, founder of the Chicago Baseball Museum, in an email to the Tribune. "The Sox press box is named after Bill with a plaque near its entrance honoring him, but the Sox fans don't see this. The Cubs have done nothing to commemorate their former Hall of Fame employee (Veeck was inducted posthumously in 1991), who is responsible for their most iconic features at Wrigley Field: the landmark-status scoreboard and ivy on the walls."
"It is very sad that such a historical figure is virtually ignored in the city where he was born and died," Fletcher wrote.
For their part, the Cubs say that they will honor Veeck as part of Wrigley Field's 100th anniversary, most likely during a homestand May 16-21, when the club will celebrate the ballpark of the 1930s.
But some observers say more could be done to permanently honor Veeck at Wrigley, where the owner was a frequent bleacher spectator in the 1980s, holding court and handing out homemade lamb chops to unsuspecting fans.
"I know it's not an intentional slight, it's more of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, but some sort of plaque should be in Wrigley Field recognizing Bill," said veteran broadcaster Tom Shaer, who covered Veeck's last years in Chicago. "His involvement with the ivy and the bleachers is a big deal."
It was at Wrigley Field where Veeck learned the business of baseball under his equally innovative father, William Veeck, the Cubs president from 1919-33 who was responsible for double-decking the stadium and pioneered Cubs radio broadcasts); and club secretary Margaret Donahue, the first female executive in major league baseball and the first person in pro sports to sell season tickets to patrons.
Bill Veeck developed a lifelong fascination for concessions while working at Wrigley, first as a vendor, and eventually as head of concessions in the late '30s, when he employed a young scorecard vendor named Jack Ruby, who would later kill JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and bought paper cups from a salesman named Ray Kroc, who would later found McDonald's.
"Concessions was his thing," said Roger Wallenstein, a beer vendor for Veeck during his second ownership stint with the Sox. "So when we would talk after games, he was always interested in how I did and when the sales were the most brisk. Which made me feel like a big shot."
In addition to the ballparks, the memory of Veeck lives on in other parts of the Chicago area.
The five-bedroom colonial-style home where he grew up in Hinsdale — and where Veeck and his first wife, a circus performer named Eleanor Raymond, lived in an adjoining coach house — was recently up for sale for $2.5 million.
Not too far away in Willowbrook, Eric Soderholm, who was one of Veeck's first free agent signings in 1976 with the White Sox, has framed a letter that Veeck wrote to the player's parents, praising Soderholm as "a fine ballplayer and just as important, a gracious gentleman."
"That was typical Bill," said Soderholm, who recalled being shocked when he first met Veeck, who had his right leg amputated because of injuries suffered while serving with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II.
"This was in the winter of '76, when he was in the hospital (at Illinois Masonic) being treated for emphysema," Soderholm said. "I opened up the hospital door and he was sitting in his bed smoking, using the ashtray in his wooden leg for the ashes.
"He was larger than life, like a cartoon pirate."
In Hyde Park, one of Veeck's favorite haunts, Powell's Book Store, is still around. A few years ago, Mary Frances Veeck sold the store more than 200 books from her husband's personal library, including some signed by close friends and acquaintances, include Studs Terkel, boxing impresario Burt Sugar and Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman.
"He's an icon for the South Side," said Powell's Book Store owner Brad Jonas said. "It's exciting to hold on to something that he touched."
Veeck is also an icon for the longtime fans who attended Sox Fest recently at the Palmer House. These clear-eyed fans remember Veeck's accomplishments, while they also remember his faults — including trading away talented future All-Stars like Johnny Callison, Norm Cash and Earl Battey for washed-up veterans during his first ownership stint and Veeck's troubles maintaining competitive teams during his second stint.
"The dynamics of escalating salaries due to the advent of free agency (in 1975) made it difficult for him to stay in business," said White Sox historian Richard Lindberg.
Longtime Sox fans treasure those last Veeck years for the fun he brought to the ballpark, from the competitive 1977 South Side Hit Men to the promotions, including the controversial 1979 Disco Demoltion event planned by Veeck's son Mike, in which disco records brought in by fans were blown up by radio personality Steve Dahl. That event ended with an on-the-field riot and a forfeited game.
"I remember once in 1977, I bought tickets in the upper deck and they weren't very good," recalled Sox fan Terrence England, 60, from Rogers Park. "I wrote Veeck a letter complaining and he send us a credit for two extra tickets for a future game. I can't imagine any other owner doing that."
Another set of artifacts from Veeck's time in Chicago is in the Irving Park neighborhood, where Weinberg runs a video archiving operation known as Media Burn.
Here, Weinberg has 250 videotapes featuring Veeck from 1953 to 1986, including the pilot for an early '50s show called "Bill Veeck's Front Office," which would have been a daily show in which the owner talked about baseball issues. There are also appearances on network shows like Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" and Weinberg's own shows that he produced with Veeck, including "A Man for Any Season" and "Time Out," a sports talk show featuring Veeck that ran on PBS-Channel 11 in 1984 and 1985.
Weinberg was one of the many investors that the owner lined up when he bought the Sox in 1975.
"When the deal went through, there was a celebration in the Bards Room (the room in Old Comiskey Park where Veeck entertained the press)," Weinberg recalled. "I remember Richard J. Daley showing up — he was a huge Sox fan and he loved Veeck."
"The first thing he did (after buying the team) was take off the hinges on his office door," Weinberg said. "Anyone who wanted to could walk into his office could do that."
Veeck famously feuded with current White Sox owners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf, after they acquired the team from Veeck in 1981 and Einhorn said the new ownership's goal was to make the Sox a "class operation," which some took as a slap at the Veeck era.
But Mary Frances Veeck, who is 93, is now friendly with Reinsdorf — she got a World Series ring when the Sox won it all in 2005. Her grandson, Night Train Veeck, is now an account executive in sales for the White Sox.
"I can't believe he's been gone this long," Mrs. Veeck says about her husband. "I've already had about a dozen calls from friends outside the family (about his 100th birthday)."
"We (celebrate his birthday) differently every year," she added. "Not everyone will be together, but it's a very important day for all of us."
Check out vintage photos of Bill Veeck at http://www.chicagotribune.com/veeck and vintage video of Veeck at http://www.chicagotribune.com/veeckvideo.
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