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.