Self-described hustler and promoter Bill Veeck, Jr., former owner of the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians, and twice owner of The Chicago White Sox, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. People often mispronounced Bill's last name so to clarify that point he wrote a 1962 autobiography titled Veeck as in Wreck.
Bill was born in Hinsdale, Illinois on Feb. 9, 1914 and was also raised in Hinsdale. Bill attended all eight grades at the old Garfield Grammar School in Hinsdale but attended three different high schools including three semesters at Hinsdale Central High School where he was active in team sports. In 1932, he graduated from Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and enrolled at Kenyon College in Ohio the following fall.
Bill's father was William L. Veeck, Sr., a respected sports writer who was chosen by William Wrigley Jr. to be President and Treasurer of the Chicago Cubs from 1917 to 1933. Veeck, Sr. had the duties of what is today called a general manager in addition to other duties.
The leadership of the Cubs changed dramatically when William Wrigley died in 1932 and Bill Veeck, Sr. died in 1933. Philip Wrigley took over the president's job himself in 1934. Philip said later: "God knows, I don't want the job. If I could find another Bill Veeck [senior], I'd put him in there in a minute, but he doesn't seem to be available. No matter who's in there, if anything goes wrong, I'm going to get blamed for it, so I might as well take the job myself."
After his father died in 1933, Bill Jr. dropped out of Kenyon College to work for the Cubs in all sorts of odd jobs and, according to folklore, actually planted the vines in Wrigley Field in September 1937. But it was not his idea, it was something Philip Wrigley wanted done in a hurry to impress some visitors for the last series of the 1937 season. Bill Veeck, Jr. did some of the work himself but it was not done in one night as an exaggerated story in his autobiography suggests.
A nursery in Woodstock sent down a combination of Japanese bittersweet to plant along the bottom of the outfield wall and ivy vines were also planted and interspersed at the same time over a period of days. The bittersweet gave some suggestion of the green vines to come in 1938 and 1939 when ivy vines reached the top of the wall and grew thicker over a few years as we know them today.
In 1941, Bill and Cubs manager Charlie Grimm bought a minor league team in Milwaukee but did not own it for long. World War II interfered a lot with the player pool for baseball's minor and major leagues and the economics of the game forced some activities to be put on hold.
Bill was serving with the US Marines in the South Pacific during World War II when he was wounded in the leg in 1944. The leg had to be amputated and he learned to walk with an artificial leg.
In 1946, Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians. In August 1947, only four months after Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and break the color barrier in baseball, Bill Veeck hired Lary Doby as the second black player from the Negro Leagues and the first black player in the American League. In 1948, Veeck signed another former Negro Leagues pitcher, the legendary Satchel Paige, who at 42 was the oldest rookie signed in the major leagues.
That same year the Indians won the American League Pennant for the first time in 28 years and went on to defeat the Boston Braves in the World Series. But in 1949, Veeck needed cash for a number of reasons and had to sell the club.
In 1951, Veeck pulled one of the most famous baseball stunts of all time when he purchased the last place St. Louis Browns. He hired Eddie Gaedel who was 3 feet, 7 inches tall. Veeck put Eddie Gaedel into the line up to pinch hit in one game. The opposing pitcher fournd it impossible to throw to Gaedel's strike zone and the pitcher walked him. Browns fans loved the stunt but the American League president declared Gaedel's contract invalid the following day.
Even though the Browns attendance increased by sixty percent in 1952, the team struggled financially and so did Veeck. He sold the team in 1953 and the team moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Baltimore Orioles.
Veeck came back to baseball like a tornado in 1959 when he purchased the Chicago White Sox. He introduced the exploding scoreboard to set off fireworks for a Sox home run and was the first owner to put the names of players on the backs of their uniforms. Attendance doubled and the White Sox won their first league championship since the Black Sox scandal forty years before in 1919. But they did not win the world series. That feat would take still another forty-six years when the Sox swept the National League Houston Astros in four games in 2005.
Bill Veeck, Jr. loved owning the White Sox but had to sell in 1961 due to illness. In 1962 he wrote is autobiography called Veeck as in Wreck and in 1965 he wrote The Hustler's Handbook.
Bill operated a race track in Massachusetts for a while but in 1976, he once again put together another group of investors to buy the White Sox for a second time. This time he owned the team for five years until he sold it in 1981. In his last few years, Bill spent many of his summer days just hanging out with the bleacher bums in the Wrigley Field outfield grandstands where he could visit and supervise "his vines." He often had his shirt off on a warm day.
Bill Veeck, Jr. died on January 2, 1986 and his remains were placed at Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago. Bill's son Mike Veeck has continued his family's love affair with baseball and in recent years has been president of the St. Paul Saints AA Team in the Northern League. Mike is also "a hustler and promoter" in the best sense of the term. Like his father, Mike has the revolutionary idea that when people go to a baseball game, they should have fun.