On March 16, 1953, baseball’s owners refuse to allow Bill Veeck to move his struggling St. Louis Browns to Baltimore, which forces Veeck to sell the team. Veeck was the clown prince among baseball owners, prone to boneheaded stunts as well as inspired pranks, all aimed at bringing people to the ballpark and making a baseball game as entertaining as possible.
Bill Veeck was born February 9, 1914, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, William Veeck Sr., was president of the Chicago Cubs, and Bill spent his childhood soaking up the business of big league management. When his father passed away, Veeck dropped out of college and went to work for the Cubs. He planted the ivy that grows on the walls of Wrigley Field before leaving the team and buying the Milwaukee Brewers of the International League. After selling the Brewers for a $275,000 profit, Veeck broke into major league ownership at age 32 when he organized a syndicate to buy the Cleveland Indians. In 1946, his first year as an owner, he put the Indians on the radio, put wandering minstrels into the stands, instituted a babysitting service at the game and imported Hawaiian flowers to give to female fans at Ladies Day. Thanks to these efforts, the Indians drew a major league record 2.6 million fans in 1948, up from an abysmal 400,000 two years earlier.
In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in the major leagues, Veeck signed Larry Doby to be the first African-American player in the American League. In 1948, Veeck signed the ageless Satchel Paige, also African-American, to pitch. The additions, along with player-manager Lou Boudreau, second baseman Joe Gordon and star pitchers Bob Lemon and “Bullet” Bob Feller, helped the Indians to victory in the 1948 World Series. Veeck became a folk hero in Cleveland, having taken a losing franchise to the pinnacle of baseball achievement.
Veeck was forced to sell the Indians in 1949 to finance a divorce from his first wife. He wasn’t away from baseball for long, however: In 1951 he bought the moribund St. Louis Browns. It was in St. Louis that Veeck staged his most famous stunt, sending little person Eddie Gaedel into a game as a pinch-hitter. In spite of Veeck’s many attempts to energize the Browns fan base, though, he had a losing team on his hands that just could not draw a crowd. Veeck sought to move the team to Baltimore, where he had a deal for a new stadium in a city hungry for a major league team. However, Veeck was as reviled by owners as he was loved by many fans. Some owners feared Veeck’s desire to share television and radio revenues equally among teams, thus eliminating the advantage of the larger and more profitable franchises. Furthermore, Veeck’s reputation for tomfoolery, his refusal to wear a tie and stunts like hiring the baseball clown Max Patkin as his third base coach alienated him from the staid old boys’ club of baseball ownership. Although the owners blocked Veeck from moving his team to Baltimore, they immediately approved of his sale of the franchise to a group of investors in Baltimore. Veeck later said of the decision, “I got the message.”
Veeck went on to own the Chicago White Sox twice, first from 1959 to 1961, and again from 1975 to 1981, during which time he helped the team break attendance records. He died of lung cancer on January 2, 1986. Veeck, who used a wooden peg as a leg due to a World War II injury, was fond of saying “The only fear I have is of termites.”