MLB History: White Sox Owner, the Fascinating Bill Veeck

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In MLB history, there have been many different owners. These owners came from all kinds of backgrounds and featured many personality types. There is no doubt, though, that former White Sox owner Bill Veeck was a unique individual. He was truly one of a kind, a creative, innovative man who loved the game of baseball.

His love for baseball was demonstrated in all that he tried to do to make baseball fun and entertaining. Bill Veeck was at once a showman who truly believed that baseball, while a game, should also be entertaining for its fans. Sox fans loved him for that, as he never stopped trying new and creative ideas for them.

MLB History: Bill Veeck, Serial Owner

If one were to search MLB history, it would be nearly impossible to find an owner to match Bill Veeck. Certainly, nobody else in MLB history has owned three different teams. Veeck owned the White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the St. Louis Browns. Not to mention that he actually owned the White Sox twice.

Veeck’s ownership is as follows: Indians 1946-49, Browns 1951-53, White Sox 1959-1961, and White Sox 1975-81. This in itself is extraordinary, and perhaps speaks as much about the times as it does about the man. It is hard to imagine anything remotely resembling these ownerships happening in today’s game.

Nonetheless, Bill Veeck was a fan first, and an owner second, who obviously loved being in charge of baseball teams. Yet, while he was indeed an owner, his style was a far cry from many we see in professional sports today. In every sense Bill Veeck was a maverick, a title he wore like a badge.

MLB History: Bill Veeck And Innovation

Bill Veeck will be remembered by fans as the man who brought so many new and entertaining things to the National Pastime. Some of these things are etched into MLB history in a way that many fans may not even realize. Here are some of Veeck’s contributions to the game of baseball.

Adjustable Fences

When Veeck was a minor league owner, he came up with a unique idea to give his team a real “home field” advantage. On his field in Milwaukee, he installed a machine that allowed him to raise the fences when the visitors were batting, and lower the fences when the home team was batting. The league changed the rules the following day.

That wasn’t Bill Veeck’s only foray into the realm of adjustable fences. As the owner of the Indians, Veeck would move the fences in or out by as much as 15 feet between home series, depending on the visiting team. The American League made a rule banning this adjustment after the season ended.

The Clown In The Coaches’ Box

In 1946, as the owner of the Indians, Veeck, ever the showman, decided to add even more humor to the game. He hired Max Patkin, known as the Clown Prince of Baseball, to coach for a couple of innings during an Indians’ game. This promotional stunt entertained Indians’ fans but antagonized League officials. However, halfway through the 1947 season, as the Indians became competitive, Veeck decided that Patkin’s act was no longer needed. He let Patkin go.

Breaking The AL Color Barrier

On a more serious and relevant note, Bill Veeck, in 1947, bought the contract of Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles. Doby became the first African-American player in the American League, as well as the second in MLB history. Doby would later be named the White Sox manager during Veeck’s second tenure. Veeck also bought the contract of Satchel Paige, whose age at the time was anywhere from 40 to 50. Paige would go on to become the oldest pitcher in MLB history.

The Shortest Hitter In MLB History

In 1951, while Veeck owned the Browns, he thought it would be a good idea to add a new type of hitter to his lineup. In the second game of a doubleheader, Veeck had a seven-foot cake rolled out to the plate area. Out popped Eddie Gaedel, all three foot seven inches of him. Veeck sent Gaedel out to the plate. With a tiny strike zone, Gaedel walked on four pitches and went to first base. Veeck promptly pinch-ran for him, and Gaedel’s career was over.

The Grandstand Managers

Veeck followed up on his Gaedel stunt with a classic that many fans would appreciate. On August 24th, 1951, Veeck held the first and last Grandstand Managers Day in MLB history. He places over 1,000 fans in a special section behind the Browns’ dugout, with cards. These fans not only decided the starting lineup but they also answered yes or no on managerial decisions. This was Bill Veeck at his finest, truly allowing fans to be part of the game.

Name That Player

Another of Bill Veeck’s innovations that actually added to the game was one that may surprise fans. It is also one that may surprise many fans. During his first ownership term with the White Sox in 1960, they were the first team to put names on the backs of their jerseys. While unique at the time, that innovation has been copied by nearly every MLB team. So, this was one Veeck idea that was received positively by MLB.

Eddie Gaedel, Part Two

Also in 1960, Veeck reunited for another stunt with Gaedel. Veeck had the former hitter and three other midgets drop into Comiskey Park from a helicopter. They shook hands with Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox and offered to help them turn double plays.

Eddie Gaedel, Part Three

Veeck had one more plot for the diminutive Gaedel to help draw fans to the ballpark. On Opening Day, 1961, Veeck had Gaedel and other midgets serve as vendors at Comiskey Park. This was to appease fans who complained that they could not see around the taller vendors.

The Exploding Scoreboard

Veeck bought the White Sox in 1959, and in 1960 added perhaps his greatest accomplishment to baseball entertainment. It was then that the White Sox unveiled the first exploding scoreboard in MLB history. The scoreboard would explode every time a Sox player hit a home run. It remains iconic to this day for many White Sox fans. The White Sox still feature an exploding at their current ballpark, Guaranteed Rate Field, which replaced Comiskey Park in 1991.

MLB Players In Shorts?

On August 8th, 1976, Veeck added to his list of “accomplishments” in a new and unmatched way. On that warm summer day, the White Sox actually wore shorts in their game against the Kansas City Royals. It was the first and only time in MLB history that a team wore shorts during a game. The White Sox won the game, but the shorts were put away forever, to the joy of fans everywhere.

South Side Hitmen

In perhaps the most entertaining season for some fans, the 1977 White Sox followed up a 64 win season in 1976 by entertaining fans all summer. Well, they were entertaining at least until August. Veeck, who never had the wealth of his fellow owners, acquired Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble as one-year rentals. They faded late in the season, and Zisk and Gamble left for greener pastures. This team highlighted Veeck’s inability to ever fully compete with more well-financed owners. It was the beginning of the end of Veeck’s career as an MLB owner.

Disco Demolition Night

July 12th, 1979 was a night that will live in infamy for many. Lead by a local DJ (Steve Dahl, WLUP) with a strong distaste for disco music, Veeck and the Sox hosted Disco Demolition Night at Old Comiskey Park. Between games of a doubleheader, fans were invited to bring disco albums onto the field and burn them en masse. This was one promotion that did not end well, as the field was so badly torn up, that the Sox forfeited the second game of the doubleheader.

Minnie Minoso Extends His Career

Veeck, ever the showman and promoter, knew how to appeal to the fans. He also knew that Minnie Minoso was one of the most popular Sox players ever. Never one to miss a chance to bring in fans, he activated the popular Minoso late in 1976, so that Minoso could play in his fourth decade. He also brought Minnie back for a plate appearance in 1980, to make it five decades. He became only the second player in MLB history to accomplish the feat. Again, it didn’t help the Sox win any games, but it was vintage Veeck, playing to the fans.

Bill Veeck, The Executive

So, with all these “accomplishments,” one might surmise that Veeck’s career as an owner was just a series of publicity stunts. There is no doubt that Veeck did many things that did not contribute to winning a game on the field. That is indisputable, as Veeck was always a showman and promoter. Yet, he did accomplish a few things as an MLB executive.

In 1946, after Veeck bought the Indians, they drew 1,000,000 fans for the first time in their history. In 1948, the Indians won the World Series, something they have not done since. Veeck was named Executive of the Year in that same season.

In 1959, after Veeck bought the White Sox (for the first time), the White Sox drew an all-time record of over 1,400,000 fans. They also won the AL pennant for the first time in 40 years. Veeck was named AL Executive of the Year, again. The White Sox drew even more fans in 1960, as defending AL champs.

So, “Barnum Bill” Veeck did accomplish more than just drawing fans to the ballpark with promotions and stunts. He may have inherited good rosters, but the fact remains that two of his teams enjoyed success on the field during his tenure. Winning a pennant was no small feat for those Indians or Sox teams. Attendance records speak volumes of how the fans appreciated winning them.

MLB History: Bill Veeck and Race

The entirety of Bill Veeck’s career cannot be told without a look at his record on MLB and race. As mentioned, he introduced the first African-American player in AL history. However, this was not a cheap publicity stunt, as one might think. Bill Veeck was ahead of his time when it came to race relations.

Veeck had a plan in place to buy the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the 1943 season. However, his plan was much bigger than just buying a baseball team. He was convinced that it was wrong for MLB to ban black players at the same time that black soldiers were fighting in World War II. So, his plan was to hold an all-white spring training, then show up on Opening Day with a primarily black team.

However, commissioner Kenesaw Landis caught wind of the plan, and the Phillies were taken over by the National League. The league sought and found a new ownership group, so Veeck’s plan to integrate MLB was foiled. Yet, the story illustrates the true heart of Bill Veeck when it came to racial matters.

Bill Veeck: One Of A Kind

No matter how anyone feels about the career of Bill Veeck, his legacy cannot be ignored. Many fans consider him to have been a clown, a self-promoter, or worse. Yes, his career was certainly a colorful one, and winning may not have always been his top priority. However, his place in MLB history is secure, as he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

All fans should appreciate his dedication to making the fan experience as fun as it could be. He gave everything he had to the game he loved. Win or lose, he was a fan, just like us. He earned his place in the Hall of Fame and in MLB history. Congratulations to the Maverick.

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Mike Fisk is a lifelong baseball fan. For him, there is nothing like being at a baseball game, with the sights, the sounds, the smells. Writing about baseball is a bonus!