Sunday, April 5, 2015

Another Opening Day

Chicago is abuzz this week with great anticipation over the upcoming seasons for the major league baseball teams on both sides of town. A cynic might say, "haven't we heard that all before?" But a true fan (short for fanatic), cannot be a cynic, at least not this time of year.

For me, this year's opening day brings with it a touch of melancholy as here in this city, we're still mourning the recent loss of two of our most beloved players, Ernie Banks and Minnie Miñoso.

On a personal note, high school is right around the corner for my boy, meaning that his Little League career will end soon, bringing to a close a happy chapter of our lives together.

Like every recurring event on the calendar, another opening day brings to mind the passage of time and memories of things past. Of the handful of major league opening days I've attended in my life, two come immediately to mind. Both of them were historic games for the home team, the Chicago White Sox. I was at the inaugural game of US Cellular Field, (then called new Comiskey Park), in 1991, obtaining the hard-to-get ticket from a friend in exchange for photographing his son's Bar Mitzvah. In the end it turned out my friend got the better end of the bargain as the Detroit Tigers ruined the opening of the new park by pummeling the Sox 16-0. To make it worse, the demolition of old Comiskey Park across the street, a place I had spent countless happy hours of my life, had just begun. The south-east corner of the grand old ballpark was already gone, exposing a depressing view of the rubble-strewn right field where Babe Ruth once patrolled.

A more poignant memory is opening day 1976 at old Comiskey. My friend Jeremy Pollack had two tickets of his father's, and he invited me to join him. His dad was an advertising guy who had some pretty sweet grandstand seats between third base and home plate. I remember those seats well as it my first and only time in that old ballpark where I could see the entire field without some kind of obstruction blocking the view.

That opening day was historic because it was the first game of Bill Veeck's second run as owner of the White Sox. If you don't know him, you should; Bill Veeck was perhaps the single most colorful character in the history of baseball. Veeck was born into the game as his father, William Veeck Sr. was the president of the Cubs under the Wrigley family. After Veeck Sr. died, his son worked for the Wrigleys and was responsible for the building of two of the most beloved features of Wrigley Field, the hand operated scoreboard, and the ivy covered outfield walls.

Veeck Jr. became a renegade owner who stood the game on its head with his devil-may-care approach to running a team. For years he was derided by his fellow owners and some baseball purists for the circus-like atmosphere he brought to the game. He's probably best known for stunts like sending a midget up to bat when he owned the old St. Louis Browns in 1951, and the infamous Disco Demolition Night here in Chicago in 1979,

But Bill Veeck's legacy goes much deeper than that. After World War II when he owned the Cleveland Indians, he singly-handedly integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby who would become only the second African American to officially play in the big leagues in the twentieth century. While other American League teams steadfastly refused to include black players, Veeck continued to do so, including his signing of the first black Latin American player in the MLB, Minnie Miñoso, and the man who by some accounts was the greatest pitcher of any color to ever play the game, Satchel Paige.

Veeck's purchase of the White Sox after the 1975 season would be his last hurrah. As Jeremy and I took our seats before the game, who should pass right by us but these three gentlemen reenacting the famous Archibald MacNeal Willard painting, The Spirit of '76 (aka Yankee Doodle). That's Veeck himself, peg leg and all, on the right playing the fife. The flag bearer was Paul Richards who managed the team that year. The tableau vivant was in honor of the American Bicentennial, as the game took place just months before the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Upon close examination of the photograph, you can probably find Jeremy and me in the stands at the top right corner of the picture.

I just finished reading a splendid biography of Veeck, written by Paul Dickenson titled: Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, picking it up on the recommendation of someone who told me the book's appendix addressed an issue I've been interested in since I first wrote about it in this space two years ago. The issue is this: did Bill Veeck make a serious attempt to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, intending to fill the team with star players from the Negro Leagues, only to have the plan quashed by MLB execs?

Bear in mind that Jackie Robinson wasn't signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1945 and would not make his debut with the team until two years later. If the story is true and Veeck had actually pulled it off, then he, not Branch Rickey, would have become the man lionized as the Moses who led baseball out of the dark ages of the color-line.

The story of Veeck's failed attempt to buy the woebegone '43 Phillies, was challenged in an article that appeared in a publication of the highly regarded Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). The article titled, A Baseball Myth Exploded: Bill Veeck and the Sale of the 1943 Phillies, alleges that Veeck made the story up. The authors' case for their accusation was that the only written documentation they could find of the event was Veeck's own description of it in his autobiography, Veeck-- as in Wreck.

I won't go into details but Dickenson makes a very good case for Veeck by debunking the SABR article, which has also been discredited by other baseball historians, including SABR members. In the end it hardly matters since with or without the Phillies episode, Veeck's credentials as one of the most important individuals responsible for integrating the game, are unassailable.

In his biography, Dickenson portrays Bill Veeck as a man of deep courage, generosity, and good will. Coming from a privileged background, he could have easily avoided military service in World War II, or at least sought out a cushy officer's commission. Instead, despite his age and family status, he insisted upon entering the Marine Corps as an enlisted man. On top of that, he requested a transfer from the backup position at Bougainville where he was assigned, to the Third Division which was about to invade the island of Guam in the South Pacific. The transfer went through but as fate would have it, word of the transfer didn't reach Veeck in time, so he ended up manning an anti-aircraft gun as part of a defense battalion, rather than being put directly into harm's way as he had wished. That transfer snafu more than likely saved his life. Still, injuries incurred during his service in Bouganville ultimately cost him much of his right leg below the knee, hence the wooden leg you see in the picture.

Despite Veeck's fame as promoter extraordinaire, his baseball acumen was right up there with the best of them. Consider this: between 1947 and 1964, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant in all but three seasons. Two of those seasons, they lost the pennant to teams owned by Bill Veeck, the 1948 Indians and the 1959 White Sox. The third was the '54 Indians, a team which still had vestiges of the Cleveland team that Veeck once owned. Despite being under-capitalized in his second go-around with the White Sox, in 1977 Veeck had the brilliant idea of obtaining big time players in their option year before they became free agents and commanded exorbitant money. That "rent-a-team" became known as the "South Side Hit Men" and, filled with sluggers like Oscar Gamble, Ralph Garr and Ritchie Zisk, led their division for most of the season, ultimately winning 90 games, and creating more excitement in Chicago baseball than had been seen in years. And the heart of the 1983 White Sox, the first Chicago team to make the post-season since Veeck's "Go Go Sox" of '59, was made up of personnel (such as right fielder Harold Baines and manager Tony La Russa), who were brought to the team by Veeck.

But what made Bill Veeck truly stand head and shoulders above his peers in baseball, was his accessibility to the fans, and the belief that he was nothing without them. Perhaps his greatest promotion was inspired by a tongue-in-cheeck letter from a Cleveland Indians fan by the name of Joe Early who wrote:
Now they want a Bill Veeck Night. It’s a good idea, but here’s another suggestion. Let’s have a Joe Earley Night. I pay my rent, and my landlord spends it on things that keep business stimulated. I keep the gas station attendant in business by buying gas regularly. I keep the milkman in clover by buying milk. He uses trucks and tires and as a result big industry is kept going. The paper boy delivers the paper, wears out a pair of shoes occasionally and the shoemaker wins. My wife keeps a grocer and a butcher (don’t we all) in business and the department stores as well. A lot of people depend on me (and you) so let us all get together, and send in your contributions for that new car for Good Old Joe Earley Night.
In response, on September 28, 1948 at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, in the midst of a hotly contested pennant race, Veeck took the microphone and before 60,000 fans, officially declared that evening: “Good Old Joe Earley Night”, in honor not only of Joe, but of all the hard working Joes who represented the vast majority of the fans of the team. The crowd went wild, especially after Veeck handed out gag gifts to the Earleys including a broken down old horse, and a new house, actually an outhouse wheeled in from center field. The whole event wasn’t a complete gag, the team then presented the couple with a brand new convertible and other valuable take home gifts, as well as a handsome check in their names to their favorite charity, cancer research.

Until the day he died, Bill Veeck's telephone number was listed. I know this for a fact because a former workmate of mine, in perhaps a slightly altered state, picked up the phone early one morning and dialed the Veeck residence in Hyde Park to express some concerns about the White Sox. Veeck's wife Mary Frances picked up the phone (as Bill was probably still out on the town), and the two of them talked baseball for about an hour. Mrs. Veeck won my friend over to her husband's cause as she continues to do to this day as a spry 98 year old.

In the end, Veeck couldn't compete with the multi-millionaires who were taking over the game. He sold the White Sox in 1980 to the group that still owns the team. Put off by their comment that they were going to turn the team into a "first class operation", Veeck for a while boycotted the Sox for the team on the north side and their "friendly confines." There he could be found, usually shirtless in the bleachers he built, sitting in the cheap seats, holding court with the rest of the fans whom he felt knew the game the best. According to Veeck: "the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats." When the Cubs decided to sell the bleacher tickets in advance, thereby making them available to the highest bidder in the secondary ticket market, he left them too.

Bill Veeck is responsible for many aspects of baseball that we take for granted these days. He was an early supporter of the designated hitter rule, and a fervent critic of the reserve clause. He introduced the exploding scoreboard, players' names on the back of their uniforms, as well as many of the side show attractions that appeal mostly to kids and indifferent spectators. To many traditionalist fans, myself included, many of the things Veeck either supported or introduced to the game annoy us to no end. But Veeck understood that if a baseball team were to depend upon only the serious fans, it would be "out of business by July." To that end, one of his proudest achievements was vastly improving the condition of the ladies rooms of his ballparks. Those efforts paid off in spades as many of the attendance records his teams set were due in a large part to the numbers of "female members of the species" (as he preferred to call them) in the seats.

Despite all the antics and his puckish nature, deep down Bill Veeck truly had the best interest of the game, the fans and its players at heart, often at his own expense. Veeck understood that God did not hand down the rules of baseball on a tablet to Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown. He was the kind of guy who respected the spirit of the game, but didn't necessarily respect the letter of its rules, which he felt had been used time and again to strangle the game and the people who play and watch it. Toward the end of his book, Paul Dickenson quotes Veeck's son Mike who commented on how his dad would have reacted to his induction into the National baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. The quote I think sums up Veeck pretty well. Mike Veeck said:
My father would have loved Cooperstown. He would've loved to set up a table on Main Street, put a case of beer next to a sawhorse, and sign autographs for free while the other inductees charge $30 a copy.
His dad was one of the good guys in an industry where such things are few and far between.

We lost Bill Veeck in 1986. Ernie Banks and Minnie Miñoso are gone, and as of late last year, so too is my friend Jeremy. Because of their presence, the four of them all left the world a much better place than they found it.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that it ties together the past, the present and the future seamlessly. This is especially true on opening day when we remember fondly those who went before us, as our hope springs eternal, looking forward to a brilliant season, all the while playing the game in real time.

We trudge on without our fallen heroes knowing full well that everything we have we owe to them. The best thing we can do is pass on the stories of their adventures to those who will be around when we're gone too.

That's baseball, that's life.

Now lets go out and play some ball.

No comments: