- - Friday, April 13, 2012

BILL VEECK: BASEBALL’S GREATEST MAVERICK
By Paul Dickson
Walker & Co., $28, 448 pages

If P.T. Barnum had applied his marketing and promotional skills to baseball, rather than the circus, he might have provided serious competition to Bill Veeck.

However, because Barnum kept his focus on three-ring-centered entertainment, Veeck had the role of baseball’s impresario-in-chief to himself. The three teams that he owned (the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox) were mostly undistinguished on the playing field. However, they often set the standard for efforts to reach out to fans.

Veeck, who died in 1985, wrote several noteworthy and enjoyable memoirs and has been the subject of several biographies. Therefore, one wonders whether there is much that acclaimed baseball writer Paul Dickson can add in “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.”

The book doesn’t break a great deal of new ground, but it is a fine introduction to the subject for the generation of fans who weren’t around during the Veeck era, which spanned the late 1940s through the early 1980s. Mr. Dickson has seemingly read everything by and about Veeck and successfully goes beyond the caricature. The result is a balanced portrait of the man.

The book includes descriptions of Veeck’s most outrageous innovations - such as putting a midget up to bat, disco-demolition night and creating exploding scoreboards. Those techniques, Veeck argued, were needed to keep baseball competitive with other forms of entertainment. In addition, since many of his teams were mediocre at best (and several were downright awful), it forced him to be innovative.

Veeck was always accessible to fans and often sat in the bleachers. He even worked the crowds at games of the White Sox’ cross-town rivals, the Cubs.

As a teenager, this writer visited Wrigley Field in 1977 and Veeck was sitting in the bleachers holding court. Even fans who disliked the White Sox (and there were many in the Chicago Cubs’ home that day) loved Veeck. He was charming and extremely opinionated. When I told him I was a Yankees fan, he teased me about my poor judgment.

Veeck’s battles with the Yankees, the game’s winningest franchise, were frequent and often heated. He felt the game was unfairly tilted toward wealthier teams and sought innovations that would attract fans to less distinguished teams. He was an early supporter of interleague play, wild-card teams and other changes that eventually became commonplace.

Veeck was also ahead of his time on racial relations. He called for the integration of baseball many years before it actually happened, and eventually he put his money where his mouth was. In 1947, while the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he signed Larry Doby, several months after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson.

Veeck gave his player considerable moral and other kinds of support during a time when in many places Doby couldn’t stay at the same hotel as other team members and incurred other mistreatment. In addition, Doby’s career started inauspiciously. He struggled as an infielder. However, Veeck saw Doby’s promise and had staff members work with him so he could play the outfield.

The Doby story has a happy ending. Doby eventually thrived as a center fielder and would go on to have a successful career that resulted in his being elected to the Hall of Fame.

On a personal level, Veeck had a generally happy family life and gave generously to charities and community organizations. In addition, he served with distinction as a Marine during World War II (volunteering even though he was older than most of his fellow servicemen) and was severely injured. His right leg was eventually so hurt it had to be amputated. He spent much of his adulthood with a wooden leg, into which he built an ashtray. He often wrote or met with other people who were severely injured to offer them encouragement.

Veeck, who was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame, was a master at both style and substance. Fans of baseball history will learn a great deal from, and find much to enjoy in “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.”

• Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist whose reviews have appeared in the Weekly Standard and the Boston Globe.

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