[Photo Credit: Francis Miller via It’s a Long Season]
My first reaction when a copy of Paul Dickson’s new biography, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” lands in my lap is to be curious if justice has been done to him, before turning a single page. I touch base with Mike Veeck, the great man’s son http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-bill-veeck-20120401,0,4034572.story(a man of a few radical and wonderfully ridiculous notions of his own), to inquire if the descendants approve. “We’ve read it and enjoyed the easy flow and the research,” Mike replies. “Mr. Dickson has won me over with his gentle prose.”
Nice first pitch. So into the bio I go, wondering if there’s a chance in heck that this can be a proper bookend to one of the best of all sports books, “Veeck as in Wreck,” the long-ago collaboration of Ed Linn with his subject that established Veeck as a man who held nothing back, denigrating his own contemporaries in such a way that owners such as Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley were appalled by him.
The proof of goodness is usually in the details, so it becomes clear right off the bat that Dickson has written an authoritative work. It does take on a bit of a term-paper feel in part, since Dickson did need to rely heavily on anecdotes of old, Veeck being deceased for 26 years and therefore unavailable for beery, cheery late-night chats. But the stories are well documented and well told, so Veeck, like his kin, likely would approve.
The Job, Chicago Style
By John Schulian
The best advice I ever got about business came from my old baseball coach, Pete Radulovich: “Nobody plays for free.” My lawyer passed Pete’s wisdom along to the brass at the Sun-Times when the New York Times was courting me, and the next thing I knew, I got a raise and a deal with Universal Press Syndicate, which had made a fortune with “Doonesbury” and a host of other wildly successful comic strips. Funny how a little leverage works, isn’t it?
Close to 100 papers bought my column at one point, some because they actually used it, like the Atlanta Journal and Miami News. The talent-rich Boston Globe, on the other hand, bought it just to keep it out of the Boston Herald’s hands. Whatever their motivation, those big city papers all paid a decent buck. It was the small papers, however, the ones in Iowa and Louisiana, that relied on me most heavily for a national voice, even though they paid only a couple of dollars a week. But I stopped worrying about the price when John Ed Bradley, that most poetic of sports writers, told me his father used to cut my column out of his hometown paper and mail it to him at LSU.
With syndication, I was traveling the same road that Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray had before me. That was an honor in itself, but Universal Press made things even better by publishing my first book, “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” It’s a collection of my boxing writing that came out in 1983 and has achieved what is best described as cult status. God knows it was never a big seller, but there are still people who speak of it fondly, not just old goats of my vintage but young writers and fight fans who stumble upon it. I’m not sure it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with any book by Hugh McIlvanney, the superb British boxing writer, but I’m still grateful that people haven’t used it for kindling.
For all this talk about the fruits of being a columnist, it’s high time I said a something about the job itself. At the Sun-Times I wrote four a week–Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They ran 1,000 words apiece, which was standard for my generation but looks like literary abuse compared to the three that today’s columnists get by with. Of course the old-timers thought guys like me were pansies because they had written as many as seven a week. Red Smith, when he worked for the Philadelphia Record, even covered a beat in addition to writing his column. And then there was Arthur Daley of the New York Times, who was writing seven when his editor cut his load to six. Instead of celebrating, Daley thought his boss didn’t like him anymore.
Whether you’re doing seven columns a week or three, it’s still tough to do them right. Anybody can fill space, whether it’s an overmatched kid or an old hack running on Jack Daniels fumes. But if you really care about the craft right down to the last syllable, you inevitably wind up feeling like you’re married to a nymphomaniac: as soon as you’re finished, you’ve got to start again. For all the joy that attends a column you get right, whether it’s funny or sad or angry, you’re still staring into a black hole when you wonder what you’re going to do for an encore. There were times I started worrying before I finished the column I was working on. Other than that, it was the best job on the paper.
I’ve always felt lucky that I worked in Chicago, which, in addition to being a great city, overflowed with sports to write about, professional and college. The National League was on the North Side, the American on the South. I could write about the Bears any time of year. I could have done the same with Michael Jordan, but I was gone by the time he arrived. The best I could do in basketball was DePaul, which had a great run in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Better yet, most of the time I was there, the teams were terrible-–and terrible teams are a hell of a lot more fun to write about than good teams. When a team is good or, worse, great, most everybody connected with it turns secretive. They don’t want to run their mouths for fear the fates smite them. But when a team is bad, the fear is gone. Players start to reveal their true selves, whether they’re hilarious or soulful or complete assholes. There’s always something going on, always somebody running his mouth, always somebody begging to have his ears pinned back.
There isn’t a more reliable bunch of losers in all of sports than the Cubs. And yet, in my Chicago years, they had a world-class right-hander in Rick Reuschel and a great reliever in Bruce Sutter and a batting champion in Bill Buckner, whose bad legs should have qualified him for handicapped parking and who was the bravest player I ever covered. Each was a good guy in his own way. Not the life of the party, by any stretch of the imagination, but honest and insightful and professional in surroundings that would have turned lesser men into drooling loonies. There was one year when, miraculously, the Cubs were still in the pennant race on September 1 and Buckner came to Wrigley all fired up for a game he thought would sell the old joint out. Instead, it was almost empty. “It’s like they turn the lights out every August 31st,” he said. He deserved better. They all did.
No, let me amend that. There were exceptions. There were those Cubs who were such chowderheads that they were like batting-practice fastballs for a columnist. The biggest one of all was Dave Kingman. Of course you couldn’t say much bad about him the year he hit 48 homers, but he showed what a wasted blob of protoplasm he was when he spent most of the next season lolling on the disabled list. He’d come in early in the morning for treatment on whatever his injury was, but he wouldn’t hang around to watch the game, ever. One day, one of the team’s good guys pulled me aside and told me Kingman was hustling jet skis at a big summer blowout called ChicagoFest when he should have been at the ballpark. I did my due diligence as a reporter and then ripped him as a feckless, narcissistic slug. I thought he’d try to strangle me the next time our paths crossed, but he didn’t say a thing. He just looked scary, the way he always did: 6-foot-6, with a permanent Charles Whitman stare.
Herman Franks did two tours as the Cubs’ manager while I worked in Chicago. It’s hard to believe a bigger lout ever darkened baseball. Some days his greatest joy in life seemed to be throwing his dirty laundry at the clubhouse man and telling him, “Get the brown out, Jap.” The clubhouse man was, as you probably guessed, Japanese.
To say Herman was an uninspired manager would be understatement. He consistently made a bad team worse, and when I kept calling him on it in print, he whined to friends back home in Salt Lake City. That’s right. We came from the same town. We even went to the same high school, albeit 30 years apart. “Get this goddamned Schulian off my back,” Herman begged a friend with whom he had played CYO ball. Not a chance. Herman was just too much fun to write about. There was, for instance, the day he said the difference between Jose Cardenal, who’d been traded from the Cubs, and Greg Luzinski was the difference between ice cream and horseshit. I seized the moment and wrote that the difference between Cardenal and Herman was the difference between ice cream and, taking my readers’ sensitivities into consideration, horse manure. The next time I was beside the batting cage at Wrigley, Herman challenged me to a fight. When he saw that I couldn’t stop laughing, he stomped away.
I wasn’t wild about George Halas, either. Forget the Monsters of the Midway and the Decatur Staleys and the running board of the car that he and the NFL’s other original owner posed beside. All of that was real, but it became part of a mythology that served Halas as a protective shield. He was about 1,000 years old when I worked in Chicago, and he could give you an E.T. smile that was supposed to pass for charm, but underneath it all, he was still a tightwad and a mean SOB. For years he employed a team physician who did nothing but screw up players’ knees. Big name players like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. I always wondered about Halas’s feelings about race, too. He was, if I recall correctly, the next-to-last NFL owner to integrate his team. And even at the end of his reign, he publicly tortured Neil Armstrong, an eminently decent man who happened to be a less than wonderful head coach. I’m not sure Halas a word of what I said about him, but it still felt good to tee off on the old bastard.
All things considered, I’d rather be remembered for the work I did that wasn’t the product of outrage–the magazine pieces about Josh Gibson and Chuck Bednarik and the old Pacific Coast League, the newspaper columns about Muhammad Ali and Pete Maravich and a high school basketball star named Ben Wilson whose dreams were canceled by a stranger with a gun. But raising hell was part of the job, too, and I did my share of it. Maybe I even liked it too much. I remember Mike Royko telling me there’s no sense in peeling a grape with an ax. Sometimes I forgot to heed his advice. But other times the grape deserved the ax.
Unquestionably the toughest column I ever wrote was about Quentin Dailey, a basketball player the Bulls shouldn’t have drafted. He’d terrorized a student nurse at the University of San Francisco. Didn’t rape her, mind you. But left her with bad dreams that still may not have gone away. The Bulls drafted him No. 1 in 1982, and I went to the press conference where they introduced him. I was the only one there who asked if he had had any regrets, was getting any counseling, was doing anything positive to make amends for the harm he had done. And he turned out to be utterly unrepentant. I went back to the paper and wrote the harshest column I could. It might be the harshest column I’ve ever seen by anyone. Then I waited to see what would happen.
There were calls and letters that accused me of being a racist, lots of them. But there was also an invitation to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show as a defender of women. I accepted, of course. NOW thanked me and started making plans to picket the Bulls’ games. Reggie Jackson called and said he’d paid for Dailey’s lawyer because his niece had been going out with Dailey. Bill Veeck called and said he wanted me to know he was in my corner. Best of all, my wife said she was proud of me.
Still, it felt like I was breathing thin air, maybe having an out-of-body experience. I felt terribly self-conscious. It wasn’t like seeing my face in an ad on the side of a bus, and it wasn’t like my wife nudging me in a restaurant and saying, “Those people over there recognize you.” It was disconcerting. When I walked to a courthouse a few blocks from the Sun-Times to take care of a ticket-–I’d raced a stoplight and lost-–I couldn’t help wondering if some cop was going to get in my face and call me a racist motherfucker. And if I would have the stones to hold my ground and say that race had nothing to do with what I wrote. It never happened, though. Life went on, the way it usually does.
Bill Veeck’s Veeck as in Wreck is one of my favorite baseball books, and one of my favorite passages is his hilarious, delighted description of the time he sent little person Eddie Gaedel up to bat as a publicity stunt. Obviously, the idea of exploiting a little person for entertainment sits less a bit less well with us these days, and there are a few parts of the story that make me cringe. But Veeck’s account is without malice – he is simply thrilled to be getting around baseball’s rules and upsetting the game’s more stuffy, self-serious types. There’s an excerpt online, and you should click as fast as your fingers can manage to read the whole thing if you haven’t already, but here’s the setup:
Eddie came to us in a moment of desperation. Not his desperation, ours. After a month or so in St. Louis, we were looking around desperately for a way to draw a few people into the ball park, it being perfectly clear by that time that the ball club wasn’t going to do it unaided. The best bet seemed to be to call upon the resources of our radio sponsors, Falstaff Brewery. For although Falstaff only broadcast our games locally, they had distributors and dealers all over the state.
It happened that 1951 was the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American League, an event the league was exploiting with its usual burst of inspiration by sewing special emblems on the uniforms of all the players. It seemed to me that a birthday party was clearly called for. It seemed to me, further, that if I could throw a party to celebrate the birthdays of both the American League and Falstaff Brewery, the sponsors would be getting a nice little tie-in and we would have their distributors and dealers hustling tickets for us all over the state. Nobody at Falstaff’s seemed to know exactly when their birthday was, but that was no great problem. If we couldn’t prove it fell on the day we chose, neither could anyone prove that it didn’t. The day we chose was a Sunday doubleheader against the last-place Detroit Tigers, a struggle which did not threaten to set the pulses of the city beating madly. Rudie Schaffer, the Browns’ business manager, and I met with the Falstaff people—Mr. Griesedieck Sr., the head of the company, Bud and Joe Griesedieck and their various department heads—to romance our project. “In addition to the regular party, the acts and so on,” I told Bud, “I’ll do something for you that I have never done before. Something so original and spectacular that it will get you national publicity.”
Naturally, they pressed me for details. Naturally, I had to tell them that much as I hated to hold out on them, my idea was so explosive I could not afford to take the slightest chance of a leak.
The Falstaff people, romantics all, went for it. They were so anxious to find out what I was going to do that they could hardly bear to wait out the two weeks. I was rather anxious to find out what I was going to do, too. The real reason I had not been willing to let them in on my top-secret plan was that I didn’t have any plan.
What can I do, I asked myself, that is so spectacular that no one will be able to say he had seen it before? The answer was perfectly obvious. I would send a midget up to bat.
Actually, the idea of using a midget had been kicking around in my head all my life. I have frequently been accused of stealing the idea from a James Thurber short story, “You Could Look It Up.” Sheer libel. I didn’t steal the idea from Thurber, I stole it from John J. McGraw.
As Veeck had hoped, Gaedel’s strike zone was “just about visible to the naked eye.”
In the second game, we started Frank Saucier in place of our regular center fielder, Jim Delsing. This is the only part of the gag I’ve ever felt bad about. Saucier was a great kid whom I had personally talked back into the game when I bought the Browns. Everything went wrong for Frank, and all he has to show for his great promise is that he was the only guy a midget ever batted for.
For as we came up for our half of the first inning, Eddie Gaedel emerged from the dugout waving three little bats. “For the Browns,” said Bernie Ebert over the loudspeaker system, “number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier.”
Suddenly, the whole park came alive. Suddenly, my honored guests sat upright in their seats. Suddenly, the sun was shining. Eddie Hurley, the umpire behind the plate, took one look at Gaedel and started toward our bench. “Hey,” he shouted out to Taylor, “what’s going on here?”
Zack came out with a sheaf of papers. He showed Hurley Gaedel’s contract. He showed him the telegram to headquarters, duly promulgated with a time stamp. He even showed him a copy of our active list to prove that we did have room to add another player.
Hurley returned to home plate, shooed away the photographers who had rushed out to take Eddie’s picture and motioned the midget into the batter’s box. The place went wild. Bobby Cain, the Detroit pitcher, and Bob Swift, their catcher, had been standing peacefully for about 15 minutes, thinking unsolemn thoughts about that jerk Veeck and his gags. I will never forget the look of utter disbelief that came over Cain’s face as he finally realized that this was for real.
I learned today (through Keith Law) that Gaedel’s great-nephew Kyle Gaedele is a 6’4″ junior outfielder at Valparaiso University. This made my day significantly brighter. He hit .373 last year and led the conference in hits and total bases, and while I don’t know what that really means in the “Horizon League,” it sounds pretty good to me. I wish Bill Veeck was around to sign the kid, because you know he wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
The other day I mused offhandedly about how cool it would be to own a baseball team, and also how completely impossible. And that made me think of minor-league or independent-league team ownership, which is still kind of a possibility for mere mortals – and which, these days, has a lot more room for quirk. Given the choice between two clubs, as a general rule of thumb, you’re probably better off joining the one that doesn’t require Bud Selig’s approval.
Back in the fall I read Neal Karlen’s Slouching Towards Fargo, which is an affectionate portrait of the St. Paul Saints circa 1996 and 1997, an independent Northern League team owned in part by Bill Veeck’s son Mike (decades after his Disco Demolition Night debacle) that boasts a pig delivering baseballs to the mound, a nun in the stands offering massages, appearances by part-owner Bill Murray, sumo-wrestling contests for opposing managers between innings, and much more. “Fun Is Good,” is the Saints’ motto, and it’s refreshing to watch a team that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Bless the Yankees, but you know it would do them good to lighten up once in a while). Daryl Strawberry, who redeemed himself with the Saints shortly before joining the Yankees and salvaging his career, serves as something of a focal point in the book, representing the Saints’ function as a haven of second- and third-chances for baseball types and locals; there are also draft holdouts, washups, career minor leaguers and female pitcher Ila Borders. The Saints have room for just about everyone.
Author Neal Karlen also tries to tell the story of his own sort of redemption, as he was initially sent to Saint Paul by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner to dig up mud and write a story eviscerating Bill Murray and Strawberry. But there’s little suspense or originality in the story of how he ultimately grows a conscience once away from the big city. This part of the book was less successful, for me – partly because Karlen’s writing (and, to be fair, editing – the book is very unevenly paced) is not up to the standards of his material, and partly because his view of cynical and immoral New York City media types vs. big-hearted Midwesterners struck me as overly pat. He frequently brings up petty grudges against other writers or media-world denizens, and he’s too on-the-nose when writing about how baseball and the Saints will heal us all; it’s a theme that would have benefited from subtlety. Still, Karlen does a good job of chronicling the fascinating collection of individuals who cluster around the Saints, a haven for nonconformists, and whatever his flaws as a writer, they don’t prevent the charm of the team itself from coming through loud and clear.