Dickson (The Unwritten Rules of Baseball, 2009, etc.) delivers an engaging biography of Bill Veeck (1914–1986), an innovative, irascible and progressive gadfly within the staid world of baseball.
For six decades, from the 1930s to the ’80s, wherever baseball was played, talked about or voted on, Veeck was there. Born into baseball—his father had been president of the Chicago Cubs—Veeck would go on to own and run four baseball teams. In each case, he turned moribund franchises into fan favorites through promotions ranging from ingenious to silly, from exploding scoreboards to having a little person (a midget) take an at-bat—and much, much more. But he also had a keen eye for talent and produced winning teams—his Cleveland Indians won the World Series in 1948. Color was no barrier to Veeck, as he signed the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby, who would later become the second black manager in the big leagues. Off the field, he was a lifelong champion of civil rights and of political causes he thought right; he opposed the Vietnam War. All of this brought him fan adulation but fellow owners’ enmity, as his irreverent insistence that baseball might be fun seemed to threaten the sanctity of the game. Dickson suggests his progressive stance on race might have been the greater irritant: In 1950, the only black players in the American League were on Veeck’s Indians. Ever fast with a quip, Veeck returned the fire, once saying, “I’ve always felt that when most owners stick their heads in the sand, their brains are still showing.” Dickson expertly evokes Veeck’s populist, garrulous public persona, while at the same time showing the private pain he endured as a World War II injury caused him to have countless amputations of portions of his right leg, leading to deterioration and ruin of the rest of his body, but not his spirit.
Veeck is not as well remembered as he should be. Dickson’s book is a skillful corrective.