Thursday, October 20, 2005

Reminisces on the White Sox

Blogs are all about self-indulgence, right? So it is OK to use it to reminisce.....

With the Chicago White Sox in the World Series for the first time since 1959, I can't help but think about my days in Chicago and how fortunate I was to get to know a man who arguably had the most significant impact on the sport of major league baseball than any other person - former White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Bill Veeck was a giant of a man. He was larger than life in every respect. Most people have a passing familiarity with him, because he will forever be remembered for his most famous stunt - putting a midget to bat in a major league baseball game. That was indeed a fabulous story, but Bill Veeck the man was so much more than a showman with a genius for marketing stunts.

He was the most learned person I have ever had the blessing of spending time around.

I got to know him in the early 1980's. I was just out of school, working at a large bank in Chicago and attending business school in the evenings. I lived in Hyde Park, where University of Chicago (my alma mater) is located.

Bill Veeck had sold the White Sox about a year earlier to Jerry Reinsdorf. He correctly saw that the game of Major League Baseball was quickly becoming all about money, and he never had the resources to fund bidding wars for free agents.

The story of how he acquired the White Sox in the first place is a story in itself. It was actually the second time he owned the team - he bought and sold it a decade or so prior to when he reacquired it in the mid 1970's. It was typical Bill Veeck dealmaking. He never actually was all that rich - he would convince well-heeled friends to back him, create a consortium of owners, and he would be the public figure in the front.

Anyway, as I stomped around Hyde Park I'd see Bill here and there. He loved to while away Saturday afternoons in local bars drinking beer and holding court with whoever wanted to sit at his table and listen to his stories. In my senior year in college I worked at a fancy Hyde Park restaurant as a waiter, and Bill's daugher Marya worked there also.

She was a dear, and we became friends. Through her I met her sister, Lisa, and Lisa and I dated for the better part of a year.

During my time hanging around Lisa was when I got to know Bill and his lovely wife Mary Frances quite well. I spent many weekend days with him, and also many nights eating and drinking at restaurants all over town.

Going out to eat at a restaurant with Bill Veeck in Chicago meant that your table was a constant bustle of activity: people would stop by and chat, take pictures, and buy rounds of drinks for the table. It was not uncommon to have three drinks stacked behind each other as people would order our waitress to buy another round for the table - they'd just stack em up.

Bill would talk with anyone who came by. He loved people. He didn't care who they were. Everyone felt welcome to stop by, shake Bill's hand, and listen and laugh with everyone.

The best memories, however, are from the long Saturdays I spent with Lisa, Bill and Mary Frances in his condo, making Old Style empties and listening to Bill talk about his career.

His condo was on about the 30th floor of a building across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry. It had a great view of the museum grounds and Lake Michigan. Bill would sit on his couch, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. I fetched many a can from his fridge - the guy could drink, In fact he was a pretty famous alcoholic.

He was in awful physical shape from injuries he got in WWII. One leg was amputated, and he hobbled everywhere on his trademark peg leg. His eyes were bad, his hearing was bad, his other leg was shot up in the war also, and he had various and sundry other ailments about which he never complained.

On side of his wooden peg leg he carved out a little ashtray, and he would flick his cigarette ashes and stub out the butts in it. He was quite a sight.

He took a liking to me, as did Mary Frances. They told me all about his father, who was the GM of several baseball teams in the early part of the century. When Bill was a kid his dad was GM of the Cubs, right at the time Wrigley was built. As a youngster, Bill Veeck actually built the famous Cubs scoreboard that still stands today. He also planted the ivy that still covers the brick outfield wall that is the trademark of that wonderful stadium.

Mary Frances once broke out the family scrapbook. The whole family was on the cover of Life Magazine in the early 1960's. They showed me the newspaper stories they had saved when he put the midget up to bat, and told me all about how outraged the other team owners were about the stunt. He just laughed. It's a game, he would say.

He was guy who started all the promotions at baseball games. Bat night, poster night, kids night, ladies night, etc. He knew how to fill the stands. During games he never sat cloistered in an owners suite - no way. He sat in the stands. Actually, he would roam the stadium and talk to the fans, drink beer with them. He was a man of the people, and absolutley hated pretense.

There was nothing at all pretentious about Bill Veeck, even though he was the smartest man I ever met.

All his accomplishments, his storied career, all the stories he would tell about the people he knew in baseball - were only a small part of the man. He was also an historian. He knew more things about more things than anybody I have ever met. He read voraciously. He could cite chapter and verse about the battles and generals of the Mexican American war, the civil war, the history of Russia, and dozens of other historical events.

He was also an amateur etyomolgist. His vocabulary was unbelieveable and he knew the origins and roots of all sorts of obscure words. One of his prize possession was his dictionary. It was proudly displayed right in his foyer, on a table against the wall. It was a complete editon of the Webster, I think it was 12 volumes each about two inches thick, leather bound. He showed it to me once - opened it up to a page, and some common word (I forget what it was) had about a page and a half of definition, derivation, history, etc. He got a kick out of reading that kind of stuff.

I remember one of our long afternoons in his condo, watching a football game and drinking beers, listening to Bill and Mary Frances talk about the White Sox, and Mary Fraces said: "You know, Bill, Rob is the kind of guy you really wish you still owned the ballclub for."

I took that as the highest compliment.

The last time I saw Bill Veeck was a couple years after Lisa and I stopped dating. I went to a fall afternoon Cubs game, and after the game ended, exiting Wrigley, I saw Bill. Hobbling out of the bleacher gate exit, in a crowd of people, waving and talking to well wishers as he slowly made his way to the el station. His health had clearly deteriorated and his leg was obviously hurting him. Each step was pained.

But the larger than life smile was still on his face when I waved hi.

A few months later he died.

He was as great a showman who ever lived. But as a man he was about much, much more than a sports promoter. I will forever consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to understand why.

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