Bill Veeck was a baseball executive, but, as he would put it, he was first most an entrepreneur, innovator, and an entertainer. He dedicated his life’s work to baseball, having been the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox. I recently read his autobiography – Veeck as in Wreck – and I can safely say that there hasn’t been a mind in baseball that has fascinated me as much as his – except perhaps Bill James.
Veeck was a unique character. As a business owner, his main concern wasn’t making money out of fans, but ensuring that fans felt welcome at the ballpark and had a great time. If they enjoyed their passing hours there, then they’d return at a later date and willingly hand over their money. That was Veeck’s philosophy: do anything and everything to ensure that the seats are full.
Because of his knack for innovation and prescience, Veeck could spot the upcoming trend before any other owner and take advantage of this. He designed women’s restrooms in order for them to feel pampered and want to return; even going so far as introducing ladies night. In another attempt, whilst owning the Cleveland ballclub, he opened a daycare in which mothers could drop their kids off while they enjoyed the game – something that has never been seen again in any major sport. Also, as part of his gimmicks to entertain, he would come up with the idea of giveaways, where lucky fans would win an usually over-the-top prize that he would then buy back.
Out of all the ideas that he introduced, there were two that made me laugh and appreciate him as an entertainer and button-pusher. The first was his hiring of Eddie Gaedel, a 3 foot-7 inch player for the sake of entertaining the crowd and curtailing the favor of the Falstaff Brewering Company as a sponsor of the club. The second was his introduction of the manager by committee, in which for a day, the fans would vote on which play the manager would run. The former was done to the chagrin of then American League president Will Harridge, who voided the contract the next day; but succeeded in its endeavor of acquiring a new sponsor. The latter not only succeeded in letting fans have their chance at running a game, but proved his point that any person could manage a team the same way a professional manager could.
Sure, these are fun stories that recognize the genius of Bill Veeck and his willingness to not only poke fun at baseball but make it as entertaining as possible. Surprising to say, Veeck would spend most of a ballgame sitting next to different groups of fans to get their feel for the game and come up with new ideas, something no other owner or manager that I know of has done ever since. He lived and died by his credence that baseball is here to entertain fans and deviate them from the slow walk to death.
Nowadays, we face a cunnundrum: what to do to make baseball more entertaining and up the pace of play? There have been many suggestions made: lower visits to the mound, grant an automatic base on balls instead of lobbing for balls, reduce commercial airtime. In fact, Veeck had a list of suggestions that during his time as an owner, he felt strongly would reduce the amount of time it took to complete a ball game. I feel that if he were alive today, he would face this problem the same way he faced any problem: what can we do to keep fans coming to the ballpark while maintaining the game alive? Veeck would surely wreck this problem.