Bill Veeck, baseball's greatest maverick, started it all in Milwaukee
Bill Veeck was many things – entrepreneur, veteran, showman, innovator.
This is well-known and well-documented.
Yet in his new book, "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," biographer Paul Dickson pulls back the curtain a little further on a very formative time in Veeck's professional, and personal life that often is overlooked – his time in Milwaukee.
"That team changes baseball forever," Dickson said of the Veeck's Brewers.
The first baseball franchise Veeck ever owned was the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. He owned the team in partnership with former Chicago Cubs player and manager Charlie Grimm.
It was a purchase he made in 1941 after the Wrigley Family passed him over for the job as Cubs' club president, even after he created the iconic hand-operated scoreboard and the bleachers at Wrigley Field.
"He's so restless, he could explode," Dickson said of Veeck's mindset after being passed over. "He gets Charlie Grimm and they buy the Brewers, this banged up, low attendance ball club in a falling down place called Borchert Field. It's such a mess."
In came Veeck, who immediately incorporated some of his father's ideas from Chicago – like making the game more accessible to women – and expanding on it. This effort included tearing out and rebuilding the old women's bathrooms.
Veeck started in-game promotions and giveaways, including chickens and goats.
He even created a moveable left field fence to make it easier for the Brewers to hit home runs, but harder for opponents – an idea nixed by the commissioner's office shortly before it was implemented.
"He said it's one thing to give away 10,000 cans of beer to the 10,000 people who show up, but what's really funny is you give one fan 10,000 cans of beer and figure out how he gets rid of them," Dickson said.
Veeck was in Milwaukee when World War II began, and the city became a hub for military industry. As Milwaukeeans worked around the clock, Veeck realized much of his fan base could no longer make traditional starting times.
So, he would start games early in the morning to accommodate the third shifters.
"The rest of baseball, the league, is furious," Dickson said. "And Veeck just doesn't have the (game). He has Charlie Grimm sleeping in a four poster bed and they wake him up for the game and Veeck is out with Wheaties and corn flakes and bowls and serving people with food. It's just a huge gag."
Veeck himself joined the war effort, enlisting into the Marines. Initially, the military wanted to use his charm and promotional abilities to serve as a recruiter, but Veeck fought instead. He was wounded and underwent dozens of surgeries and amputations to his right leg.
Read about Veeck's 1944 manager Casey Stengel's brief tenure with the Brewers here.
Veeck's time in Milwaukee so captured his persona that the new book's cover art is a photo of Veeck in his Milwaukee office, sitting in front of a trophy he had made for himself to pinch-hit for an attendance award he felt he rightly deserved.
"The league said there was a technicality and he couldn't win it, so he built his own trophy and the league was furious," Dickson said.
It was in Milwaukee where Veeck became a national sensation, profiled and photographed by the largest magazines and newspapers in the country.
"He became a national figure even as a minor league owner," Dickson said.
Veeck eventually sold the Brewers in 1945 and moved on to the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians.
But his time in the city was more than just a stopover. His ownership of the Brewers proved that his methods of promotion – and ownership – worked. The Brewers went from worst to first during his ownership, and one of the most popular figures in the game.
"He's basically put baseball back on the map," Dickson said. "It used to be win or lose before Veeck. You go to the ballgame and you win and you go home cheering, you lose, you go home vaguely depressed. Veeck says, wait, that's all wrong, he said we have to keep these people happy win or lose. He wants to win desperately but says it has to be a bigger thing for them.
"He realized what he had to do. He realized it was the fan, and not the other owners, that he needed to please."
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