Friday, July 3, 2009

Veeck as in Wreck, by Bill Veeck

I had heard of Bill Veeck before, mainly because of the time he sent a midget named Eddie Gaedel to bat for the Saint Louis Browns, but also because he was the owner of the Cleveland Indians when Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League. When I was writing my baseball discrimination paper I looked to see if there was anything in the school library about Veeck and was delighted to find he'd written an autobiography.

As an occasional reader of autobiographies, I've found that some don't age well. Who really cares anymore what Charles Nelson Reilly thought about Brett Somers? (Okay, I admit I would probably read a CNR autobiography, but still.) There was some of that in this book, like when Veeck writes everything he hates about Del Webb, who evidently owned the Yankees once. However, even these parts are interesting because the things that Veeck hated about Webb had to do with the then-current state of baseball, and so they are still relevant reading to someone interested in the history of the game.

More than this, though, the book is full of humorous stories of how Veeck tried to provide entertainment to the fans. In addition to pinch-hitting Gaedel (who drew a walk on four pitches and then was lifted for a pinch runner), Veeck was known for giving away undesirable door prizes, like 24 hens or 100 pounds of butter. He was the last of the non-rich owners, the guys who were just executives who put together investor groups and managed the concern's affairs.

Some of the people he hated, I'd already read about from my other baseball books this summer. Branch Rickey is present in some books as a moral crusader, and Walter O'Malley as an evil man out to destroy Brooklyn. Veeck writes that Rickey was one of the few owners who ever broke an agreement with him, and Veeck disliked O'Malley more for the way he profited from the creation of the Angels than for moving his franchise. In fact, Veeck had been trying to move a team to Los Angeles for at least 10 years before O'Malley succeeded. Veeck has nothing bad to say about Commissioner Landis, but castigates Happy Chandler and Ford Frick more than I've ever read before. He disliked Rogers Hornsby, also, and Veeck is directly responsible for the hour I spent at work this week reading about Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb on the Internet.

This book took a long time to get through; the pages were densely typeset and the chapter breaks are just a few lines, so there aren't any "short" pages. However, I enjoyed the entire book. A fan of baseball as it used to be played, and anyone who wants additional insight into some of the game's lingering problems, like racism, free agency, expansion, and the demise of the minor leagues, would enjoy this book.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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