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Au revoir to Bill Veeck
William Barry Furlong
June 19, 1961
The most imaginative of today's baseball executives leaves for a long rest to recover from a debilitating ailment doctors cannot identify. Everyone who follows the sport hopes he will be back
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June 19, 1961

Au Revoir To Bill Veeck

The most imaginative of today's baseball executives leaves for a long rest to recover from a debilitating ailment doctors cannot identify. Everyone who follows the sport hopes he will be back

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Bill Veeck sat in his seventh-floor apartment in Chicago's Shoreland Hotel last week and lit a cigarette. The doctors had ordered him to give up smoking on June 4 and he has only one an hour now. ("I was a five-pack-a-day man," he said.)

On the couch, a book lay half open. A pair of black-rimmed spectacles kept the pages flat. "It looks," said Veeck, "like Mr. Steinbeck is out of his slump." He picked up John Steinbeck's new novel, The Winter of Discontent, and flicked idly through the pages. "At least," he went on, "if the second half is as good as the first half."

Near by was an atlas of the U.S. "If you had your choice of any place in the country to go to and relax for six or seven months, where would you go?" asked Veeck. Almost anybody, he was told, would go to the Veeck ranch in New Mexico. "The doctors' eyes lit up when they heard about the ranch," said Veeck's wife, Mary Frances. "But it's so far away from everything in Silver City. The nearest airport is 90 miles away and there's one plane a day."

"If you had to get in or out of there fast, well—you just couldn't do it unless you happened to catch that plane," said Veeck.

Speed is one possible factor in treating the ailment that assails Bill Veeck. He knows the symptoms; he doesn't know the cause. On April 20, as he hobbled through the offices of Comiskey Park at the White Sox home opener, he stopped to chat with a bystander and was seized with a racking cough. "I've had this cough now for a long time," he said. "I can't seem to get rid of it." He hobbled away, looking tired and worn. The comment was significant for two reasons. First, Veeck is a stoic; he does not complain about physical pain. Second, Veeck secretly feared at the time that he had lung cancer.

He does not. He had pneumonia, probably for three or four weeks, before the opener. He was walking around with a temperature of 102�—sometimes higher. Not until April 22 did he give in and go to the Mayo Clinic "for a couple of days." The couple of days stretched into a couple of weeks. Veeck didn't return to the Shoreland until May 6. He has left it only once since then, for one hour, to go to a meeting of the board of directors of the White Sox in Comiskey Park.

The rumors fly

Around him has swirled up a storm of murky rumors. He was, they said, the victim of everything from bone cancer (because of his oft-amputated leg) to a vascular disease. It was assumed that his illness is, in the genteel phrase of medical reports, "terminal." (There were, of course, exceptions—those souls who, like the friendly neighborhood ghoul, cherished the notion that Veeck was faking or exaggerating his illness in order to have a good excuse for selling his White Sox stock at a big profit.) It is clear that the ailment was considered critical at one point while he was at Mayo. Mary Frances, who had remained in Chicago to mind the four Veeck children, was summoned to his bedside as the nearest of kin. ("It's funny, I'd never thought of myself as the nearest of kin before," she says.) The crisis and the pneumonia passed but Veeck was still sick. The doctors, who don't know what specifically is wrong with him, have continued to eliminate the things that are not wrong with him.

One factor they have eliminated is the possibility that his ill health is somehow connected with his amputated right leg. Veeck has been on crutches since the last amputation a year ago. He fell while visiting in New York last September and damaged the stump. Thereafter, it was too tender to fit into an artificial leg, but since his return from the Mayo Clinic, Veeck has worked into a peg leg that puts pressure on his buttock rather than the stump. It is not as elaborate as the hydraulic artificial leg he once had that would bend at a subtle flick of a switch, but it does allow him to move about easily without going through the detailed learning process of an amputee who has lost a knee.

Veeck's known symptoms are general. He becomes very fatigued, much beyond the point expected in a middle-aged man (Veeck is 47), even one who works 20 hours a day. He is also losing weight. In the last month, just sitting around the apartment, he has lost 16 pounds. It was suggested that some of this might be due to the abandonment of his almost heroic consumption of beer. ("No, not 30 bottles a day," he says wryly, "more like 15.") He now drinks fruit juice instead. There are several possibilities that remain to be explored. One of them: there may be a general debilitating infection running through his system, one that cannot be conquered until it is identified. Veeck is returning to the Mayo Clinic this week for another series of tests aimed at finding such an infection—if it exists.

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