SI Vault
Bill Veeck
June 12, 1972
From the start of his days at Suffolk, a pack of pols was off and running in pursuit, eager for a piece of the racetrack purse. And they were not the only rascals around
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June 12, 1972

A Stakes I Hadn't Scheduled

From the start of his days at Suffolk, a pack of pols was off and running in pursuit, eager for a piece of the racetrack purse. And they were not the only rascals around

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I grew up on Chicago's West Side in the Big Bill Thompson-Al Capone era, and I always had a lively interest—precocious, my daddy thought, not proudly—in chicanery, the uses and abuses of power, the flashing are of the knife into the underbelly and the dull thump of a body in the alley. As Leo Durocher says (the baseball background does stick doesn't it?), the Boston pols weren't getting a maiden when they got me. That's what I thought! My education was just about to begin, courtesy of—but by no means tuition-free—the Great Commonwealth.

When I came aboard and began to rock the boat the Massachusetts attorney general took such a lively interest in Suffolk Downs' affairs, great and small, that I was never out of court. I beat him every time and I have come out of this with great faith in the judicial system. If virtue and a bright young lawyer are on your side, you will always win.

Virtue is optional.

It wasn't the politicians who did me in finally. The second part of my education took the form of a two-year seminar in big business, conglomerate-style. Everything didn't suddenly turn black, Judge, it slowly turned to ashes. The money poured in like a great green sea and poured right out again. It was like trying to operate a powerful motorboat with a hole ripped in the bottom. Down I went, with the motor roaring and the bow still straining forward.

The first question I was always asked was how horse racing compared to baseball. My answer was that by and large you met a nicer brand of human being in racing. That gave me a chance to do a fast 10 minutes on the fools, scoundrels and mountebanks who operate the Grand Old Game, tip my skimmer, show some teeth and, eyes agleam, dance off. The truth, however, was that the politicians of Massachusetts had become in my middle years what the baseball owners had been in my youth.

The second question was usually about Eddie Gaedel. I carry a midget on my back, you know.

Baseball is regarded as a civic enterprise; racing is a barely tolerated activity. When you're operating a baseball club you find politicians coming around, tails wagging, to get their pictures taken with a ball in one of their hands and a cap en top of one of their heads. (One of my more depressing memories is of Adlai Stevenson in a baseball cap, smiling stoutly.) When you're operating a racetrack you find the politicians still come around but don't want their pictures taken. And they expect you to sign every tab. It's a whole different ball game. You're looked upon as a little bank to shake something out of.

It is impossible to become involved in anything as closely tied to politics as horse racing without getting the distinct impression that politics is the principal industry of Boston. The pols come at you like an infestation of locusts. I wonder if Bostonians are not secretly proud of the system in the perverse way that people are so frequently more proud of their vices than their virtues. It's like hearing on the nightly news that today has been the hottest June 8 ever. It makes it seem that you haven't been sweltering all day to no purpose. As long as you're going to have a corrupt political system, you might as well swelter under the most corrupt.

When a man makes that categorical a statement about such a highly competitive area of human endeavor I suppose he is obligated to put up or shut up. O.K., take tax abatements. The way it works is: 1) you open your mail one morning and find that the City of Boston, through its duly appointed agency, has increased the assessment on your property by some ungodly sum, say half a million dollars, thereby bringing on a corresponding ungodly leap in your tax bill, 2) you file for an abatement based on the old evaluation and 3) they say, "Yeah, you're right, we're wrong," and reduce your taxes back to where they were supposed to be in the first place.

Question: Now why do big boys play games like that?

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