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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Sure enough, Dr. Walsh opened the commission meeting the next day by introducing a motion to bar anybody under 21. The motion died when neither of his fellow commissioners would second it. It didn't stay dead for long. After the business of the meeting had been completed, Dr. Walsh did further evangelizing among his colleagues. They released a statement that Suffolk could admit minors, but only on a probationary basis. If the commission wasn't satisfied with our policing the kids, we were warned, it would put an end to the admissions forthwith. It was immediately apparent that the state police were being extremely vigilant in their surveillance of the betting lines. There was an implicit warning that if they turned up any kids there the commission would go after our license.

On April 29, 10 days after the race meeting opened, Dr. Walsh called the commission into emergency session and threw the kids out. The vote was 2-0. The absent commissioner, Mike Holovak, was in San Francisco signing on as a backfield coach with the 49ers, and it was such an emergency that Walsh could not wait for him to get back. In order to pass its emergency rule the racing commission had to be convinced that: 1) immediate adoption or amendment of a regulation is necessary for the preservation of the public health, safety or general welfare, and 2) observance of the requirements of notice and public hearing would be contrary to the public interest.

By admitting kids to the track, we were—by a 2-0 vote—attacking everything near and dear to the decent people of the community and placing the commonwealth in such imminent peril that a delay for trial and discussion would have proved fatal.

We had to decide whether we wanted to take the commission on. What we were thinking about was my future relationship with the entire political structure. In my four months in town, I had already upset a few of the established patterns. The elimination of the politicians' passes had not been looked upon as a winning bid for friendship. There had also been the matter of placing our insurance, which is a generally accepted and legal way in the upper echelons of playing the political game. For an insurance broker an account like Suffolk Downs is a nice way to start the day. The premiums run to at least $250,000 annually. The man who had been waking up to it was Sonny McDonough, a longtime member of the governor's council. Considering the symbiotic relationship between insurance and politics, I had to figure that my predecessors hadn't been giving it to him for the love of the game. What happened was that Realty Equities, the conglomerate that owned Suffolk Downs and hired me as president, came up with its own guy in New York. Realty was playing its own games. I made it very, very clear to the home office that taking the insurance away from a man with a seat on the governor's council was a hurtful thing to do to us. I did manage to salvage some of the account for McDonough by insisting that, at the very minimum, Realty's man lay off part of the insurance with him. It couldn't have been very much. I know it wasn't enough to make McDonough happy.

To sue over an issue as insignificant as a few kids coming to the track would be taken as the final proof that I had come to town so eager for battle I wasn't going to play along in even the most minor things. There probably were only two people in the entire state to whom the issue of admitting kids to a racetrack was significant. One was Dr. Walsh. The other was me. Greed vs. greed makes for the kind of lawsuits that are settled between lawyers as soon as both sides decide to take what they can get. Principle vs. principle is a holy war, and no holy war has ever been settled out of court.

I was incensed that the commission had rammed through its ruling without giving me so much as a hearing. I was furious at the implication that the chairman of any regulatory board was a better keeper of my children's morals than I was. The first question I asked my lawyer was, "What about the judges in this state?" He assured me that one thing Massachusetts did have was a strong and independent bench. From that moment on I knew what my decision was going to be. Sue them.

We drew Judge James C. Roy, a very fastidious old-Yankee type who dressed in the Victorian manner, morning suit and all. But he turned out to be very human, with a minimum of pomp and an occasional twinkle in his eye. The trial did not take one full day. We won, and the kids came back to the track.

Any association with Harvard must, I suppose, be educational, and it was through my selfless efforts to bring some civic responsibility and possibly even humanity to the halls of Nathan Pusey that I won myself a political education I could not have bought for a million dollars. I am talking, brethren, of the Great Stadium Caper, a feat of derring-do in which I set out to be a public benefactor and got no more than I deserved.

Put simply, the city was about to lose its professional football team, the Boston Patriots, not so much because of an unbroken history of nonsupport but because the club did not have a home to call its own. Through most of their 10-year history the Patriots had used Fenway Park (football seating capacity: 39,350) but were required to play their early-season games on the road. In 1969 the Patriots moved to Boston College's Alumni Field, which was hardly the answer since its seating capacity was only 26,000. Obviously what was needed was a municipal stadium. It was so clearly the solution that it had achieved the status of a political football—no joke intended, particularly to the Patriots. Through the years something like 30 proposals for stadium sites had been put into the legislature hopper. Dozens more had been debated in the press. Every one of the plans had failed. The stumbling block seemed to be the taxpayers' reluctance to build a stadium for private interests.

In order to have any chance of breaking even, a municipal stadium has to have a major league baseball team to pick up the bulk of the day-to-day expenses. In Boston Tom Yawkey owned Fenway Park free and clear, and he saw no great reason to move into somebody else's ball park. What was involved primarily was the special flavor of Fenway Park. Municipal stadiums are cookie-jar ball parks. They all look as if they had been built from the same blueprint. Fenway is unique. It is small and compact. The spectators are close enough to the field to turn the game into a cozy gathering. The hulking left-field wall looms over the playing field like sudden doom and turns a four-run lead in the ninth inning into a real nail-nibbler. Under the right circumstances—which is exactly what Yawkey had—a limited seating capacity can make your tickets more valuable. With 30,000 people in the stands you have a full house instead of a half-filled stadium. Full houses breed excitement. Excitement breeds happy memories. Happy memories breed return visits. Fenway has the smallest seating capacity in the American League, but on occasion the Red Sox have led the league in season attendance.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8