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A baseball owner who put the little guy first ... and even sent one to the plate
Bill Veeck was that rarest of birds, now feared extinct, a baseball man with a sense of humor. The antithesis of the modern billionaire owner, Veeck was an incorrigibly fun-loving promoter who liked nothing better than to goose the Pooh-Bahs of baseball while affording the average Joe a laugh. The exploding scoreboard? Veeck's brainchild. The ivy in Wrigley Field? Veeck planted it. He was the first to hire baseball clown Max Patkin (who was pitching in the minors when Veeck discovered him) to entertain crowds during games. Names on the back of uniforms? Ballpark giveaway days? Cow-milking contests between games in a doubleheader? Grandstand Managers Day, in which fans dictated strategy by holding up YES and NO placards? Veeck's babies, one and all.
Veeck believed that baseball was entertainment, not religion. The son of William Veeck Sr., who was president of the Chicago Cubs, Veeck's first baseball job was selling peanuts at Wrigley Field. He put together enough money to buy the Cleveland Indians in 1946, when he was 32, and the next year signed Larry Doby, the first black ballplayer in the American League. Veeck may have been baseball's P.T. Barnum, but he was no clown. The Indians won the World Series in 1948, the year Veeck signed the oldest rookie in baseball history, 42-year-old Satchel Paige.
After the Indians were mathematically eliminated in 1949, ending their reign as league champs, Veeck took down the pennant, put it in a pine coffin and buried it in centerfield at Municipal Stadium with full military honors. Reacting to a letter to the editor from a fan named Joe Earley who wondered why rich ballplayers needed special nights to honor them when they retired, Veeck held a Good Old Joe Earley Night, at which the Chevy-factory night watchman was given a new Ford convertible, a washing machine, a refrigerator, luggage and other gifts.
Financial problems, which plagued Veeck throughout his baseball career, forced him to sell the Indians in 1949, but he scraped together enough to buy the hapless St. Louis Browns in '51. That happened to be the 50th anniversary of the American League, and as part of a promotional celebration Veeck unveiled his most famous gag: sending 3'7" midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate to pinch-hit. Gaedel, wearing uniform number 1/8, walked on four pitches. The next day furious league execs essentially banned midgets from the game. Veeck responded by asking if Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was a short ballplayer or a tall midget. "I knew it would delight the fans and outrage the stuffed shirts," Veeck wrote in his autobiography, VEECK--As in Wreck. "I have always found a stuffed shirt to be the most irresistible of targets." A garrulous man of the people, Veeck, who died in 1986, spent his final summers watching Cubs games while sitting in the outfield bleachers, drinking beer--shirtless.
Bad News was good news for anybody who needed a quote
MARVIN (BAD NEWS) Barnes was ahead of his time, which is ironic, because during his short pro basketball career, he had trouble keeping track of it. Punctuality was not his forte, and even when he did arrive on time, he often found it hard to grasp clock-related matters. In 1975, during his rookie year in the ABA, Barnes showed up for a team flight from Louisville to St. Louis and was told that because of the time zones, the arrival time would be roughly the same as the departure time. Bad News was aghast. "I ain't getting on no time machine," he said.
Reviewing Barnes's wildly entertaining but ultimately disappointing career is like going back to the future, because he was a forerunner of the modern-day athlete as antihero. Even in the near anarchy of the ABA, Barnes was a happy outlaw, legendary for his blithe disregard of most rules. Bad News was skipping practices when Allen Iverson was a baby. He was self-absorbed and materialistic before Deion Sanders bought his first gold chain. He was partying until game time when Dennis Rodman was in grade school. But he carried his flaws to such cartoonish lengths that it's impossible to recall him without a certain fondness. Bad News once decided to sleep in rather than join his team on its morning flight. Later that day Bad News chartered a plane and arrived at the arena 10 minutes before tip-off. He sauntered into the locker room wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a full-length mink coat, carrying a bag of fast food. "Have no fear, BB is here," he said, opening the coat to reveal that he was wearing his uniform underneath.