In the secret reaches of his private universe there is little that the dreamer in Bill Veeck says can't be done. His success, his failures, his joys, his sorrows have created an extravagant legend that even for him tends to obscure reality. To the public, Bill Veeck, president of the Chicago White Sox baseball club, is a brashly clamorous individual who has fashioned a brilliant career out of defying the customs, conventions and crustaceans of baseball. It is an authentic yet one-dimensional view. For Veeck is also an intelligent, impetuous, whimsical, stubborn, tough-fibered, tireless individual with a vast capacity for living and a deep appreciation for humanity. He is full of the humor that springs from the unsuppressed human being. To Veeck baseball is not an ultraconstitutional mission; a crusade; a holy jousting for men's minds, souls and pocketbooks; it's simply an exhilarating way to make a living.
Behind this facade is a man with a highly perceptive vision of baseball's appeal. "This is an illusionary business," Veeck said. "The fan comes away from the ballpark with nothing more to show for it than what's in his mind, an ephemeral feeling of having been entertained." That illusion, says Veeck, must be augmented by a feeling that it was fun to be at the game. In support of this conviction, Veeck has given fans live lobsters, swayback horses, 30,000 orchids, a pair of uncrated carrier pigeons, 200 pounds of ice. He has staged circuses and brought in tightrope walkers and flagpole sitters and jugglers and the Harlem Globetrotters to perform between games of a doubleheader. He's had several kilotons of fireworks shot off after night games. ("If you win, it's a bonus for the fans on top of the flush of victory; if you lose, they go away talking about the fireworks, not the lousy ball game.")
The fiery illusions of fun he built around the game in Chicago--notably the exploding scoreboard, which fires off $60 worth of skyrockets and aerial bombs every time a White Sox player hits a home run--are now part of the durable Veeck legend.
At 46 Veeck retains many of the elfin enthusiasms of his youth, though the years have thinned his once-bushy, pinkish-blond hair to a pair of tracks and a tuft of straw and his face has assumed the rutted dignity of a mask done in clay by a slightly arthritic sculptor. But there has been a quickening of the currents and contradictions that make up the man. He is an omnivorous reader who likes to talk out his thoughts. He is a gregarious companion with an introspective streak. He is an undisciplined spirit of spontaneous inspirations, yet he is hardworking--he rises at four or five o'clock virtually every morning and works 16 to 20 hours a day. He is intensely competitive. Even though he has only one leg (the right leg was amputated as a result of injuries he sustained during World War II), Veeck continues to play tennis and paddleball. "Does a man stop smiling because he wears false teeth?" he asks. He is painstakingly unpretentious. He works in a onetime reception room in Comiskey Park, answers all his mail (writing in longhand in the margins of the letters) and takes calls at all hours of the day and night.
Ever since moving to Chicago, in March 1959, the Veecks have lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor of a lakefront hotel on Chicago's South Side. They have four children.
The only routine that Veeck follows is early in the morning, when he usually spends 60 to 90 minutes bathing the stump of his right leg. This is when he gets a chance to read and reflect, when the reality of Bill Veeck--the substance behind the legend--becomes apparent and the far reaches of his private universe are explored. "I'm for the dreamer," he said. "The only really important things in history have been started by the dreamers. They never know what can't be done."