by Dan Epstein
Excerpt From Chapter 1: Let’s Do It Again (Bill Veeck)
Bill Veeck buys the Chicago White Sox. Over 29.7 million fans bought tickets to major league ballgames in 1975, the third-highest attendance figure in history, and the season had been capped by an electrifying seven-game World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds—memorably highlighted by Carlton Fisk’s game-winning 12th-inning homer in Game Six-during which a record 75.9 million viewers tuned in for what many were already calling the greatest Fall Classic in history.
This World Series ratings bonanza had conveniently occurred right as baseball’s four-year, $72 million TV contract with NBC was coming to an end. The new basic broadcasting agreement, split between NBC (which would continue to broadcast Saturday’s Game of the Week as well as the 1976 World Series) and ABC (which was given the rights to the Monday Night Baseball franchise, as well as the ’76 League Championship Series broadcasts), would deposit nearly $93 million into the game’s coffers over the next four seasons. As New Yorker baseball essayist Roger Angell pointed out, the total radio and TV income share for each MLB club “now amounts to one and a half times the total paid out for player salaries and retirement benefits.”
But instead of basking in the World Series afterglow, or reclining like contented pashas upon their piles of cash, baseball’s owners and executives had more reason to sweat than celebrate as 1975 drew to a close. Despite the overall attendance boom of the last few seasons, at least three major league franchises—the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago White Sox, and the San Francisco Giants—were in dire financial straits. More ominously, a breach of contract lawsuit brought against the American League by the state of Washington in 1970 (which asked for $32.5 million in damages and the return of a major league team to Seattle, as recompense for the city’s loss of the Pilots expansion franchise) was about to finally have its day in court.
The lawsuit had already been postponed twice by Washington State attorney general Slade Gorton, in hopes that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the American League would make good on their long-standing promise to bring baseball back to Seattle. The King County Multipurpose Domed Stadium, aka the Kingdome, was due to open in the spring of 1976 following three years of construction, but the city still didn’t have a baseball team to play there.
Kuhn had repeatedly urged Gorton to forget about the lawsuit, assuring him that Seattle would eventually receive another major league franchise. Gorton, however, had refused to drop it; and now that the suit was scheduled to come to trial in January 1976, Kuhn and the team owners were cringing at the prospect of legal light being shed on baseball’s clubby business practices, concerned that it might cause the federal government to put the kibosh on their sport’s long-held antitrust exemption.
Kuhn and company’s collective mood was further soured by the return of Bill Veeck to Major League Baseball. A good-humored hustler with a mile-wide progressive streak, Veeck—who didn’t remotely fit the stodgy profile of a typical major league owner—had long ago established himself as the enemy of conservatism on every level of the sport. During his brief but memorable ownership stints with the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, he’d significantly increased attendance in each city with a nonstop barrage of often outlandish promotions, invariably offending the staid sensibilities of his fellow owners, who viewed such irreverent stunts as livestock giveaways and pinch-hitting midgets as affronts to the dignity of the Grand Old Game.
A true populist, Veeck enjoyed making himself accessible to the fans, and could often be seen mingling and drinking with them in the stands—sometimes even letting them stub their cigarettes out on the ashtray he’d had carved into his wooden leg—behavior that only further alienated him from baseball’s executive branch. Veeck’s round-the-clock preference for casual wear earned him the affectionate nickname “Sport Shirt Bill” from sportswriters, who loved his way with a quote and his generosity with a bottle.
Veeck enjoyed making himself accessible to the fans, and could often be seen mingling and drinking with them in the stands—sometimes even letting them stub their cigarettes out on the ashtray he’d had carved into his wooden leg
Health issues had forced Bill Veeck to sell off his White Sox ownership shares in the midst of the 1961 season, but baseball fans on Chicago’s South Side still remembered him fondly. For them—and for everyone else who appreciated the injection of a little levity into the old ballgame—Christmas came early in 1975, thanks to the December 11 announcement that the 61-year-old Veeck had repurchased the White Sox. After months of rumors that the cash-poor franchise was about to be sold and moved to another city, Veeck and his group of over 40 investors (including Ebony and Jet publisher John H. Johnson, the first African American to hold an ownership stake in a major league team) stepped in to save the team and keep it in Chicago.
American League president Lee MacPhail and several of the AL owners (including California Angels owner Gene Autry, who’d lobbied hard on behalf of a consortium fronted by fellow Hollywood star Danny Kaye, who wanted to buy the franchise and move it to Seattle) had done their best to prevent the sale of the White Sox to the Veeck group, forcing them to jump through numerous financial and legal hoops before ultimately ratifying the transaction. Veeck, who took control of the team less than 48 hours before baseball’s Winter Meetings trading deadline, wasted no time in reestablishing himself as a thorn in the side of his fellow owners, commandeering a desk in the lobby of Hollywood, Florida’s, Diplomat Hotel and hanging up a sign reading “Open for Business—The Chicago White Sox, No Reasonable Offer Refused.”
The major league team owners and general managers who attended these conventions typically made their deals while sequestered in the privacy of smoke-filled hotel suites and conference rooms, with plenty of liquid refreshment and old boys club backslapping on tap. But Veeck and White Sox general manager Roland Hemond were gleefully making a point of “operating in the open like honest men,” as they put it, loudly juggling offers and consummating deals in full view of the assembled media and passing hotel guests alike, and annoying the hell out of their peers in the process. “This is a meat market,” huffed Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. “Why can’t he do this in his own room?” complained Houston Astros assistant GM John Mullen, sounding like an appalled parent who’d just caught his longhaired son air-guitaring to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the family den. Even Bowie Kuhn weighed in, disparaging Veeck and Hemond’s theatrical display as “gauche.”
These gentlemen would have been even more irate had they realized that many of the calls coming in for Veeck were actually being dialed by Hemond from a nearby pay phone. That morning, Veeck had shoved several rolls of dimes into his GM’s hands, and instructed him to go off and make calls to their “trading post” whenever there was a lull in the action. Thinking that Bill Veeck’s constantly ringing phone meant other teams must be hot to make deals with the Sox, several baseball execs hurriedly joined the fray, setting off what The New York Times described as one of “the fastest trading sprees in history”; by the time the Winter Meetings officially came to a close, Bill Veeck had engineered six deals and acquired 11 new players, including speedy outfielder Ralph “Road Runner” Garr, who’d won the 1974 National League batting title as a member of the Atlanta Braves, and veteran relief pitcher Clay Carroll, who’d just won Game Seven of the 1975 World Series for the Cincinnati Reds.
“I wanted a new ownership, a new team and a new attitude,” Veeck explained to Wells Twombly of the Sporting News, as the dust from his deal-a-thon began to settle. “I’m not through making changes,” he added. “This is only the start.”
DAN EPSTEIN is an award-winning journalist, pop culture historian, and author of Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76 who has written for Rolling Stone, SPIN, Men’s Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, MOJO, Guitar World, Revolver, LA Weekly and dozens of other publications. He is the author of the acclaimed Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s. He currently resides in Los Angeles.