Bill Veeck – The P.T. Barnum of Baseball

Bill Veeck was the P.T. Barnum of baseball. Better than any baseball owner in history he knew how to put people in the stands. For Veeck no publicity stunt was too bizarre and no promotion was too outlandish.

He also knew how to win. His Milwaukee Brewers — then a minor league team — won three pennants, and when he achieved big league ownership, his Chicago White Sox won a pennant and his Cleveland Indians won a World Series, thanks in part to Larry Doby, whom Veeck signed as the first black player to play in the American League, and the great black pitcher Satchel Paige, whom, at 42, Veeck signed as the league’s oldest rookie.

Veeck’s other innovations include the first exploding scoreboard, the first “giveaways” and the first uniforms with players’ names on them. He staged weddings at home plate and once presented his team’s manager with a left-handed pitcher by having him pop out of a cake.  Veeck also gave baseball, and the world, Harry Caray and his immortal version of “Take Me Out to The Ball Game.”

But Veeck’s most famous stunt occurred this week (Aug. 19) in 1951 when he sent a midget up to pinch-hit for his St. Louis Browns. Eddie Gaedel stood 3’7” tall and when he strode to the plate the crowd let out a collective gasp, as did the plate umpire, who immediately objected. Veeck, however, had shrewdly filed Gaedel’s contract with the American League office late on Friday, knowing it would be perfunctorily approved. He never listed Gaedel’s height.

Powerless to stop a player with a valid contract, the umpires let Gaedel bat and he promptly walked on four pitches. He was quickly replaced by a pinch runner, and although the Browns eventually lost that game, Gaedel and Veeck were the talk of the country. American League President Will Harridge was not amused, however, and barred midgets from ever playing baseball again.

Yet if that was Veeck’s most famous stunt, his most outlandish occurred five days later when he held “Grandstand Manager’s Day.”  Veeck had stadium officials give fans a placard that said “Yes” on one side and “No” on the other, and during the game Veeck’s publicity director flashed cards asking the fans what managerial move the team should make—bunt, steal, bring in a reliever, hit-and-run?—with the team doing whatever the majority of fans voted.

The “grandstand managers” did an excellent job. The Browns won that game 5-3, stopping a four-game losing streak that had begun in the game featuring Eddie Gaedel’s first and only big league appearance.

Bill Veeck died in 1986, having lived a colorful life. He is — are you surprised? — a first-ballot member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.