It’s been 50 years since Bill Veeck unleashed his autobiography Veeck—as in Wreck on the literary world. As popular with readers as it was reviled by baseball executives, the book climbed best seller lists in the summer of 1962 and has never faded from sight. In 2002, it claimed a place on Sports Illustrated’s list of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time, ranking 33rd.
Veeck—as in Wreck is still as entertaining today as it was in the ‘60s, though time has tempered some of the harsh criticisms of the baseball establishment. Biographer Paul Dickson, in his forthcoming release Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, notes sportswriter Red Smith described it upon its release as “380 pages of aggravated assault.” Many observers felt Veeck had gone overboard in pummeling Commissioner Ford Frick, with whom Veeck rarely saw eye to eye.
But Veeck had sufficient reason to take the offensive, having basically been run out of the game in the mid ‘50s after trying to relocate his St. Louis Browns to a city that would support them. As Dickson notes in his Prologue, “he spent a lifetime challenging baseball’s staid establishment, cultivating enemies the way others cultivate friends.” Simply put, the other owners resented his showman’s approach to running his clubs, and it got very personal.
So when it came time for Veeck to record his life (or at least the first five decades, he lived until 1986), he exacted his revenge, taking his side of his skirmishes with Frick, Yankees general manager George Weiss, Yankees co-owner Del Webb—honestly, just about every significant figure in baseball—public.
Veeck’s career, of course, was about much more than political infighting. Though he acknowledges in the first chapter that he’ll forever be known as the man who sent a midget to bat, the significance of that stunt often overshadows what Veeck sought to achieve by signing Eddie Gaedel to a one-game contract. It was all about making the game fun to draw fans to the park, and nobody was better at it than Veeck. But there was much more to it than gimmicks. Veeck built winners in Cleveland and Chicago, capturing a World Series title in 1948, just his second full year at the helm of the Indians.
He recognized what most of his fellow owners would not publicly acknowledge in the 1940s: the Negro Leagues were brimming with talent that could help his major league club. Veeck sought to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and stock the roster with Negro League stars. Frick and then-Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis squelched the deal, and baseball waited five more years until Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Veeck integrated the American League a couple months later, signing Larry Doby for the Indians. In 1948, he was denounced for signing an aging Satchel Paige, though Veeck had the last laugh when Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA in 72.2 valuable innings as a swingman, helping spur the Tribe to the pennant.
Out of baseball at the time he and Ed Linn collaborated on the book due to health problems, Veeck ended the book with a bit of showy foreshadowing. “Sometime, somewhere, there will be a club no one really wants. And then Ole Will will come wandering along to laugh some more. Look for me under the arc-lights, boys. I’ll be back.”
It took more than another decade, but he eventually did return to the game, buying back the White Sox in 1975. While his reputation among the old establishment was forever tarnished, the younger generation appreciated his approach as an apostle for baseball, drawing new fans by the tens of thousands in every city in which he operated. In 1991, five years too late for him to enjoy it, Veeck was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. While many of his critics have fallen along the dusty road of time, Veeck—and his reputation—have only improved with age.