Bill Veeck Sr.

This article was written by David Fletcher and George Castle

It would not be inaccurate to call the 1929 Cubs team president William L. Veeck’s crowning achievement.

Arguably baseball’s strongest franchise — even the Ruth/Gehrig New York Yankees could not have been rated higher at this juncture — the Cubs had been built player by player over a decade by Veeck, with assistance from keen scout Jack Doyle. The last building block came aboard, thanks to owner William Wrigley Jr.’s impetus and healthy checkbook, via second baseman Rogers Hornsby. Few could even dream to match up with the Cubs’ lineup, anchored by Hornsby and Hack Wilson, and backed by a Big Four pitching rotation led by Charlie Root.

Catcher Gabby Hartnett, who would miss much of the 1929 season with a right-arm injury, was the first piece of the puzzle, acquired from Worcester of the Eastern League before the 1922 season. Veeck crafted savvy trades with the Pittsburgh Pirates to garner first baseman Charlie Grimm in 1924 and right fielder Kiki Cuyler late in 1927.

Hack Wilson, who did not stick with the New York Giants during a subpar 1925 season, was traded to Toledo, from where Veeck performed a salvage job by drafting the short, stocky player who John McGraw felt would never be productive. The Cleveland Indians’ decision makers inexplicably did not see the long-term merits of infielder Riggs Stephenson even after he batted .371 in 1924. Veeck did, and installed him in left field to great effect in Cubs Park. Root failed as a reliever during a cameo appearance with the St. Louis Browns in 1923, but Veeck snared him for the Cubs and he was a rotation mainstay by 1926.

Veeck found 1929 Cubs manager Joseph McCarthy (and the future manager of the Yankees dynasty) toiling as a minor-league manager in Louisville and hired him in 1926.

It was Veeck who engineered the building of the 1929 Cubs, believed by many baseball historians as their best team ever, even surpassing the Cubs “mini-dynasty” teams of 1906-1910.

But like the namesake son he raised and who adored his memory till the end of his own colorful life in 1986, the elder Veeck was no one-trick pony with his construction of the 1929 Cubs. He was as multidimensional and dynamic a sports executive as existed in his era. As his son wrote in his seminal book Veeck — As In Wreck, “He was a man of imagination … the greatest innovator of his time.”1 In fact, when the record is laid out, one can argue that William L. Veeck was the best executive in Cubs history; the franchise was never the same after his sudden and early death at 56 in 1933. As a team-builder and talent procurer, Veeck had no match in Chicago National League annals. The juggernaut that was tripped up in the 1929 World Series by the Philadelphia Athletics did not just die out, even though owner Wrigley was heartbroken to fall short of his coveted championship.

Many of the same players went on to win NL pennants in 1932 and 1935. Hartnett was a dual threat, slugging the historic, season-turning “Homer in the Gloamin’” while sparking the Cubs as player-manager to the 1938 flag. Other young Cubs coming through the pipeline under Veeck after 1929, like second baseman Billy Herman, shortstop Billy Jurges, third baseman Stan Hack, and outfielder Frank Demaree, proved mainstays on the pennant winners through 1938. Hack still was starting at the hot corner on the wartime 1945 NL champion Cubs.

But there was a lot more in Veeck’s actions and personality, as the game’s most respected executive in his era and an unsung hero who had long-lasting positive effects throughout the major leagues.

The list is long:

  • Veeck took the first firm action against the gambling that had infested the game like a wooden house sagging under termites’ hunger. Thwarting a possible fixed game in Wrigley Field in 1920, Veeck’s quick work contributed to the probe that exposed the Black Sox Scandal. 
  • Related to the threat of gambling and fixes, Veeck was a key early supporter of Kenesaw Mountain Landis for the job as baseball’s first commissioner. Landis was far from the perfect baseball czar, with his apparent obstacle to integration his biggest demerit, but he brought a semblance of order to a situation threatening to descend into chaos.
  • Contrary to many sports owners’ beliefs at the time, Veeck was a strong proponent of broadcast exposure to popularize the Cubs; radio listeners soon became ticket buyers — an attendance record of nearly 1.5 million in 1929. His advocacy was proved right against fearful, misguided team moguls as far as 80 years into the future. That’s when the Chicago Blackhawks’ Rocky Wirtz ended his father Bill’s home-game TV blackout to enjoy wireto- wire sellouts for a two-time Stanley Cup champion. Fittingly, the 1980s Cubs became a “national” team via heavy exposure on satellite-borne superstation WGN-TV.
  • Under Veeck the Cubs built the fan base far beyond the typical macho, cigar-chomping, cussing, straw-skimmer-topped male crowd. Even before Chicago began to contend in 1926, he instituted Ladies Day on the North Side. The weekly games in which admission was free for women were an instant hit. Thousands of women streamed into the ballpark, with the largest-ever Wrigley Field baseball crowd, more than 51,000 (19,000 paid) in 1930, a Ladies Day product.
  • Veeck was one of the early supporters of the All-Star Game, conceived as a one-shot exhibition to tie in to Chicago’s Century of Progress world’s fair in 1933. His influence prompted the other NL teams to support the game. Thanks to a massive crowd at old Comiskey Park and Babe Ruth’s well-timed showmanship, the game immediately became an annual affair. Now, its winner determines World Series home-field advantage for the team’s league. The All-Star Game evolved far beyond Veeck’s original idea.
  • Interleague play was proposed by Veeck more than 60 years before its implementation. Regular-season interleague clashes were introduced in 1997 by Commissioner Bud Selig as part of sweeping schedule changes that included wild-card playoff teams and the Divisional Series implemented during the 1995 postseason. Baseball does evolve, but often more slowly than its visionaries desire.
  • Veeck was the first major-league executive to promote a woman into an executive level when he appointed Margaret “Midge” Donahue the Cubs club secretary in 1926; she was the Cubs vice president by the time her career ended in 1958.
  • Veeck was the philosophical grounding of his far better known son. Although possessed of different personalities, the dignified William L. Veeck and Barnum-like promoter Bill Veeck shared a customer-service philosophy and an ability to think beyond hidebound tradition. It’s not hard to conceive that had the elder Veeck lived longer, he would have taken his son under his wing in the Cubs front office as his possible successor. History would have dramatically changed individually and teamwise. Since P.K. Wrigley, William Wrigley, Jr.’s son, admired almost everything his father did and tried to copy many of his decisions, passing on the power generationally in the Veeck family could have provided the Cubs management stability the franchise never possessed.

Indeed, in the real timeline, the death of William L. Veeck from leukemia that is now treatable robbed the Cubs of the team’s guiding light and the face of the franchise that was adorned on all of the Cubs scorecards. The first preference of P.K. Wrigley was for Veeck to run the team, with near-ownership power, as he did for William Wrigley, Jr. But after Veeck’s death in October 1933, P.K. Wrigley, dissatisfied with the short presidency of William L. Walker, appointed himself president even though he admitted to Chicago sportswriters that he knew little about baseball. Wrigley’s reasoning for taking the dayto- day helm was that he could not find “another Bill Veeck.” (But he passed up Veeck’s right-hand “man” Margaret Donahue though many sportswriters felt that she should be have been tabbed to succeed William L. Veeck.)

Without that buffer of a knowledgeable, popular leader respected throughout the game who was placed between himself and team operations, Wrigley began to impose schemes rooted either in business or his own personal, baseball-ignorant beliefs. The Cubs completed a steady decline, culminating in the manager-less “College of Coaches” and an athletic director hired from the Air Force in the early 1960s, a decline begun as the last of the Veeck-developed players left the organization.

Due to the traditional lack of strong Cubs scouting and player development, it can be argued that Veeck’s death had an impact stretching into the present day, and that it — not the 1964 trade of Lou Brock or the 1992 free-agent loss of Greg Maddux — was the most grievous setback in Cubs history.

Son Bill Veeck, Lou Brock, and Greg Maddux are far better known than William L. Veeck. A crash course in history should be in order for all Cubs executives and fans to understand his impact.

William L. Veeck succeeded in an old-fashioned, All-American manner very rarely duplicated today. He followed his dream from his small-town birthplace — Boonville, Indiana, 20 miles east of Evansville, in 1877 — to relative success as a sportswriter in the big city, Chicago. A combination of talent and the open-mindedness of William Wrigley, Jr. led to Veeck’s ascendancy to the top of the baseball world. In transforming themselves from sportswriters to baseball honchos, only the likes of Fred Claire and Ned Colletti with the Los Angeles Dodgers have come close to the Veeck story in recent decades.

After breaking into the newspaper business in Boonville, Veeck joined the Courier-Journal in Louisville, the nearest medium-sized city. That job led to sportswriter positions on Chicago newspapers, including the Evening American. Switching to the pen name “Bill Bailey” in 1908, Veeck enjoyed a prosperous decade covering both the Cubs and White Sox. Then came a 1918 dinner at William Wrigley Jr.’s Pasadena, California, home that changed his life — and the eventual direction of the Cubs.

Enjoying the lively art of conversation with a group of sports scribes, Wrigley was particularly interested in Veeck’s analysis of the Cubs. He asked if Veeck “could do any better” than present management. “I certainly couldn’t do any worse,” Veeck replied.

“Contrary to published reports, Veeck’s articles were not scathing diatribes against the Chicago Cubs (or any sports team). Instead, they were thoughtfully crafted analyses, with some providing vivid, striking details and portrayals,” wrote Jack Bales regarding the myths about Veeck’s hiring by Wrigley, who would soon have the power to reshape the Cubs when financially strapped team president Charles Weeghman turned over most of his stock to Wrigley.2 Now the most influential of the Cubs owners, Wrigley and the board of directors named Cubs manager Fred Mitchell team president and Veeck vice president and treasurer after the 1918 season. When Mitchell felt too burdened by his dual role as field manager/president in July 1919 and desired to just manage, Veeck took over as president.

His first distinguishing act was to take two courageous stands in 1920 against the rampant gambling in the game. First he dealt with Cubs infielder-outfielder Lee Magee, who admitted to Veeck in February 1920 that he tried to “toss” a game with the Boston Braves when he was with Cincinnati in 1918. Magee claimed that notorious game fixer Hal Chase had double-crossed him and so he stopped payment on a check to Chase. On February 20, 1920, Veeck released Magee, who sued the Cubs for his 1920 salary of $4,500, charging that his livelihood as a ballplayer had been destroyed because he was released after he admitted to game-fixing. The case went to trial in Federal Court in Cincinnati with Veeck testifying. Magee lost his suit and was banned by baseball.

The Magee incident set the stage for Veeck’s most heroic act, one that arguably ended up saving baseball. Before an August 31, 1920, game against the Phillies at Cubs Park, Veeck received six unsolicited, anonymous telegrams and two phone calls within a 45-minute span warning him that the day’s game would be fixed. Veeck quickly went to manager Mitchell, who immediately removed scheduled starter Claude Hendrix. Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had already won 22 games on his way to 27 wins for that season, was inserted as the starter, and was offered a $500 bonus to win the game. But the Cubs still lost, 3-0.

A September 4 letter to the Chicago Herald and Examiner detailed betting on the August 31 game. Veeck hired the Burns Detective Agency to investigate while asking the Chicago baseball beat writers — his former colleagues — for help in uncovering the sordid mess. Eventually, Hendrix, first baseman Fred Merkle, second baseman Buck Herzog, and pitcher Nick Carter were left off the traveling roster by Veeck for a road trip to Pittsburgh. The events prompted the impaneling of a Cook County grand jury to investigate gambling in baseball. The grand jury instead turned its attention to the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and Reds, which had long been rumored to have been fixed. The genie was out of the bottle, thanks to Veeck’s bold action.

Veeck testified that he had uncovered no actual plot to fix the August 31 game or found any evidence that his players were bribed. Nevertheless, the game’s cleanup needed a trigger, something that brought the sordid underworld of baseball out in the open. Veeck took decisive action while other top baseball executives largely looked the other way.

The domino effect led to the appointment of Landis as baseball’s first commissioner, the indictment and acquittal of the eight Black Sox, and Landis’s subsequent lifetime ban of the players. Episodes of gambling, even involving Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, kept churning throughout the 1920s. But the tide had turned. No additional Black Sox-level scandals would muddy baseball’s reputation.

“Veeck not only was actuated by the highest principles in the case, but he also acted with great wisdom and for the best interests of the Chicago National League club and baseball,” wrote John P. Sheridan in 1920. “When the cleanup is made, when baseball is purged of its polluters, the name of William Veeck will stand high in the history of the game with that of A.G. Spalding, who as president of the same Chicago Club made the first great fight on the gamblers who threated to destroy the game some 43 years ago, as a man who helped protect professional baseball from utter and total disintegration and destruction.”3

Surviving these gambling scares, Veeck settled down to a productive life, steadily building back the Cubs. Off-duty, he settled into a suburban lifestyle with his wife, Grace, who was somewhat embarrassed that she was older than her husband. (Grace Veeck ordered that this secret would not be revealed even after her death; her gravestone in the Hinsdale, Illinois, cemetery where she is buried next to her husband omits her birth year.)

Young Bill Veeck did not have to go to the North Side to get his baseball fix — it came to him. Among dinner guests at the Veeck home in Hinsdale, a western suburb of Chicago, was John McGraw, the greatest manager of the time. One day McGraw took note of the talent disparity between his New York Giants and the Cubs in the elder Veeck’s early days as Cubs’ boss, as recalled by Bill Veeck: “We could have beaten you even with our batboy in the lineup.”

Away from his baseball cares, William L. Veeck was an involved, doting father. He read to his children each night he was home. Young Bill went on to average three books read each week, gaining him a widespread knowledge of nonbaseball subjects.

Bill Veeck certainly took note of his father’s supervision of the building of the modern symbols of the Cubs. With attendance on the rise, a second deck was installed at the newly-renamed Wrigley Field over the course of 1926- 1928. The Ladies Days promotions made the Cubs a favorite of female fans, a status that continued. “Crowd Overflows Cubs Stands, Jams Field” … “Lock Gates After 50,000 Enter,” blazed the headlines of August 7, 1929, trumpeting the fact that 25,733 ladies (and future paying customers) had come to the game.4

On one crowded Ladies Day, Veeck encountered a distraught woman in an aisle just inside the entrance. He offered to find a seat for her. But the woman replied that she was merely walking by Wrigley Field when the surge of females into the ballpark swept her through the gates.

Perhaps the longest-lasting and most impactful Veeck policy was broadcasting. From the beginnings in 1925, when Chicago Daily News station WMAQ (“We Must Ask Questions”) began airing all Cubs home games, Veeck went against baseball’s grain in believing broadcast exposure would develop more fans. The Cubs allowed any station desiring to broadcast games access to the ballpark without charging a rights fee. By 1929, five radio stations carried the Cubs, a number that increased to seven by 1931. Network stations in surrounding states signed up. The Cubs developed a regional following with out-of-town license plates common on cars parked around Wrigley Field.

The strategy worked like a charm before the Great Depression. In 1926 the Cubs lead the NL in attendance for the first of seven consecutive years (1926-1933).

Other owners tried to ban baseball broadcasts, but the Cubs held firm. In the late 1930s all three New York teams colluded to keep their games off the radio until Dodgers owner Larry MacPhail broke the embargo by hiring Cincinnati announcer Red Barber. Yet the Yankees persisted in the radio tuneout. In 1941 none of the at-bats of Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak was broadcast on a New York station.

Similarly, in postwar America, most baseball owners developed a Superman-to-kryptonite relationship with heavy TV coverage. Eventually, though, they yielded with the rise of cable TV, the accompanying mega-millions (now billions) in broadcast rights and consistently rising attendance. Veeck’s philosophy indeed leaps out of the past to impact the game today.

Veeck also convinced a reluctant P.K. Wrigley that the All-Star Game was a good idea, reminding him the Chicago Tribune, the employer of All-Star Game founder Arch Ward, was a valuable publicity conduit for the Cubs. Wrigley Field missed hosting the inaugural 1933 game via the losing side of a coin flip.

One Veeck idea that did not fly was interleague play. He proposed a limited series of NL-AL games to boost flagging attendance during the pit of the Depression in 1933. The All-Star Game turned out to be an exception to team moguls’ traditional abhorrence of new ideas. The idea was tabled, not to see reality until 1997.

While Veeck looked into the future, he generally presided over player contentment in the present. Infielder Woody English recalled how management paid the highest salaries in the game. English’s own $15,000 payout in 1930 enabled him to buy a home for his parents. Slugger Hack Wilson landed a $33,000 contract off his 56-homer, 191-RBI season in 1930.

But the Cubs president also had his tough side. He traded Wilson after an indifferent 1931 season, tired of cleaning up after Hack’s nightly alcohol benders. Meanwhile, Veeck had to take another broom to Rogers Hornsby’s mess.

Hornsby was a favorite of William Wrigley, Jr. He was appointed Cubs manager with four games remaining in 1930 when Joe McCarthy could not win a World Series fast enough. Hornsby created constant tension in the clubhouse. Between his .400-hitter’s persnickety, unbending attitude toward his players and a weakness for the racetrack, Hornsby presided over an underachieving team that threatened to become fractious. Hornsby had borrowed money from multiple players to cover his horseracing debts. Landis began sniffing around the situation, his ears always perked for reports of gambling in the game.

Veeck reportedly was never a fan of Hornsby the manager. With Wrigley Jr.’s death in January 1932 from heart disease, Veeck gained even more authority and looked critically at Hornsby’s stewardship. Finally pulling the trigger, Veeck fired Hornsby on August 2, 1932, in Philadelphia, agreeing to pay off the Rajah’s contract as agreed until season’s end. The move was a breath of fresh air for the Cubs. They took off with first baseman Charlie Grimm now doubling as manager and zoomed to the pennant and their date with Babe Ruth and his “Called Shot” in the World Series as the Cubs were swept by the McCarthy-led Yankees.

Sadly, the era of Veeck having full authority over the Cubs and keeping Phil Wrigley away from disastrous decision-making lasted only two seasons. Veeck apparently fell ill with the flu after watching the Cubs play the Giants in inclement conditions in Chicago on September 14, 1933. He continued to run the team from his sickbed in Hinsdale even as his condition worsened. At one point, he could keep down only wine or champagne, still technically illegal in the last days of Prohibition. An emotionally stricken son Bill Veeck contacted the Capone family, who delivered two cases of French champagne to his father with a note, “Compliments of Al Capone” (then jailed in federal prison after his income-tax conviction).

Deathly ill, William Veeck was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. There was no treatment for the blood disease in 1933. He died on October 5.

Tributes poured in from throughout baseball. Hundreds, including the Cubs players, attended his funeral. Baseball mourned his loss and lowered the flag to half-staff during the World Series in his honor. Veeck’s casket passed through two rows of ushers standing in tribute. Landis reportedly cried in discussing the loss of his old friend.

Veeck left a legacy to his son, summed up in comments to writer Harry Neily a few weeks before his death:

“I go to baseball meetings, but nobody suggests how we can get more patrons into our parks. I am not certain what can be done, but we are conducting our business on the basis of two decades ago.

“Every other line of endeavor has changed its tactics, but we go along in the same old rut.

“I do not know what can be done, but baseball cannot stand still and survive.”5

Those are words that ring as true in the 21st century as in 1933.

In 2012 the Chicago Baseball Museum began a campaign to get William L. Veeck on the Hall of Fame ballot to join his son in Cooperstown and become the second father-son combination in the Hall of Fame behind Larry and Lee MacPhail.

 

This biography appears in "Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.

  • 1. Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, Veeck — As In Wreck (New York: Putnam, 1962), 25.
  • 2. Jack Bales, “It Was His Fairness That Caught Wrigley’s Eye: William L. Veeck’s Journalism Career and His Hiring by the Chicago Cubs,” Nine (Vol. 20.2, 2013), 1-14.
  • 3. John Sheridan, The Sporting News, September 30, 1920, 4.
  • 4. Chicago Tribune, August 7, 1929.
  • 5. Harry Neily, “Hard-Fisted Policies Only Masked Human Side of Veeck,” The Sporting News, October 26, 1933, 7.