The Veracity of Veeck
This article was published in the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal.
In his excellent biography of Bill Veeck, author Paul Dickson tackles the controversy over whether National League president Ford Frick and/or Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis blocked Veeck’s attempt to buy the Phillies in 1942 and field a team of players from the Negro Leagues, as Veeck alleges in his 1962 book, Veeck—as in Wreck.
Dickson’s take: the story is true.
- Several sources testify that Veeck told them of his plans at the time.
- Veeck told the story in numerous interviews before the book was published.
- Veeck was not a liar.
We’re still skeptical—not that Veeck didn’t consider or even inquire into buying the Phillies, and not that he didn’t think and talk about and desire to integrate baseball—but that Ford Frick or Judge Landis was responsible for stopping him.
First, some background.
In the 1998 issue of The National Pastime, Larry Gerlach, David Jordan, and John P. Rossi wrote an article debunking Veeck’s story of trying to buy the Phillies and use all Negro players, only to be blocked by Frick or Landis or both. The authors claim that nothing about the story had appeared in print until Veeck told it in Veeck—as in Wreck, concluding that Veeck made it up to enliven the book. But evidence emerged that the story had been written about well before 1962. Critics therefore consigned the entire article to the bunk bin. But the nagging question remained unanswered: Was the story itself true?
Historian Jules Tygiel, while charging (correctly) that Gerlach and the others had erred in accusing Veeck of concocting the story “at the time of the writing of his book,” admitted, “The story may still be untrue and the source may still ultimately be Veeck himself.”
What follows is the result of our independent research and conclusions subsequent to the publication of Dickson’s book.
The story begins in late 1942 with the perennially last-place Phillies, milked dry by club owner Gerry Nugent for ten years, broke and in hock to the National League. Bill Veeck was operating the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association at the time. The National League, headed by Ford Frick, was looking for somebody to rescue the Phillies.
In a 1986 interview, John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News told of encountering Veeck carrying a suitcase one day in the winter of 1942.
“Where you going?” asked Carmichael.
Veeck said he was going to Philadelphia to buy the Phillies. “And do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put a whole black team on the field.”
As Dickson tells it, after revealing his plans to Carmichael and before leaving Chicago, Veeck and his friend Abe Saperstein—a sports promoter who was supposed to line up the black players—went to see Judge Landis. Veeck told Shirley Povich in 1960, “[W]e told Judge Landis we wanted to field an entire team of Negroes.”
There is no evidence to corroborate this story. In fact, there is testimony from Veeck and Saperstein that contradicts it. But we’ll get to that.
Bill Veeck was an intelligent man. He was aware of the campaigning by some baseball writers to give black players a chance in Major League Baseball, and he knew of the resistance from big league owners. Veeck was also familiar with the racial climate of the time, defined by segregation of the armed forces, defense plants, the nation’s capital, and the American mindset.
So it’s difficult to believe that Bill Veeck would have advertised such radical intentions so openly. If he seriously expected to buy the Phillies (the rest of the Carmichael interview includes the writer’s saying that Veeck “didn’t have the money”) and field an all-Negro team, he wouldn’t broadcast it to a newspaperman, then go out of his way to tip off the commissioner of baseball that he was about to detonate a hundred years of baseball tradition by setting loose a social tsunami—and expect it to remain a secret.
It was also out of character for a man who, four years later, checked into a Cleveland hotel under an assumed name to keep secret his efforts to buy the Indians.
Veeck loved to tweak and nettle stodgy baseball officials. If Carmichael’s memory was accurate 44 years later (not a sure bet), what better way for Veeck to put their knickers in a twist than to make brash statements about fielding an all-Negro team?
Dickson writes that Veeck and Saperstein left Landis’s office and Veeck headed for Philadelphia believing he "had a major league ball club.”
What made him believe that?
Dickson cites an October 22, 1942, article in The Sporting News as early evidence that “Veeck was involved in some kind of attempt to buy the Phillies,” and relies on subsequent mentions of Veeck having been “a prospective buyer” as supporting the Landis/Frick story, which they do not. What’s more, the full text of the October 22 item, datelined Milwaukee, suggests otherwise:
That he was a serious bidder for the Philadelphia National League club was revealed here by Bill Veeck, president of the Milwaukee Brewers. He went to Boston [why Boston?] after the World’s Series for what he said was just a visit but instead he and General Manager Rudie Shaffer conferred with Gerry Nugent, president of the Phils. Previously, a story had been circulated [by whom isn’t said] that Veeck, manager Charlie Grimm and their Milwaukee colleagues would buy the NL club.
Veeck, of course, denied the rumor, but admits it gave him an idea. ‘So I called on Nugent and we talked about his club,’ the Brewers’ head man told Sam Levy of the Milwaukee Journal. ‘He quoted some large figures, of course, but that was all.’
Had he closed the deal, Sport Shirt Bill would have remained in Milwaukee and Grimm would have moved to Philadelphia, Veeck said.
On November 4 Gerry Nugent acknowledged that Veeck had visited him after the World Series and inquired about buying the Phillies, but he said he hadn’t heard from Veeck since then. Veeck had no basis to believe he had bought a ball club; he had made no offer that had been accepted. Dickson never claims that Veeck and Nugent had come to an agreement. And even if they had, Veeck knew he would still need the approval of a majority of the National League owners, who would certainly have learned of his not-so-secret plans—if the visit to Landis’s office had actually occurred.
Dickson writes, “Before reaching Nugent’s office, however, Veeck discovered that the Phillies had been officially taken over by the National League the night before and that a new owner was being sought.”
That didn’t happen until February 9, 1943, four months after Veeck’s first and—as far as is known—only meeting with Nugent.
Veeck maintained in later interviews that “I always will believe Landis leaked our plans to Frick. Frick wouldn’t talk business with us.”
But reading on we discover that Dickson himself provides compelling evidence to refute this version of the story that blames Landis and Frick for stopping Veeck. Dickson references quotations by Veeck in the September 1948 issue of Baseball Digest that clash with his supposedly telling Carmichael and Landis in advance what he planned to do if he bought the Phillies: It was really intended to be a big surprise to everybody, including Landis and Frick.
Dickson writes, “[Veeck] is quoted as saying he had not thought about buying the Phillies until he read in the papers that he was rumored to be interested in the ailing franchise and that he was one of the likely buyers.” (This testifies to the pitfalls of historians relying on the speculative or fabricated rumors from “reliable authorities” or “knowledgeable insiders” that fill many a column on a slow news day.)
Dickson goes on, “[Veeck] explained that he had a leading promoter of Negro baseball [Abe Saperstein] compile a list of Negro All-Stars, who he had planned to recruit, train, and spring on the world [italics added] on Opening Day 1943. ‘What could they have done,’ Veeck asked? ‘They would have had to play my team or forfeit the game.’”
Dickson adds a statement by Abe Saperstein from a 1954 Associated Negro Press story that also contradicts the tip-off to Landis version:
“Do you know what Veeck planned to do? He was going to take the Phils to spring training in Florida and then—on the day the season opened—dispose of the entire team. Meanwhile, with a team composed entirely of Negroes, who would have trained separately, he could have opened the National League season.”
This assertion also makes little sense to us. It was the middle of World War II, and spring training was limited to northern states east of the Mississippi. We’re asked to believe that Veeck could have spirited away such players as Satchel Paige, Willard Brown, and Buck O’Neil from the Kansas City Monarchs, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard from the Homestead Grays, Leon Day from the Newark Eagles, and a dozen more players, sequester them in a secret training camp (while simultaneously running the Phillies’ camp)—and nobody would notice? And then on Opening Day sign them all and release or “dispose of” the entire Phillies’ roster.
Fanciful minds yield fantastical plots, and the complexities and difficulties associated with Veeck’s claim, regardless of whether it could be kept secret, makes it implausible in our view. It might have been fun to speculate about the plot over a case of beer, but there is no corroborating evidence—convincing, verifiable, independent, and reliable—that the alleged scheme ever became anything more than that.
We judge it more likely that Landis and Frick were set up as fall guys for preventing Veeck from doing something he thought about, talked about, and wished he had done but never seriously attempted. Why? It’s impossible to know exactly Veeck’s motivations in making the claims he did. Aware of the praise and exalted place in history Branch Rickey had gained by integrating major league baseball in 1947—the same year Dickson says Veeck first talked about his plan in print—Veeck may have wished to portray himself as baseball’s first true visionary in breaking the major leagues’ color barrier by resurrecting and embellishing his 1942 flirtation with the notion of buying the Phillies and fielding an all-Negro roster. Veeck needed villains to explain his failure and still remain a hero for at least trying, and casting Landis and Frick as the bad guys in thwarting his noble endeavor was a convenient way to do that.
Dickson points out that Frick, who died in 1978, never denied Veeck’s version of the story about telling Judge Landis of his intentions after seeing John Carmichael. It is not surprising that Frick declined to comment because replying risked being dragged publicly into a feckless “did-so”–“did-not” mud puddle with Veeck. The lack of a retort is not a tacit admission that a charge is true. In all likelihood, Frick adopted the diplomatic stance of silence, as people often do in refusing to dignify an unfounded accusation with a response.
Memory changes as a man ages, becoming more an act of imagination than recollection. Details are added or forgotten. Selective editing takes place. It is said that hindsight is 20–20. But as we age it becomes 20–40, then 20–60. The older we get, the more clearly we remember things that never happened. None of this makes anybody a liar, any more than an old Texan who recollects hunting jackrabbits as big as buffalo when he was a youngster.
Baseball lore is full of phony stories that have metamorphosed into accepted truths through repetition. As authors we have heard plenty of them while interviewing over a hundred old ballplayers. The stories include exaggeration, events heard of or read about but not personally witnessed, and plain old wishful thinking. As Babe Ruth purportedly said about his called shot, “It makes a good story.” Lefty Gomez made a living out of such good stories on the rubber-chicken circuit.
Dickson admits that Veeck was capable of elaborating or repeating made-up stories, thus validating them as fact in perpetuity thereafter. On page 129 he cites a dramatic but fallacious 1949 account by Shirley Povich “that fall[s] apart under scrutiny” about Larry Doby’s first big league at-bat.
The “story circulated for years after Veeck himself repeated the tale on a New York radio station in 1961,” even unto Doby’s Sports Illustrated obituary in 2007.
In Veeck—as in Wreck there’s a story in which Veeck describes negotiating over a party line from his farm outside Milwaukee with Connie Mack for the sale of outfielder Hal Peck. As the story goes, listeners on the party line kept telling Veeck he was asking for too little while Mr. Mack complained that the line was noisy. Veeck upped the asking price and Mack agreed. Veeck rewarded his kibitzers with a case of whisky. But the Peck deal took place in the middle of the 1944 season, at a time when Veeck was with the Marines in the South Pacific. Mack dealt with Mickey Heath, who was left in charge of the Brewers by Veeck.
When this was mentioned to Dickson as an example of Veeck’s stretching the truth for the sake of a good story, he conceded, “That is a problem.”
People believe what they want to believe. As researchers and historians we believe what the evidence allows us to believe.
NORMAN L. MACHT has recently completed Volume 3—the last—of his multivolume work on the life of Connie Mack. It will be published February 2015.
ROBERT D. WARRINGTON is a Philadelphia baseball historian and author.