Revisiting Bill Veeck and the 1943 Phillies

This article was written by Jules Tygiel

This article was published in the 2006 Baseball Research Journal


Few pieces published in a SABR journal have had a greater impact than “A Baseball Myth Exploded: The Truth About Bill Veeck and the ’43 Phillies,” the cover story in the 1998 edition of The National Pastime.1

The article, authored by David Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John Rossi, challenged legendary baseball executive Bill Veeck’s claim that in 1943 he had attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies with plans to stock the team with Negro League stars, only to be thwarted by the machinations of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis and National League president Ford Frick.“The major difficulty with this oft-told story,” read a quote on the cover of The National Pastime, “is that it is not true. Veeck did not have a deal to buy the Phillies. He did not work to stock any team with Negro League stars. No such deal was quashed by Landis or Frick.”2

Veeck, the authors charged, had, at the very least misrepresented his actions, and more likely, lied to enhance his image as an integrationist. This contention, aggressively argued and persuasively supported by diligent research, became the new conventional wisdom. However, now the “major difficulty” is that recently uncovered evidence, while not definitively absolving Veeck, raises questions about the conclusions of the Jordan/Gerlach/Rossi article and lends greater credence to Veeck’s original story.

The saga of Bill Veeck and the 1943 Phillies gained wide circulation with the publication of Veeck’s celebrated autobiography, Veeck As in Wreck, in 1962. In a relatively brief two-page aside to his discussion of his 1946 signing of Larry Doby, Veeck revealed that during World War II he had approached beleaguered Phillies owner Gerry Nugent and made arrangements to purchase the club.

Unbeknownst to Nugent, Veeck, working with Negro League booking agent Abe Saperstein and Chicago Defender sports editor Doc Young, planned to field a virtual Negro League all-star team that he believed would win the 1944 National League pennant. Veeck said that he had arranged financing with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and when that fell through, he had Phillies Cigars as another potential backer lined up. But, added Veeck, “Out of a long respect for Judge Landis I felt he was entitled to prior notification of what I intended to do.”

Suddenly, the National League seized control of the Phillies, and Ford Frick sold the team to lumber magnate William Cox “for about half of what I was willing to pay.” According to Veeck, he soon heard that “Frick was bragging all over the baseball world . . . about how he had stopped me from contaminating the league.”3

Veeck’s story adhered to the historical record in some respects but also contained key inaccuracies. The National League had indeed taken the Phillies from Nugent when he could not find an acceptable buyer and subsequently arranged a sale to Cox (who would be barred from baseball the following year for betting on his own team.) But Veeck’s scenario had the date wrong, placing these events in 1944 rather than 1943, misnamed one of his co-conspirators, confusing Chicago Defender editor Fay Young, with A. S. “Doc” Young, whom he would know in Cleveland, and identifying among the Negro Leaguers he planned to sign Luke Easter, who would not make his debut until 1946.4

There was also another reason to be skeptical of Veeck’s claims. Veeck already possessed substantial credentials as a key figure in baseball’s historic integration. In 1947 he had signed Larry Doby to become the first African American player in the American League, becoming only the second major league owner to add a black athlete to his squad, after Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now Veeck was saying that if not for the intervention of baseball officials, he, not Rickey, would have won the accolades lavished on baseball’s “Great Emancipator.”

Nonetheless Veeck’s account, as Jordan et al write, had become “an article of historical faith, found in virtually every general history of black and white professional baseball as well as studies of racial integration.”5 Robert Peterson included it in Only the Ball Was White. Donn Rogosin and I, both of whom also interviewed Veeck on the subject, presented the story uncritically in our 1983 books, Invisible Men and Baseball’s Great Experiment.6 All of us took Veeck at his word; none of us sought to corroborate the tale.

The 1998 National Pastime article thus came as a bombshell. Indeed, the journal presented it as such. In addition to the splashy cover and provocative title, The National Pastime presented the revelations as its lead story and, in a periodical in which the typical article ran two to five pages, devoted 11 pages to its exposition. Editor Mark Alvarez in his preamble comments to the issue wrote, “Our lead article . . . definitively debunks a baseball myth created by Bill Veeck, one of the few owners who would probably get a favorable rating by SABR’s membership.”7

The prominence of the three authors lent even more credibility to the exposé. David Jordan, the author of three biographies, including one of pitcher Hal Newhouser, is one of the foremost authorities on Philadelphia baseball history. John Rossi is a professor of history at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. Larry Gerlach, a professor of history at the University of Utah, had published the pioneering volume of oral histories, The Men in Blue: Conversations With Umpires, and more significantly, was the president of SABR at the time.8

Jordan, Gerlach, and Rossi noted that Veeck’s account “has never been corroborated by anyone else . . . the source always turns out to be the two pages in the autobiography or an interview with Veeck himself.”9 Despite dogged digging in newspapers, document collections, and autobiographies they could uncover no evidence to support his tale. Abe Saperstein had never discussed Veeck’s plan, nor had Fay Young. No Negro League player had ever mentioned being recruited by Saperstein, Young, or Veeck to play for the Phillies. Contemporary newspaper reports and an interview with Rudie Schaffer, Veeck’s top assistant during these years, confirmed that Veeck had met with Phillies owner Gerry Nugent in October 1942. But according to Schaffer and other accounts, nothing had come of this meeting. No firm offer had been made or accepted. During the critical months leading up to the sale of the team in February 1943. Veeck’s name never came up as a potential buyer.

The three scholars searched not only the mainstream press and The Sporting News for corroboration of Veeck’s claims, but the African American week lies as well. The Philadelphia Tribune never picked up on the story. Fay Young’s Chicago Defender, which supposedly had an inside track, never mentioned Veeck’s plan; nor did any of the other major African American periodicals. “The silence of the black press,” concluded Jordan et al, “is deafening.”10 The Communist Daily Worker had addressed the sale of the Phillies and even advised the new owner to “look for first rate players . . . among those Negro League players who have never been given a major league chance.” But the Worker never mentioned Veeck’s name in connection with this story.11 With regard to CIO involvement, the authors note, “a bankrupt baseball team seems an odd investment for the CIO to make during the war.” Research into the CIO archives uncovered “no mention of Bill Veeck or the possible financing of his purchase of the Phillies.”12

Jordan et al also searched the black and white press at key moments of Veeck’s career when the story might have surfaced. Veeck purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946, the year when Jackie Robinson debuted in Montreal and speculation existed about which other teams might follow the Brooklyn Dodger lead. The only mention of Veeck’s attempt to buy the Phillies appeared in a column by Red Smith. Smith wrote,“Hardly anyone knows how close Veeck came to buying the Phillies when the National League was forcing Gerry Nugent to sell. He had the financial backing and the inside track, but at the last minute, he decided the risk was too great to take with his friend’s money.”13

Smith had worked for the Philadelphia Record in 1942-43, but, as Jordan et al point out, this story likely came not from any firsthand knowledge, but from Veeck himself and the reason that the deal fell through offered here differs from later accounts. More significantly, neither Smith nor any newspaper in 1946, black or white, not even the Chicago Defender or Cleveland Call and Post, displayed an inkling of awareness of Veeck’s plan to field a team of Negro Leaguers. Similarly, in 1947 when Veeck signed Doby, and 1948 when, amidst great publicity he recruited Satchel Paige, no one brought up the Phillies precedent.14

Moreover, the three authors found numerous inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and improbabilities in Veeck’s version of events. Why would the cash-strapped Nugent have accepted an offer for his team that would have netted him half as much as the Veeck bid? Since Veeck owned the minor league Milwaukee franchise and Landis had no jurisdiction over the minors, why hadn’t Veeck assigned the players he had recruited to play for the Brewers? How, if Frick had “bragged all over the baseball world” about his actions, had the story never leaked out? As Jordan et al observed, Veeck had “a singularly cavalier attitude toward the details of the story.”15 Interviews with Rogosin, Wendell Smith, Shirley Povich, and me differed in the names of the players involved, the sportswriter he had worked with, and the timing of his offer, sometimes placing it before Nugent had turned the team over to the National League and at others implying that he had dealt directly with Frick after the takeover.

Indeed, these inconsistencies led Jordan et al to conclude that Veeck’s integration saga was an “ex post facto . . . latter-day construction,”16 a tale concocted by Veeck in the early 1960s. Veeck, they argue, might have thought about buying the Phillies and might have been influenced by 1942 articles in the People’s Voice and The Sporting News that speculated about how successful an all-black team would be in the National League, but he had never seriously attempted to bring this scenario to fruition.17

The first published version of the story discovered by Jordan et al appeared in 1960. Veeck told a writer for Ebony magazine that he “wanted to buy the Philadelphia ballclub to put in an all-Negro team.” Shortly before the publication of Veeck As in Wreck, Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith, who had covered the integration beat since the 1930s, described Veeck’s efforts to buy the Phillies, but his account came not from first-hand knowledge, but from a recent interview with Veeck. Jordan et al imply that Veeck’s fabrication dated from this time. In commenting on the Ebony piece, they state, “Clearly the story was embellishedand changed for the autobiography a couple of years later.”18 At another point they suggest that “this story may have resulted from Bill Veeck’s ill health at the time he sat down with Ed Linn to do his book.” Fearing that he might soon die, “he probably felt this book was to be the last chance to poke the baseball powers in the eye, to steal some credit from Rickey, and to polish his own place in baseball history.”19

The arguments presented in “A Baseball Myth Exploded” fell into two categories. As in the case of “Sherlock Holmes’s non barking dog,”their inability to discover any corroboration for Veeck’s claims, they believed, spoke volumes about the validity of the story.20 Furthermore, many of the elements of Veeck’s tale lacked even a modicum of common sense. Jordan et al, using the strongest possible language, speculated on how people would have acted if confronted by various situations. It is, they assert, “inconceivable that Veeck’s Phillies project would not have become a matter of public currency, at least within the world of Negro baseball.” That the black press would not have reacted to Veeck’s betrayal “with great vehemence” is “simply not believable.” Nugent’s acquiescence in Frick’s chicanery “defies economic logic.” 21 Thus, they concluded, “we must face the fact that Bill Veeck falsified the historical record.”22

Given the revisionist nature of the article and its open attack on Veeck’s character, “A Baseball Myth Debunked,’ triggered surprisingly few challenges. Gerlach had sent me an earlier draft in June 1997 and requested a critique. In an e-mail response I raised several objections.23 I pointed out that he, Jordan and Rossi, were trying to prove a negative, a virtually impossible task

Gerlach responded, “That is why we read so far and wide in every conceivable source. In the end we concluded that the absence of evidence is ipso-facto negative; it would not be reasonable to conclude otherwise.” I also argued that I found the press silence on this matter less unusual than they did and could think of other reasons why they might not have pursued this. I did not agree with the proposition that had Veeck been serious about integration in 1942, he could simply have added black players to the Brewers.

I also made two other criticisms. In the article Jordan et al had indicated that sportswriters had not commented on the Phillies revelation, indicating that they did not believe Veeck. I noted that the episode occupied on two pages in a 377-page book and that sportswriters had probably over-looked it, rather than rejected it. More pointedly, I wondered about Frick’s response, or lack of one, to Veeck’s charges. In 1962 Frick was the commissioner of baseball. Veeck had charged him with being a duplicitous racist. Yet Frick had never denied the tale. “Why did Frick allow this blot on his record to stand if it werenot true?” I asked.

In the published version of the article, Jordan et al addressed this point, noting that Veeck had taken many “potshots” at Frick in the book, but argued that since“the baseball press generally gave the volume short shrift . . . there was little pressure on Frick to respond to any of Veeck’s charges.” Frick had decided “that his best course would be to ignore Veeck’s work altogether.”24

Indeed, when Frick published his own autobiography in 1973, he made no mention of Veeck at all.25 The assertion that the press, baseball or otherwise, gave Veeck As in Wreck “short shrift” seemed odd. The book, after all, was a sensation. It was widely reviewed and within twelve days of publication had gone into four printings. It rose as high as ninth place among New York Times bestsellers and remained on the list at least eight weeks.26

Nonetheless, while reviewers and other commentators remarked on his sending a midget to the plate and other promotional stunts and described his running battles with the baseball establishment, none had addressed the Phillies integration saga. Jordan et al were probably correct in their assessment of Frick’s response.

Despite my reservations about particular arguments, I generally accepted the overall thrust of The National Pastime article. Not so Mike Gimbel. He was a SABR member who published annual player ratings manuals and had worked as a statistics analyst for the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. He wrote to SABR executive director Morris Eckhouse, protesting the Veeck article.27

“It is with great sadness and outrage that I must request that my name be removed from the membership list of SABR,” wrote Gimbel. “Shame on SABR for printing this scurrilous article. Shame on SABR for putting it on the cover.”

Gimbel raised some of the same points I had: the negative nature of the evidence, the failure of Frick to rebut the charges, the popularity of Veeck’s book. But in far more pungent prose he attacked the authors as “mean spirited” and protested the tone of the article. He criticized their over-reliance on newspapers. “For Veeck to have gone to even a single reporter to tell anyone of his plans would have been suicidal of the time,” wrote Gimbel, given the “absolute and total racism in the US, both North and South,” at the time.

He noted that the inconsistency in Veeck’s retelling could be construed as a point in his favor. “If it were totally consistent then I would really be suspicious about the story,” countered Gimbel. He had hoped that SABR would publish his response in a subsequent publication, but the organization failed to do so.28

Gimbel’s angry missive notwithstanding, the article in The National Pastime convinced most SABR members and those in the baseball world who became aware of it that Veeck, a master storyteller often prone to exaggeration, had largely invented the tale of his attempt to integrate the 1943 Phillies. However, their considerable exertions notwithstanding, Jordan et al had not, indeed could not possibly have, examined all of the available newspapers that might have mentioned this scheme. They had, in effect, rounded up all of the usual suspects, looking for coverage at times it seemed most likely the story might be referenced. But in recent years researchers perusing the African American press have found earlier references to Veeck’s plans that at least partially debunk the new myth that the 1998 exposé created.

In a footnote in his path breaking 2004 study, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, Neil Lanctot wrote, “there is scattered evidence to suggest [Veeck’s] involvement with Saperstein and Fay Young.” Lanctot references an article in the Chicago Defender on February 26, 1949, in which Young had described an address by Veeck to the Chicago Urban League. The Indians owner stated he had spoken with Young “for several hours about integrating Negroes in major league baseball. At that time I was planning to buy the Philadelphia Nationals.” Lanctot also noted a 1954 report from the Associated Negro Press in which Abe Saperstein talked about the matter.29

In 2005, while thumbing through Great Negro Baseball Stars, a long out-of-print book written by S. “Doc” Young in 1953, I found a passage about Veeck when he bought the Indians in 1946: “Negro writers soon recognized Veeck as a person likely to give an ear to the proposition of Negroes playing in the American League. Perhaps they had heard the unsubstantiated story that Veeck once shocked baseball’s late commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, with a proposal to buy a major league club and transform it into an all-colored aggregation.”30

These citations clearly disproved one of the basic Jordan/Gerlach/Rossi assertions — that Veeck’s story was a “latter-day creation” that he had begun to tell widely only in the early 1960s. It also offered at least partial corroboration from three individuals whom the authors had deemed central to their 1998 exposé. Fay Young and Saperstein, Veeck’s purported collaborators, had indeed both mentioned the plot. With regard to “Doc” Young, who as the sports editor of the Cleveland Call and Post had had extensive access to Veeck during the latter’s years in Cleveland, Jordan et al had asserted, “Young’s silence is significant.”31 But he too, like Fay Young and Saperstein, had not truly been silent on this matter.

Upon discovering the passage in Great Negro Baseball Stars, I sent a message to SABR-L, the discussion list for the Society of American Baseball Research.32 I received several responses from people who had also found pre-1960 references to the Veeck-Phillies venture. Christopher Hauser fleshed out the Saperstein connection. He reported on the following item in the August 14, 1954 Philadelphia Independent:

Abe Saperstein of the fabulous Harlem Globetrotters stated this week in a press interview that baseball magnate Bill Veeck had intended to use a baseball trick back in 1942 which would have upset the thinking in the major league, had it materialized. “I’ll tell you one thing about Veeck,” said Saperstein, “something that few people know. In 1942 the Phillies were for sale and Veeck attempted to buy them. But Bill Cox raised more money and got the club. 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. I don’t think there was a team in either league, back in 1943, that could have stopped the team he was going to assemble.”33

Saperstein’s account bore striking similarities to that offered by Veeck confidant Rudie Schaffer in The National Pastime article. Jordan et al had interviewed Schaffer, the only participant still alive when they were conducting research. Schaffer had told them that Veeck “even had the idea of holding two separate spring training camps, one as a blind, for the white players he was not going to use, the other for the blacks who would constitute his team when the season started.”34 Jordan et al had summarily dismissed this recollection in a footnote, exclaiming, “One wonders how eager Veeck’s backers would have been to finance two training camps instead of the usual one!”35

Hauser had also uncovered a relatively detailed account of Veeck’s plans in an article by Randy Dixon in the Philadelphia Independent on September 9, 1956. Dixon’s rendition adhered closely to Veeck’s later versions. Veeck and Saperstein had dreamt up the scheme and had proposed it to Landis, who referred them to Frick. Landis had expressed his displeasure to Frick, who “wouldn’t talk business” with Veeck and sold the franchise to Cox. The article offered a longer list of proposed players, including Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell, whose careers had more or less ended by 1943.36

Another SABR-L participant, David Kaiser, produced a reference to a column by Shirley Povich on May 10, 1953.37 Veeck told Povich the same story reported by Dixon: “Landis stopped me, I think. It was after Gerry Nugent had tossed in the towel with the Philadelphia Phillies and the franchise was back in the lap of the league. Abe Saperstein, an owner in the Negro National League, and I had plans.” Frick refused to deal with Veeck. “I don’t blame the other club owners,” Veeck allowed. “We’d have walked away with the pennant.”38

Taken together, these references loosen the underpinnings of some, though not all, of the Jordan/Gerlach/Rossi exposé. In all of these accounts the only voice telling the story remains Veeck’s. Saperstein repeats the tale but never acknowledges his own role, does not indicate that this is a firsthand account, and fails to confirm the details of a meeting with Landis. Doc Young’s knowledge of the rumors most likely came from Veeck. Fay Young reports Veeck’s account that describes his role and does not contradict it. In this case the Holmesian dog does not bark in Veeck’s favor. In particular, Young’s role is reduced to several hours of consultation rather than active participation. Nonetheless, if Veeck’s story was a “latter-day construction,” he created it not in the early 1960s but sometime in the 1940s, shortly after the events purportedly took place. He told one variation to Red Smith no later than 1946. Three years later he described his plan in greater detail to the Chicago Urban League. Over the next decade he retold the story frequently. Certain elements varied — whether he made his offer to Cox or to Frick, the lineup of Negro League stars — but the basic framework of Veeck’s contentions is remarkably consistent.

The overall assessment of Jordan et al — that Veeck’s notion of buying the Phillies and fielding a team of Negro League stars never quite moved as far from the drawing board as Veeck claimed — may still be true. We still lack any solid evidence that confirms that Veeck had not only conceptualized this action, but made a firm offer to buy the Phillies and met a rebuff by Landis and Frick. But Jordan et al’s blanket dismissal of Veeck’s assertions and confident branding of Veeck as a liar no longer stand uncontested. In their National Pastime article they had correctly chastised earlier historians for accepting Veeck’s narrative at face value and injected a dose of skepticism, replacing unwarranted certainty with healthy debate. Their own rush to judgment, however, offers yet another cautionary tale of relying on an absence of evidence and overreaching one’s resources in drawing conclusions.

JULES TYGIEL is a Professor of History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.

 

Notes

  1. David M. Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John P. Rossi. “A Baseball Myth Exploded: The Truth About Bill Veeck and the ’43 Phillies,” The National Pastime (1998), 3–13.
  2. The National Pastime (1998),
  3. Bill Veeck, with Ed Linn. Veeck — As in Wreck (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962), 171–72.
  4. Jordan et al also fault Veeck for including Monte Irvin on his list, since Irvin was in the However, Irvin had played in the Negro Leagues in 1942, and in the fall of 1942 Veeck mightnot have been aware that Irvin had entered the military.
  5. Jordan et al,
  6. Robert Peterson. Only the Ball Was White (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970); Donn Rogosin, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (New York: Atheneum, 1983); JulesTygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). Jordan et al list 15 additional books that uncritically accepted Veeck’srecollections.
  7. The National Pastime (1998),
  8. David A Tiger in His Time: Hal Newhouser and the Burden of Wartime Ball (Diamond Communications, 1991); Larry M. Gerlach, The Men in Blue: Conversations With Umpires(New York: Viking, 1980). In subsequent years Jordan has also written The Athletics of Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s White Elephants, 1901–1954, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999) and Occasional Glory: The History of the Philadelphia Phillies, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003). Rossi is author of A Whole New Game: Off the Field Changes in Baseball, 1946– 1960, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999); The National Game: Baseball and American Culture (New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2000); and The 1964 Phillies: The Story of Baseball’s Most MemorableCollapse (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005).
  9. Jordan et al, 5.
  10. Jordan et al, 6.
  11. Jordan et al, 6.
  12. Jordan et al, 9.
  13. Jordan et al, 6.
  14. Jordan et al, 7.
  15. Jordan et al, 8–9.
  16. Jordan et al, 8, 11.
  17. Jordan et al, 9.
  18. Jordan et al, 9.
  19. Jordan et al, 11.
  20. Jordan et al, 3.
  21. Jordan et al, 6, 5. Italics added.
  22. Jordan et al, 12.
  23. The following references all come from an e-mail, Larry Gerlach to Jules Tygiel, July 9, 1997. I do not have a copy of the original critique I sent to Gerlach, but excerpts from that messagewere included in Gerlach’s response.
  24. Jordan et al, 9–10. In his e-mail to me Gerlach indicated that this issue had been addressed at greater length in a fuller version of the article that I had not seen.
  25. Ford C. Frick. Games, Asterisks, and People: Memoirs of a Lucky Fan (New York, Crown, 1973).
  26. See New York Times Book Review, August 5–September 16, 1962, and New York Times, August 1, 1962.
  27. Mike Gimbel to Morris Eckhouse, July 11, 1998 (author copy). For a brief portrait of Gimbel, see Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics (NewYork: Martin’s Press, 2004).
  28. E-mail Mike Gimbel to Jules Tygiel, March 19, Gimbel did later rejoin SABR.
  29. Neil Lanctot. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 236–41.
  30. S. “Doc” Young. Great Negro Baseball Stars and How They Made the Major Leagues (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1953), 52.
  31. Jordan et al, 8.
  32. E-mail Jules Tygiel to SABR-L, March 12, 2005.
  33. E-mail Christopher Hauser to SABR-L, March 14, 2005.
  34. Jordan et al, 11.
  35. Jordan et al, 13–39.
  36. E-mail Christopher Hauser to SABR-L, March 23, 2005.
  37. E-mail David Kaiser to SABR-L, September 18, 2005.
  38. Washington Post, May 10, 1953.

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