Review of Paul Dickson’s Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick

Note: This book is based on a galley copy that I received via http://www.netgalley.com The final draft of the book will be released on April Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick24th.

If you take a trip to a major league ball park today or if you grab a schedule and look at the various “nights” that feature either freebes for the kids or any fan, or if you listen to the game on the radio (or these days, on an iPad you might be using now to read this review); or if you are grateful for the fact that men like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Tony Gwinn, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Curtis Granderson played (or plays) the game; some how, some way, you have to thank the late Bill Veeck  (as in, Wreck) the maverick owner of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox of the American League and the Milwaukee Brewers of then minor league fame as well as several other clubs in both the majors as well as the minor leagues. For such events and actions that brought people to the ball park in droves in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s as well as breaking down the long standing color barrier in baseball, were part of his legend, his lore, with the game we call America’s past-time.

Paul Dickson has done us a favor by bringing a new read to today’s fans and baseball  aficionados of a man that was loved by the fans and players but despised and even hated by his fellow owners who he felt were more concerned with tradition and money that the game that was played on the field. He was the first to sign an African-American player, Larry Doby, to an American League Team, the Cleveland Indians in the same season as Jackie Robinson came to bat for the then Brooklyn Dodgers. His marketing antics brought life to the game that he loved and crated unforgettable moments that Dickson notes as follows:

In the popular mind, there are two bookends to the life of Bill Veeck. The first is Eddie Gaedel and the other is Disco Demolition Night.

Gaedel was the midget that Veeck signed to bat in a game with the St Louis Browns in August 1951 and the unforgettable disco night brought a stop to a doubleheader with Detroit in July 1979 with the Veeck owned Chicago White Sox. Gaedel walked and was replaced with a pinch runner and the second game with Detroit was forfeited because the damage done to the field at Comiskey Park.

Dickson’s book also reflects a changing America and is filled with references to Al Capone (who had seats at Wrigley Field), Ray Croc who sold paper cups to Veeck during his time as part of the Cubs management team in the 1930’s and who later became the founder of McDonald’s and an owner of the San Diego Padres, a young minor league manager named Tony LaRussa who became part of the White Sox’ on field leadership in the mid-1970’s, and Veeck’s encounters with Fidel Castro and the Cuban baseball dynasty.

This is an honest yet sympathetic portrait of Veeck as Dickson focuses on the man, really a whirlwind of activity despite a serious war wound that would cause him problems  as he aged, who loved the game of baseball and wanted it to succeed and thrive. As a result, and one reason I really liked this book, is that it is a look at baseball through its golden age into the modern period of the latter half of the 20th century.

Dickson is also able to show that as the nation changed that baseball changed as well. And though it became racially integrated in the late 1940’s, it too, like our nation, struggled to allow African Americans to become full participants in the game and in the accommodations that the white players enjoyed. And as a new generation of players came on the field in the 1960’s the long held labor traditions were broken which ushered in free agency that interestingly enough Veeck supported and yet, as his fellow owners also experienced, caused him to lose good players to higher playing clubs as well.

This is a book rich in description and detail and also provides us with an outstanding view of the game from an owner and front office man whose career spanned decades and during which the shape and face of baseball changed in many ways. I am glad that I read it.

I rate this an ‘outstanding’ read.

Note: I obtained a galley copy of this book from NetGalley.com and was not required to write a review.

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