All-Time Indians: Bill Veeck

All-Time Indians: Bill Veeck

Indians

All-Time Indians: Bill Veeck

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There have been many rich people who have looked to buy their way into the sport of baseball and made a permanent difference, but few who have really succeeded. The short list includes men like Charles Comiskey and more recently George Steinbrenner, but possibly the owner who had the biggest impact of all was Bill Veeck who had at least a partial ownership of the Brewers, Indians, Browns and White Sox.

After buying the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and selling them for a significant profit just a few years later, Veeck moved onto the Major Leagues and bought the Indians in 1946 from Alva Bradley beginning what could be known as the golden age of Cleveland baseball. Part of the deal to own the team was that Veeck would become the GM as well and his predecessor Roger Peckinpaugh was forced to resign. There were also rumors that he would replace manager Lou Boudreau with one of his own men, something made more interesting by the fact that Boudreau replaced Peckinpaugh when the latter was “promoted” to general manager.

The team purchased by Veeck was a pretty impressive one even though they only won 73 games in 1945 and 68 in 1946. In addition to the boy manager/short stop Boudreau, the Cleveland franchise featured Ken Keltner at third and a rotation of Bob Feller, Allie Reynolds, Mel Harder and Steve Gromek with a young outfielder in the minors named Bob Lemon working on converting into a pitcher. Despite all this talent, the Indians finished 36 games back in sixth place in the AL for Veeck’s first season as owner.

Unlike many owners, who either spend to win no matter how unrealistic the situation is or won’t take a risk even when their team is on the precipice, Veeck knew how to adapt to the situation. In that 1946 season, Veeck shifted the focus from winning to entertainment as he added regular fireworks shows and hired two baseball clows, Jackie Price and Max Patkin, as coaches. “Clowning” was a popular way to attract crowds in the Negro Leagues of this day and the decades prior and this idea was not the only thing that Veeck would take from Negro League Baseball.

It was likely a combination of events (including the end of World War II), but the fact is that Veeck had a lot to do with the Indians bringing in 1.05 million fans in 1946, the most in franchise history. This was a trend that would continue as long as Veeck was owner and wherever he went after Cleveland. In the follow years he would raise his record twice more, attracting 1.52 million fans in 1947, 2.62 million in 1948 and 2.23 million in 1949.

Heading into the 1947, Veeck saw the team’s young talent and decided that it was time to adjust strategy and build a winner. He traded Reynolds for the future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Gordon, not a steal, but a shrewd move considering the Indians depth at starting pitcher. Helping build that depth further was a trade that sent former starting second baseman, Ray Mack, to the Yankees in a second deal for Gene Bearden. He also added Al Lopez at back-up catcher, a move that wouldn’t matter until a few years down the road.

In 1947 Veeck moved the Indians permanently into Cleveland Municipal Stadium and out of League Park, which had been in use since the Cleveland Spiders played in the 1800’s. Always a trend setter, Veeck installed movable fences that he would shift each game depending on opponent. During that season it forced the American League to make a rule that fences must stay in the same position for the entire season once the first game has been played.

Another big literal move made by the Indians in the off-season before 1947 was that Veeck founded the Cactus League when he moved the Tribe’s Spring Training to Tucson, Arizona. While some teams had prepared for the season in Arizona before, none stayed or had an in state opponent there until Veeck moved the Indians there and convinced the New York Giants to join him in Phoenix. At the time, they played locally and against the Cubs and White Sox who played in California, but ultimately the Indians would stay in Tucson for 46 years and would be joined by half the league as now a full 15 teams make their Spring homes in Arizona.

The biggest move Veeck made in his career, however, was one made half way through the 1947 season when he purchased Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles for $20,000. While Jackie Robinson had already broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that year, Doby broke the line in the American League and by paying for the transfer, it was the first time that a Major League Baseball team respected a Negro League team as a legitimate franchise and compensated them for a player, a trend that continued on in the future.

Doby had been a middle infielder, but with Boudreau and Gordon up the middle he was moved to center field and became an All-Star, Hall of Famer and the missing piece that would push the Indians offense over the edge. In fact, all three of these players would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with five other players who played under Veeck with the Indians between 1946 and 1949.

After all these moved, Veeck took a back seat as GM and in fact brought in another Hall of Famer, Hank Greenberg as a consultant to aid in his decision making. While some moves were still made between 1947 and 1948, it was largely the same roster simply improved internally from the year before. One move that was made mid-season was a combination of the two Veeck strategies as the signing of Satchel Paige, another Hall of Famer, both improved the team and made news. Paige was just the second black player in the American League (there were only two in the NL as well, both with the Dodgers) and even after Veeck left the team, the Indians would stay on the forefront of adding players from the Negro Leagues for most of the next decade.

This group of incredible players went on to win the 1948 World Series against the Boston Braves after a one game play-off against the Boston Red Sox. After this, the 1949 season was a disappointment and Veeck went back into carnival mode, making a big show of burying the 1948 pennant among other things. A few more gifts to the Indians franchise, for 1949 Veeck picked up Hall of Famer Early Wynn for nearly nothing and mined the Negro Leagues one more time for Luke Easter. After the 1949 season, Veeck sold the team to Ellis Ryan and gave up his GM role to his protege, Greenberg. His last effect on the team didn’t come until 1951 when Lopez (yet another future Hall of Famer), who was originally brought in as a possible replacement manager for Boudreau, returned to take over the managerial reigns.

After the Indians, Veeck stayed in baseball by purchasing the St. Louis Browns in 1951 (where he made news by signing and playing a midget named Eddie Gaedel), then after selling them in 1953, the White Sox in 1958. He even reentered the front office with the White Sox in 1959 as the GM, keeping that role until he sold the team in 1961 and was replaced by Greenberg for the second time. Veeck bought the White Sox one more time, in 1975 and held onto them through 1981 and it was during this period that another of Veeck’s famous promotions happened, disco demolition night. After selling the Sox in 1981, Veeck succumbed to cancer just five years later in 1986.

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