Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: Bill Veeck (2012)

By Paul Dickson

Talk about a tough act to follow.

Former baseball executive Bill Veeck wrote one of the greatest sports books ever written, "Veeck -- as in Wreck," about 50 years ago. Veeck was by any standard a unique sports figure, someone who mixed intelligence, a sense of fun, occasional indignation, and a common touch. Just about everyone, except those wearing stuffed shirts, liked him. The book holds up well to this day.

But the story was written more than a quarter-century before Veeck died. During that time he still played the gadfly, taking one last go-around as a baseball owner and engaging in a variety of other activities. An proper update has always been needed.

"Bill Veeck" is that update. It's a big, big task, but author Paul Dickson has come through with a book that's terrific in different ways than Veeck's own tale.

Just as a refresher, Veeck was the son of a baseball writer and Chicago Cubs' executive. Therefore, he grew up around the game. Credentials? He helped plant the ivy on the outfield fences of Wrigley Field.  Veeck later ran a minor-league team in Milwaukee, almost certainly made an attempt to buy the Phillies during World War II and field an all-blank roster, and finally reached the majors when he led a group that purchased the Cleveland Indians. That team won the World Series in 1948, thus putting Veeck in the heart's of Cleveland's baseball fans forever.

A divorce caused a sale of that team, but Veeck later moved on to the St. Louis Browns, where he had his most famous moment by sending a midget up to the plate as something of a publicity stunt. Then it was on to the White Sox. Chicago made it to the World Series in 1959. Almost two decades later, Veeck returned to buy the White Sox, the last of the non-wealthy owners who sadly got overwhelmed by the changing economics of baseball.

All along the way, Veeck looked out for the fans, fought injustice and racism wherever possible, tweaked authority, and staged promotional gimmicks. It was a life well spent.

Dickson takes the right approach of giving Veeck a little distance and not falling in love with the subject, which is easy to do. He talked to as many original sources of information as possible, including Veeck's second wife and children. Dickson wasn't lacking for old newspaper and magazine interviews, either.

There's plenty of digging that went on as well by the author as well. For example, Veeck in his book made references to a wartime leg injury that eventually resulted in an amputation, but the story wasn't explained fully. Here Dickson gives an educated  that his injury was not treated properly by military doctors. The resulting story is not just one man's memory of a life, but several ... and it's all fits together.

"Veeck -- As In Wreck" still deserves your time and a place on the bookshelf, but this should be right alongside of it. "Bill Veeck" is as good as it gets when it comes to describing an American original.

Five stars

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