Remembering the Veecks, the baseball family that shaped Chicago

September 19, 2012

Many people have owned and operated both the Cubs and White Sox but one family has had some of the biggest influences on both these teams — the Veecks. It was the Veecks who,75 years back, gave Wrigley Field the alterations that made the iconic ball park what it is today. In 1937, the ivy, scoreboard and bleachers were installed by father-and-son duo Bill Veeck Sr. and Bill Veeck Jr. The elder was the Cubs president and the younger was the team's general manager, and the renovations were part of a play to make the stadium fan friendly; it sure worked. Veeck Sr. also came up with marketing gimmicks like Ladies Day; it brought women to the ballpark that was dominated by men at the time.

Now, a symposium held Thursday night at the Chicago History Museum will celebrate the anniversary of Wrigley's renovation and the legendary baseball family. Paul Dickson, author of the biographyBill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, will be on hand at the event, which is sponsored by the Chicago Baseball Museum.

Retired Chicago Sun-Times writer Ron Rapoport, who will also be among the panelists Thursday night, covered Veeck Jr. during his time on the South Side. He pointed out that Bill Sr., also a former sportswriter, was a huge factor with the North Side team. In fact when Veeck Sr. wrote in his column he could run the Cubs better-they team hired him to do it. “He was very important in that era, [but] he has been forgotten,” said Ron. “Bill Jr. [was known for] planting the ivy while Bill Sr. for running the team.”

But most Chicago baseball fans remember Bill Veeck Jr.’s time at the helm of the Chicago White Sox. After running several teams throughout his career, Veeck Jr. returned to Chicago in 1975 to buy the Sox. The lessons he learned from his father enhanced his charm on the South Side. He put showers in the outfield, hired an organist that was a fan favorite — Nancy Faust — and put Harry Carey and Jimmy Piersall in the broadcast booth. It was an exciting run at Comiskey Park.
 
When the Detroit Tigers were in town, I had the opportunity to talk to General Manager Dave Dombrowski about his former boss. In 1978, the 21-year-old Dombrowski was an assistant for then White Sox GM Roland Hemond, who got to know Veeck Jr. in the team's small front office. After a game was finished, Veeck Jr. would hold court at a corner table in the Sox Bards' Room (the team’s dining area). Dombrowski would sit and observe baseball minds like Hank Greenberg, Tony LaRussa and Larry Doby talking “endlessly” with Veeck Jr. at the center.
 
“Bill loved to create arguments and discussions,” said Dombrowski. “Sometimes, I believe, he threw things out there and he didn’t necessarily believe in, to create a heated discussion. He was enlightening.” The evening would usually end at 4 a.m. since Dombrowski had to drive Veeck Jr. and Hemond home. But Dombrowski never minded — he loved baseball and learning from one of the game's most iconic figures.

Whether you're a fan of the White Sox or the Cubs, we can all agree that many of the things you see at your favorite ballpark, exploding scoreboard or a manual one, ivy or pinwheels — were touched by the Veecks. Thursday there will be plenty of stories told about the Veeck legacy, and about how Chicago was lucky to be touched by  it — on both sides of town.