Chicago Legacies

Bill Veeck operating during his second tour of duty as White Sox Owner and President with Mayor Daley pictured over his shoulder.

Bill Veeck operating during his second tour of duty as White Sox Owner and President with Mayor Daley pictured over his shoulder.

Though this is a story involving friends I’ve met through soccer, it’s more of a baseball story than a soccer story.  But even more than baseball, it’s a story about the impact two Chicagoans have had on the city’s past, present and future.  It’s about the first of the great sports promoters, the last of the great big city bosses and their legacy in Chicago.

The sports promoter is baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck - former owner and president of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and major league St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and twice, my Chicago White Sox.  Among other notable promotions, gimmicks and innovations, Veeck created Ladies Days, exploding scoreboards, names on the back of jerseys and in 1951, he famously sent 3’7″ tall Eddie Gaedel into a major league game as a pinch hitter.   He also signed Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, created grandstand manager day, popularized giveaways and created financing structures that revolutionized sports team ownership.  But more than being a promotional genius, Veeck was a common man with uncommon generosity and love of life.

He was my vocational inspiration and a person whose values and actions I’ve always admired and tried to emulate.  Pat Williams’ amazing book, Marketing Your Dreams:  Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Promotional Genius tells story after story that serve as guidelines to life that are meaningful for all and absolute mandatory education for those in sports promotion.

Peter Wilt's dedication to open communication with soccer fans was inspired by his correspondence in his youth with former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Peter Wilt's dedication to open communication with soccer fans was inspired by his correspondence in his youth with former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Any transparency, accessibility and interaction with soccer fans I’ve provided over the last 20+ years is directly attributable to the correspondence Veeck and I had in the 1970s when he owned the White Sox.  The letters we exchanged began when I was angered by his trade for former Chicago Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger.  Veeck’s response using Cubs legend Phil Cavaretta finishing his career with two seasons on the south side after 20 on the north did nothing to sooth my distress of the trade, but it did make an impression on me I’ve never forgotten.  I wrote back to him to tell him that I still didn’t agree and I threw in a trivia question I had just learned: “Q. Who is the only center fielder to ever catch a foul ball in the major leagues?”  I printed the answer upside down on the bottom of my letter: “A. Johnny Mize”.  I was delighted to get a response a week later from Veeck only to read that he knew the answer…and mine was wrong.  The correct answer he pointed out was Johnny Mostil.  I had simply made a mental mistake interchanging the two old time players both named “Johnny M.”, but I was too embarrassed to respond.

The boss is Mayor Richard J. Daley.  Daley was a tough and driven leader who sometimes controversially steered Chicago’s growth and vitality through the difficult 1960s, while other northern cities were falling  into rust belt status.  One historian, Michael Beschloss, called Daley “the pre-eminent mayor of the 20th century.” Another historian, Robert Remini said that Daley’s leadership allowed Chicago to avoid the fiscal difficulties other cities faced in the 1960s and 1970s, and “Chicago always had a double-A bond rating.”

Here is a timeline of some of the milestone dates in their connections to Chicago:

April 5, 1955: Richard J. Daley elected mayor of the City of Chicago

March 10, 1959: Bill Veeck leads a group to purchase majority ownership in the Chicago White Sox for $2.55 million

     Mayor Richard J. Daley...wearing a Shriners fez.

Mayor Richard J. Daley...wearing a Shriners fez.

September 22, 1959: White Sox clinch first American League pennant since the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919.  The Chicago Tribune reported:

Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn ordered a celebratory five-minute sounding of the city’s air-raid sirens. The late-night wail, at a time when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to bury America was still fresh, frightened tens of thousands of area residents. Many rushed to the streets. Others herded hysterical children to shelter. “We had seven children under 9 and woke them all up when the sirens screamed,” said Mrs. Earl Gough of the South Side. “We said Hail Marys together in the basement.”

Quinn apologized but also argued that the incident provided “a very good test” of the area’s readiness, which he found wanting. Mayor Richard J. Daley claimed Quinn acted in accordance with a City Council proclamation that “there shall be whistles and sirens blowing and there shall be great happiness when the White Sox win the pennant.”

June 9, 1961: Bill Veeck’s ownership group sells the White Sox to brothers Arthur and John Allyn for an estimated $2.5 million.  Veeck’s group reportedly turned down an offer of $4.8 million from entertainer Danny Thomas and future Chicago mayoral candidate Bernard Epton, because the option amount was too low.  Veeck, who eventually had 36 operations on his amputated right leg, was in ailing health, which was the reported reason for the sale.

April and August, 1968: In the aftermath of riots spurred by Martin Luther King’s assassination, Daley took a tough approach that was lauded by some and lamented by others.  Similarly, four months later, his police force was front and center defending the city during protests and riots in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention riots.

December, 1975: The great mayor called the great promoter and asked him to save the Sox for Chicago.  The White Sox seemed destined to be moved to Seattle.  Veeck’s son Mike, a great baseball promoter in his own right, recalled the situation in a terrific interview with White Sox Interactive’s Mark Liptak.

Mark Liptak: We fast forward now to the mid 70′s. The Sox were in financial trouble, John Allyn was looking to get out and moving the team to Seattle was a real possibility. Do you remember when and how it first came up at your house that your dad might want to get the Sox back?

Mike Veeck:“My dad actually made a bid to buy the Baltimore Orioles first. In fact he had a handshake agreement on it. We in the Veeck family always felt a handshake wasa deal. When that fell apart my dad got a call from Mayor Daley. He wanted to know if my dad would be interested in getting the Sox again.”

ML: Mike, why the White Sox? Why did your Dad show such loyalty to a city that he only resided in for a few years the first time around as owner? Was it strictly a good business deal or was there more going on with the situation for him?

MV:“Mayor Daley called in December 1975 and offered considerable support. My dad always had the philosophy of ‘you can’t go home again’, and he wasn’t comfortable in the ‘savior’s role,’ but he loved Chicago. He was a Midwesterner by birth and had a Midwesterner’s pride. He understood and had a lot of respect for Chicago. He knew it was a working town and it was the town of ‘everyman.’  He also loved the idea of the Sox being the ‘underdog.’ He never made any apologies for the fact that there were two baseball teams in Chicago so he stepped up when he was needed.”

ML: The other American League owners made it very difficult for your dad. They rejected his first proposal saying it basically didn’t meet the way business was being done at the time and then they gave him ten days to come up with a new deal or the Sox were basically gone to Seattle. Was there a time when your dad ever thought he would not be able to pull it off?

MV: “No… he always thought he was going to get it done. Again he loved being the underdog and he loved the intrigue in baseball, the politics and the dealing. I don’t, I’ve worked for four teams and I’ve seen what goes on but he took a very Machiavellian view of the situation.

ML: White Sox fans really responded as well. I remember Johnny Morris at WBBM-TV starting a “Save The Sox” campaign on his TV sports show.

MV:“One of the first things that I did when my dad took over the club was open all the cards and letters that the fans sent it to us. I’d see fifty cents from kids, ten dollars from people… all doing what they could. I sent two tickets to a future Sox game to everybody who sent anything. We then contributed all the money, I think it was 60 or 70 thousand dollars to the American Cancer Society in the name of Nellie Fox who passed away from it. But I was touched by what they did, remember I was 25 years old and to see people care about the team like that was very special.”

     Peter Wilt with Night Train Veeck

Peter Wilt with Night Train Veeck

Bill Veeck spent that month rounding up an investor group with the help of Hizzoner.  Every day for that month, he called Daley.  With Daley’s help, Veeck built an ownership group that included Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern and together the great mayor and the great promoter managed to keep the White Sox in Chicago.

Last week, I united the grandsons of Veeck and Daley at a White Sox game.  Actually, it was before the game that I introduced John R. Daley to William “Night Train” Veeck.

John, a broker with Daley Insurance Brokerage, provided the tickets and I put together the guest list. It included my favorite Windy City Rollers Roller Derby queen, my best friend from childhood, a Red Stars fan, Chicago Fire supporter and one of my best friends from this century.

Jack Schaller, my dad's grade school buddy and proprietor of Chicago's oldest tavern, Schaller's Pump.

Jack Schaller, my dad's grade school buddy and proprietor of Chicago's oldest tavern, Schaller's Pump.

We agreed to gather before the game at Chicago’s oldest tavern, Schaller’s Pump on Halsted Street near US Cellular Field.  The owner, Jack Schaller, and my dad went to grade school together at Saint Sabina’s on the city’s far south side.  The tavern is a classic Bridgeport neighborhood bar with a backroom that served as an illegal betting lounge for horse races through the 1960s.  It has a fine menu that features Chicago’s finest Prime Butt Steak and terrific navy bean soup.

When I introduced Mr. Schaller to Night Train, Jack’s eyes widened and he told the young Veeck that his grandfather was often a welcome visitor there.  He proceeded to tell Night Train that his father, Mike, also frequented the pub…until a celebrated night of rowdy behaviour caused Schaller to remove him from the premises permanently.  Night Train promised to be on his best behaviour, so he could return to this new found gem.

John R. Daley and Peter Wilt at a White Sox game.

John R. Daley and Peter Wilt at a White Sox game.

The game was surreal.  A light, but warm rain fell throughout.  The seats belong to the Daley family and are next to the Sox dugout and in the first row behind the on deck circle.  The eclectic group, most of whom didn’t know each other at the start of the night, shared jokes, trivia and conversation like classmates at a 25 year reunion.  I found it both eerie and exciting to talk to John about Chicago Fire stadium discussions I had with his uncle, the current Mayor Daley, and quizzing Night Train on Eddie Gaedel’s jersey number for his lone major league at bat.

White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen wearing his lucky Fire jersey.

White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen wearing his lucky Fire jersey.

I also told John about the Chicago Fire jersey White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen wore underneath his uniform for luck on the way to the 2005 World Series title.  And Night Train, who’s been working for baseball teams since he was a kid and is earning a graduate degree in sports management at Northwestern, soaked in the view and evening with the awe of a kid at his first game.

As we exited the game, we stopped by the site of Comiskey Park’s home plate, talked about how great that site would’ve been for the Fire’s stadium and then stopped at the intersection of 35th and Shields.  Shields has been renamed for Night Train’s grandfather and I had him pose under the street sign for the picture below.  We continued our walk back to Schaller’s Pump and passed John’s late grandfather’s modest brick bungalow at 3536 S. Lowe Avenue.  On this warm and drizzly May night, past, present and future all seemed to collide in Bridgeport.

Night Train Veeck at 35th Street and Bill Veeck Drive

Night Train Veeck at 35th Street and Bill Veeck Drive

The legacies of Richard J. Daley and Bill Veeck are alive and well in Chicago.  Without Daley and Veeck, the White Sox wouldn’t be in Chicago, this city wouldn’t be nearly as great as it is, I wouldn’t have had the career I have and one small group brought together by their grandsons would’ve missed out on one special night.

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