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Bill Veeck—Master Promoter

When you look at Major League Baseball today, you would be hard pressed to find another business whose practices are so diametrically opposed to the needs of its customers—the fans. As owners and players regularly accuse one another of escalating levels of greed, it is the fan—the one who pays the escalating ticket prices—who gets left out in the rain like the family dog as the two sides bicker among themselves. In moments of despair for the National Pastime, it is useful, and hopeful, to recall that while owners and players have always been adversaries, there was one man in the game who marched to a different drummer—his own! He was Bill Veeck, and the cadence he marched to, wooden leg and all, was the same as the fans'. He loved the game as much as they did because first and foremost he was a fan himself. He was also passionate, opinionated, fun-loving, and dedicated to the value proposition "If you don't think a promotion is fun, don't do it!"[3]

And for an owner and baseball executive who had teams that finished first as well as last, no one ever had more fun than Bill Veeck. He was one part P. T. Barnum and one part Sam Walton—a combination of showmanship and customer value. Along the way, he irritated the plutocrats running the game and delighted the crowds who filled the stadiums. In his own unique way, Veeck was a leadership communicator who lived and breathed a message of honesty, integrity, and entertainment.

Born into the Game

In a game going back nearly a century and a half as a professional enterprise and noted for its characters, Bill Veeck was unique. When he was 3 years old, his father became general manager of the Chicago Cubs. Veeck grew up in the game; in fact, he planted the ivy that adorns the brick walls of Wrigley Field. Later, as a junior executive in the organization, he ordered a new scoreboard, and when it wasn't finished on time, he hired a crew—and rolled up his sleeves—and assembled it in time for opening day. True to his character, Veeck paid the inventor in full even though he had not completed the scoreboard on time. But Veeck also was a businessman. When the inventor wanted to bid on the exploding scoreboard for the Chicago White Sox many years later, Veeck said no.[4]

The Stunt

The stunt that transcended baseball and won Veeck a place in American mythology is the one involving Eddie Gaedel. As Veeck tells us in his autobiography, in 1951 he was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, "a collection of old rags and tags . . . rank[ing] in the annals of baseball a step or two ahead of Cro-Magnon Man." Looking for ways to get fans to the park, Veeck hit on the idea of hiring a midget to pinch-hit. He signed Gaedel to a contract and assigned him the number 1/8. Eddie walked on four pitches and into the history books, taking Veeck along with him. "I have always found humor in the incongruous, I have always tried to entertain. And I have always found a stuffed shirt the most irresistible of all targets."[5]

Veeck was not one to exploit the misfortunes of others. As one writer put it in the introduction to the re-release of Veeck's autobiography, Veeck—As in Wreck, now back in print 40 years after its first printing in 1962, "Physically, of course, Bill was not all there. His body was a mosaic of broken parts on borrowed time."[6] He wore a prosthetic leg, the legacy of a war wound suffered as a Marine in the South Pacific in World War II. The leg, along with his "impish smile," became his trademark.

Excellent Communicator

Veeck knew his fans not simply because he was one, but because he spent time with them. Stories of him sitting in the stands with the paying public at Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park are legion. He was accessible. Another way he stayed in touch was by speaking frequently to groups in his market area.

Bill Veeck would never win an award for his presentation skills; however, his speech teacher in college said that despite breaking all the rules for giving a good speech, Veeck was effective.[7] Pat Williams, a sports executive and speaker in his own right for whom Veeck was something of a mentor, attributes Veeck's speaking success to his storytelling and his humor. His standard opening line was, "I used to own the St. Louis Browns, and I'm not used to seeing so many people gathered together like this."[8] Famous for not wearing a tie, he once addressed a formal dinner where the men were dressed in tuxedoes: "First time I ever saw 1500 waiters for one customer."[9]

Veeck was also a "really good writer," says his coauthor, Ed Linn, who edited Veeck's copy. Aside from Veeck's autobiography, the two of them wrote Hustler's Handbook, which is considered the "virtual bible on sports promotion."[10] A compendium of tricks and insights for bringing fans to the ballpark, it is also a good read, chock full of good stories. Later Veeck became a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and USA Today. As Pat Williams says, "The reason [Veeck] wrote so prolifically and so well was because he had so much to say. Just to listen to the words pour forth from the page was an engrossing journey into the complexities of his mind."[11] An indifferent student, Veeck was an autodidact who loved to read; in the process, his span of knowledge became encyclopedic and he was able to converse learnedly on literature, history, tax law, and even gardening.[12]

Promotion as a Core Value

Promoting the product was what Bill Veeck was noted for, and his ideas for promotions were as broad and diverse as his reading habits. Veeck was the first to give away free bats, and his reach in promotion knew few limits: free balls, free pickles, free hot dogs, free lobsters, free ice cream, and then . . . free tuxedo rentals, along with pigs, chickens, mice, eels, pigeons, ducks, and, yes, 50,000 nuts and bolts.[13]

And this is only the free stuff. Veeck did more than freebies; he was the impresario of event packaging—Squirrel Night; a bicentennial-themed opening day in 1976; Music Night with free kazoos; special games for A students, teachers, bartenders, cabbies, and transit workers; and even Disco Demolition Night. (Well, even Veeck might go too far once in a while.)[14]

Veeck's promotions revolved around a desire to tickle the imagination. "You give away a radio or a TV—so what? What does that do for the imagination? Nothing. . . . If I give him 50,000 nuts or bolts, that gives everybody something to talk about."[15] And Veeck knew that when people are talking about your product, they will be more inclined to pay money to come out and see it. Veeck's promotions sprang from his values; he was a "giver."[16] He wanted to entertain his customers, and he wanted them to have something extra in return for their patronage. Veeck's final bit of advice on promotion was, "No one has a monopoly on ideas. You can always think of something."[17]

Grand Stage

Upon the death of Bill Veeck in 1986, Tom Boswell, baseball writer and thinker for the Washington Post, wrote: "Cause of death: Life."18 Not a bad epitaph for a man who loved and lived life to the fullest and brought us along for the ride.

[3]Pat Williams with Michael Weinreb, Marketing Your Dreams: Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck, Baseball's Marketing Genius (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. xiv.

[4]Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, Veeck—As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck (New York: Putnam, 1962); reprint, with a foreword by Bob Verdi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[5]Ibid., pp. 11-23.

[6]Ibid., p. 7.

[7]Williams with Weinreb, Marketing Your Dreams, p. 173.

[8]Ibid., pp. 173-174.

[9]Ibid., pp. 171-172.

[10]Ibid., p. 161.

[11]Ibid., pp. 161-162.

[12]Ibid., pp. 152-165.

[13]Ibid., pp. 192-211.

[14]Ibid., pp. 192-211; in particular, p. 201.

[15]Ibid., p. 197.

[16]Ibid., p. 201.

[17]Ibid., p. 209.


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