CHICAGO – One of the most enjoyable days as a sports writer came on a sunny weekday at Wrigley Field in the early ’80s. I had arranged to meet Bill Veeck and sit with him in the front row of the bleachers, as close to center field as we could get.
Veeck lost his right foot while serving three years in World War II as a Marine. Through time, more and more of the leg was removed, and eventually he was getting around with the most famous wooden leg in America.
On this day at Wrigley, Veeck was shirtless and wearing shorts. I don’t have possession of the column, but the lead paragraph did mention that Bill had one leg that was tan and another that was varnished.
Veeck’s last run as a baseball owner had been from 1975 to 1981, when he operated the White Sox for the second time. The first time around, 1959 to 1961, had started with the “Go-Go Sox” winning the AL pennant, but he sold because of health problems.
Veeck was a beloved figure among the “Bleacher Bums’’ who occupied the cheap seats at Wrigley Field. They proved this with the ultimate tribute: When Bill came clomping toward the awful, overcrowded men’s room in center field, they would wave him to the front of the line.
This courtesy allowed Veeck to see most of the game. Otherwise, he would have spent six innings standing in the restroom line, because that man drank beer as if he had a hollow leg.
This had been demonstrated previously at Met Stadium on June 30, 1978. Veeck came to town to fire Bob Lemon as White Sox manager and replace him with Larry Doby. The announcement was made in the Twins Room, a dining (and drinking) area for media, team employees, visiting scouts, etc. in the Met’s lower level.
There was a rain delay and then a postponement that night. The sports writers waited out the delay, wrote their rainout stories and headed down to the Twins Room for postgame beverages.
We were greeted by the sight of Veeck and Lemon, arms around one another, both loaded, and singing off-key classics such as “Danny Boy.’’ It was the most amiable firing in history.
Veeck and major league ownership:
• Owned the Cleveland Indians from 1946 to ’49. They won the World Series and sold 2 million tickets in 1948. He had to sell to pay off a divorce.
• Owned the St. Louis Browns from 1951 to ’53. When Busch Brewery bought the Cardinals, he knew the battle for St. Louis was over, and sold to Baltimore interests for the 1954 season.
• Veeck hired Jimmy Piersall in 1977 to team with Harry Caray — creating the wackiest radio team ever. Veeck also convinced Harry to start leading the White Sox crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame’’ during the seventh-inning stretch.