"The great portion of any ball game consists of the pitcher holding the ball or throwing it to the catcher," wrote one-time Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck in his 1965 book "The Hustler's Handbook" (Ivan R. Dee: 352 pp., $15.95 paper). "Anything that can somehow turn that frozen tableau into a scene fraught with drama and excitement has solved about 75 percent of your problems."
Veeck gave baseball fans plenty of drama before his death in 1986. Over 40 years, he owned four baseball clubs -- the White Sox twice. He came up with the exploding scoreboard, testified against baseball's reserve clause and, in 1979, helped sponsor Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park, an anti-disco rally that ended in a riot when local DJ Steve Dahl blew up thousands of disco records, burning a hole in the outfield grass.
"What baseball needs more than anything else is the simple courage to be disreputable," he trumpets, pointing out that even Babe Ruth was occasionally "known to use the indicative mood when the subjunctive was clearly called for." He waxes rhapsodic about the 1964 sale of the Yankees to CBS, the Dodgers' flight to the West Coast and the game-winning drinking habits of Red Sox pitcher Ellis Kinder and old-school Cubbie Hack Wilson.
Not only that, he understands the relationship of a team to its fans. Here he is on the paradox of early 1960s Mets supporters: "No other city is so confident of its own preeminence that it could afford to take such an open delight in its own bad taste." Chicago Cubs fans of the present day, take note.
Veeck is a divisive figure in baseball's history because he dared to acknowledge that the game was not just a game but a business. Like Mark Twain in "Innocents Abroad," he writes with the largess of a man whose head is barely above the water, cutting through the mythology of baseball to get at the sport's more essential themes: greed, manipulation and an occasional burst of good, old-fashioned American fun.
-- George Ducker