I really wanted to love Paul Dickson's new Bill Veck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick — and, in truth, I loved quite a bit of it. Dickson does a beautiful job of capturing the spirit and personality of baseball's most visionary owner, as well as detailing the upbringing that shaped his unwaveringly populist bent; he also nicely separates fact from the fiction that swirled around him throughout his life and continues to swirl around his legend, including his relationships with Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Eddie "The MIdget Pinch-HItter" Gaedel.
That said, as a 70s baseball guy, I found Dickson's coverage of Veeck's second go-round with the Chicago White Sox to be, by far, the most disappointing part of his book. 1976, Veeck's first season after re-acquiring the team — during which he made a surprise appearance at Comiskey Park's Opening Day ceremonies as part of the "Spirit of '76" tableau pictured above, and sent his team out to play in short pants on three occasions — gets a decent amount of coverage, but the rest of his tenure blows by almost like an afterthought. The '77 White Sox "South Side Hitmen" squad (led by such "rent-a-players" as Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble) made for one of the most exciting summers in Chicago baseball history, yet they rate little more than four pages in Dickson's 400+ page tome. 1979's infamous Disco Demolition Night (which Veeck took the blame for, even though it was his son Mike's bright idea) doesn't even get that many.
Now, I know it's impossible to write a baseball book that pleases everyone (believe me, I know!), and perhaps Dickson just doesn't have the same enthusiasm or interest for this part of Veeck's career as he has for his 1940s-50s glory days. And maybe I'm just the kind of guy who thinks empires are more interesting in their decline, and that great men are more fascinating in their "Lion In Winter" phase. But the 70s were, by and large, a pretty bleak time in Chicago baseball history, at least until Bill Veeck showed up — and the joy, excitement and absurdity he brought to the Windy City in 1976 and 1977 added up to far more than a mere footnote to his career.
Sure, the last couple of years with Veeck at Comiskey were pretty depressing; free agency (ironically enough, a development that Veeck had long been in favor of) took the wind out of the team's sails, and ultimately no amount of beer crate-stacking competitions — to name one of many hilarious late 70s Veeck promotions that go unmentioned in Dickson's book — could make Chicagoans support a shitty team for the long haul. Veeck had overstayed his welcome, and by then the fun of '77 seemed a distant and hazy memory. But even so, it was a sad day for Chicago (and baseball in general) when Veeck hobbled out of the White Sox front office for the final time in January 1981.
(One detail of Veeck's final Sox season that I'd forgotten — and which Dickson reminded me of — was Edward J. DeBartolo Sr.'s failed attempts to buy the White Sox in 1980. According to Dickson's research, it's pretty clear that DeBartolo was shut out of Major League Baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn because of his Italian ancestry. Bowie Kuhn: Even more of an asshole than I'd previously imagined...)
All that said, Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick is an engrossing read, one which will make you feel like you know the late, great man better, even if you've already read Veeck — As In Wreck and his other autobiographical works. But like Chicago in the late 70s, the book sure coulda used a lot more of dem dere Sout' Side Hitmen...
Anyway, this seems like a good place to post this incredible clip from the Museum of Classic Chicago Television's Fuzzy Memories site, an August 1977 WMAQ-TV profile of White Sox third baseman Eric Soderholm that includes some great footage of the Sout' Side Hitmen in action. Dig his great explanation about why he wears a Hebrew "Chai" medallion...