|Mike Veeck may be the smartest, sharpest executive in baseball. Undoubtedly he's the one having the most fun.
Unlike his father, Bill Veeck, whose P.T. Barnum style of promotion earned him a place in Cooperstown, Mike Veeck hasn't sent a midget to home plate. But he's sent about everyone else, providing chances for everyone from Ila Borders and Darryl Strawberry to a blind radio announcer and a man with no legs.
Like his father, he champions the underdog.
Also like his father, he loves baseball and knows that it is meant to be fun. So from St. Paul, Minn., to Charleston, S.C., Veeck spreads the joy of baseball with the help of his fellow investors, including actor/comedian Bill Murray, and staff. Together they pack the ballpark and generate headlines with promotions such as Tonya Harding Mini-Bat Night, Mary Tyler Moore Night, Daytime Fireworks, Mime Nights (they re-enacted close plays), Planet of the Apes Night and Vasectomy Night.
If an idea sounds like fun, Veeck is all for it. As his team's advertising slogan in St. Paul goes, "For a good time call, 644-6659." It's the Saints' ticket line.
Or as Veeck says of his promotions, "It's hard to believe you can pack all that stupidity into just a few seasons."
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Not after Veeck's most notorious promotion, Disco Demolition Night, with the White Sox in 1979. In addition to being a promotion, it was also a statement against disco music, particularly KC and the Sunshine Band. That's because Veeck once had wanted to be a musician and felt that disco ruined his band's hope for success.
So he held Disco Demolition night and the promotion filled Comiskey Park with fans and disco-haters. Unfortunately, when a mountain of disco records was detonated in the outfield between games of a doubleheader, fans began to riot, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game.
Veeck was so associated with the disaster that he couldn't get a job in baseball for years. It caused him much grief and no small amount of pain. KC and the Sunshine band killed his music career and it nearly killed his baseball career as well. It was a decade before he got a job in the game -- and that was at the minor league level.
He finally returned to the big leagues with a brief stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and joined the Florida Marlins this year as a consultant. He still owns and operates several minor league teams.
Recently, someone in Florida's marketing department suggested a promotion for this season.
|After the disaster that was Disco Demolition in 1979, Mike Veeck finally returned to the major leagues with Devil Rays in 1999.|
"He said, 'July 12, 1979 and July 12, 2001. This the 22nd anniversary of Disco Demolition and the Marlins are home that night and K.C. lives around here. You ought to apologize to him,' " Veeck recalls. "I said, 'Not on your life.'
"But the litmus test with all these ideas is: Are they funny? And I laughed and realized it was a great gag."
So Veeck swallowed his resentment and stood at home plate to deliver a 90-second, tongue-in-cheek "apology" to KC. He ended it with, "I'm sorry from the bottom of my leisure suit."
"And you know what KC said to me?" Veeck said. "He said, 'We needed closure.' Closure? I said, "KC, this is a great country because we're both still working, but this isn't closure. This is just cheap theatrics."
But what entertaining cheap theatrics. A few of the more memorable:
Tonya Harding Mini-Bat Night: "The first 1,000 people got mini-bats but there was a contractual agreement that there would be no mention of tire irons, or kneecaps or hubcaps. Tonya had a great time. She stayed in touch with the crew here afterward. I saw that she has a CD out now and I called her and asked if she would sing the national anthem at a game. She said, 'Not on your life or mine.' "
Séance Night: "My first year in Fort Myers, Fla., we tried to call up the ghost of Thomas Edison, the unsung hero of night baseball. I got the idea when I was driving around one day and saw a sign for a spiritual advisor. We negotiated with her and she agreed to do it. The night of the game she had a sky blue gown on and we took her to home plate and she started to channel. As you might imagine, the ballpark crowd was very tough on this lady. It became like a chain-gang spiritual. She would say in a guttural voice, 'I can't reach you.' And some guy would yell, 'Tom's over here, lady!'
"As people left the stadium I heard someone say something that I loved. 'That was the stupidest thing I ever saw, but boy, was it funny.' "
|Fans storm the field at Chicago's Comiskey Park on Disco Demolition Night.|
For Women Only Night: "We closed the ballpark to everybody but women. No men were allowed in. That didn't work so well because we forgot to notify our season-ticket holders who were men. We couldn't sell a ticket for three days because we were on the phone explaining it was meant as a joke. The way we worked it out is we made the men wear a skirt or sing a song to get in. Most opted to wear a skirt."
Voodoo Night: "Another one you can skewer me on is we scheduled Voodoo Night on April 13 this year, because it was Friday the 13th. We planned to hand out 1,000 voodoo dolls and hold chants. But what I didn't take into consideration with Friday the 13th is that Sunday was Easter, which meant Voodoo Night was on Good Friday. And the effect of pricking dolls with pins on Good Friday wasn't exactly popular.
"We had to cancel it. Bill Murray called me from the airport. He said, 'There's no way out of this one, Mike. Just apologize and tell them you were stupid.' "
It wasn't the first time Veeck ran afoul the church elders in Charleston. He also had to cancel Vasectomy Night when the local Catholic diocese complained.
"When I describe the promotions to you out loud, they sound worse," he said. "I hear myself describing them one after another and I realize, These people have a legitimate reason for wanting me out of town."
Fortunately for Charleston fans, he isn't leaving. Instead, he's becoming more rooted.
Why, Veeck's son, Night Train (named after Night Train Lane), even takes part in a "G-Men" promotion each game for the Charleston River Dogs in which he dances to the "Peter Gunn" theme song -- or at least ties to, anyway -- on top of the dugout. This dance is hugely unpopular with fans. "I asked him if it bothered him that they hated him and he said, 'No, I love it.' "
In other words, the Veeck tradition looks safe for another generation.
"I must say it was a sweet moment when I looked down and saw him there with fans throwing garbage and everything that wasn't nailed down at him," Veeck said. "He understands that the glory days are few and far between in this business."
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Ila Borders didn't throw very hard, but that didn't stop Mike Veeck from sending her to the mound during a minor-league game at St. Paul.|