Posts Tagged ‘Bill Veeck’

Exposition Park

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Decades before Willie Stargell’s We Are Family vibe, Bill Mazeroski’s legendary World Series home run, and Roberto Clemente’s demonstrable power, professional baseball in the Pittsburgh area lived in Exposition Park.  It holds distinction as the first ballpark for Organized Baseball in the Pittsburgh environs—the “Alleghenys” débuted in the American Association in 1882.  “Professional” in this narrative means playing within a league structure.

Constructed in Allegheny City—then a separate metropolis from Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River—Exposition Park had a location that proved disastrous when a flood and a fire combined forces, destroying the ballpark after one season.

In 1883, the team played in Exposition Park II, built closer to the Allegheny River than its predecessor; it also had a one-year tenure as the home site for the Alleghenys—Exposition Park II flooded as well, opening the path for Union Park to be a major league facility in 1884.  The following season, Union Park underwent a name change to Recreation Park.

An article in the March 5, 1885 edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette highlighted  the park’s multiple uses that would have made baseball überpromoter Bill Veeck stand up and applaud:  “Another feature of the park will be a roller skating floor.  It will be built in one corner of the outfield, where there is sufficient room without interfering with the ball playing.  There will be no roof, and it is thought that it will be a pleasanter place to skate on rollers than in any of the inclosed [sic] rinks, for all out of doors is certainly pleasanter on a hot evening than any building can be.”

The article also mentioned the team’s name change:  “The report that the old name was to be retained is untrue.  The club will be known as the Pittsburghs.  It will work under the old charter and legally be the Allegheny, but in all advertising and in general usage Pittsburgh will be used.”  This label switch might have been slightly confusing because the absorption of Allegheny City into Pittsburgh did not take place until more than 20 years later.

Pittsburgh joined the National League in 1887.  A few seasons later, it faced competition for baseball fans in Steel City—the Players’ League débuted in 1890 with the Burghers as its Pittsburgh franchise, which played in Exposition Park III.  It was located “about two blocks where PNC Park stands today,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The Players’ League only lasted for the 1890 season.

Pittsburgh’s National League team rebranded, became the Pirates before the 1891 season, and moved to Exposition Park III for its home games.  In 1903, when the Pirates faced the Boston Americans in the first World Series, Exposition Park III became the first National League ballpark to host a World Series game.

In the middle of the 1909 season, the Pirates moved to Forbes Field.  Built of concrete and steel, Forbes Field signified a new era of ballparks with grandeur compared to their predecessors—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Ebbets Field emerged within five years.  Forbes Field’s unveiling inspired awe from Pittsburgh’s fans:  “If there had been no ball game at all the masses of sweltering humanity would have paid for their coming, for the stands on Forbes Field [sic] look out on some of the prettiest scenery to be found in Pennsylvania.  And the stands themselves are pretty enough to draw sightseers even if there were nothing else for them to see,” wrote R. W. “Ring” Lardner in the Chicago Daily Tribune about the June 30, 1909 contest between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended in a 3-2 loss for the latter squad.  Approximately 36,000 fans attended the game.

“The women came dressed as if for the greatest society event of the year, and perhaps it was for Pittsburg’s [sic] year,” Lardner added.  “Gorgeous gowns, topped by still more gorgeous hats, were in evidence everywhere.”

Forbes Field’s début, however exciting, could not swipe away the indelible imprint made by the three incarnations of Exposition Park on the genesis of Pittsburgh’s professional baseball auspices.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 29, 2015.

The Saga of Eddie Gaedel

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

On August 19, 1951, Eddie Gaedel strode to home plate in a St. Louis Browns uniform adorned with the fraction 1/8 rather than a whole number, signifying his physical stature similar to that of the folks who set Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.

Gaedel’s cup of coffee in the major leagues consisted of a single at-bat, when he faced Bob Cain of the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park.  In 2002, Fred Bucholz, the Browns’ batboy, recalled the game for St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Tom Wheatley.  “The fans were laughing, but no one said nothing in our dugout,” said Bucholz.  “They were just shocked.  Nothing like that had ever happened before.  Usually the guys would yell for someone to get a hit.  Here, nothing.”

A publicity stunt conceived by Browns owner Bill Veeck, Gaedel had a signed contract, giving him the legitimacy required to play in a Major League Baseball game.  Veeck embraced wackiness, seeing it as an added value for the fans.  In his second tenure as owner of the White Sox from 1976 to 1981, Veeck installed a shower in the centerfield bleachers so fans could cool off on hot Chicago days, instructed Harry Caray to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch, and commanded the White Sox to wear shorts in a gimmick that proved to last about as long as the notion of somebody defeating Richard J. Daley in a Chicago mayoral election between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.

In his 2000 book The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, Peter Golenbock cited Browns manager Zack Taylor as a source for the Gaedel idea.  Taylor said, “When I was with the Giants, we used to sit around the hotel lobby nights listening to the boss.  John McGraw never forgot a pitch of any game the Giants ever played under him.  And he always was scheming up new ways to win.  One time he came up with the idea that it might not be bad to carry a little fellow around and send him up to bat to get a base on balls if the score was tied in the ninth.

“Of course, nobody ever did it.  But I never forgot what McGraw said.  So when Veeck suggested hiring a little fellow, I told him what McGraw had said years before.  Veeck got on the phone to Chicago right away and checked up to find there wasn’t any rule against it.”

Veeck had only taken control of the Browns in July 1951, but acted swiftly to differentiate the Browns from their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals.  Promotion was, in Veeck’s view, the key to getting fans in the stands.

Gaedel was just one part of the entertainment designed by Veeck on August 19th.  In the Sporting News article “Day Veeck Outdid Himself; Midget Circus with Browns” marking the 30th anniversary of the event, legendary St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg explained, “Veeck had promised to put on a show, and the master promoter gave the fans a good buildup, which included free cake and ice creams as they entered the park and a lively between-games show.

“There was a juggler at first base, trampolinists at second and hand-balancers pyramided at third.  Baseball clown Max Patkin did his routines and Satchel Paige, playing the drums, led a poor man’s Pepper Martin Mudcat Band onto the field.

“Aerial bombs exploded miniature flags that floated onto the field.  Then, on signal, popping out of a large papier mache [sic] cake at the pitcher’s mound, came a cute little fellow dressed in a pre-shrunk Browns uniform.”

Sadly, Gaedel died in 1961, a result of a street mugging in Chicago.  In an article for the Winter 1987 edition of National Pastimea Society for American Baseball Research publication—republished in the March 1989 edition of Beckett Monthly, Jim Reiser wrote, “After the mugging, he apparently staggered home and died in his bed of a heart attack.  Paramedics were unable to revive him.  A coroner’s report said that Gaedel also had bruises on his knees and his face.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 19, 2015.

Disco Demolition Night

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Disco’s transition from musical genre to mainstream phenomenon occurred when John Travolta mesmerized movie audiences in 1977 with his portrayal of fictional Brooklynite Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.  After Travolta’s bravura performance, disco pervaded nightclubs, Top 40 radio, and parties.  Its dominance in popular culture received confirmation by prominence in movies, television shows, and record stores.

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox attempted to kill disco.  Sort of.

Disco Demolition Night was a promotional stunt that went awry.  Inspired by WLUP anti-disco disc jockey Steve Dahl, White Sox executive Mike Veeck took action.  Veeck learned about baseball promotions from his father, Bill Veeck, who created buzz.  For example, the elder Veeck sent midget Eddie Gaedel to bat for the St. Louis Browns in a 1951 game against the Detroit Tigers.

Mike Veeck’s brainstorm had Dahl emphasizing his dislike for disco by exploding a wooden crate filled with disco records.  It would take place in center field between games of a twi-night doubleheader against the Tigers.

In the 2012 book Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson wrote, “Dahl’s followers were told they could get into the game for 98 cents if they brought a record to be destroyed.  Mike was in charge of the event and hired security for an expected crowd of 35,000.”  With Bill Veeck in the hospital for tests, Mike oversaw the promotion.  Then, a surprise occurred.  Bill Veeck showed up.”

The man who sent a midget to bat said that the stunt could be “catastrophic.”

Indeed.

Approximately 50,000 fans stormed Comiskey Park, armed with records that they tossed like Frisbees without regard to people’s safety.  Dahl announced the explosion, which left vinyl shrapnel scattered across center field.  Then, Dahl’s followers galloped onto the field with the energy of Secretariat.

They started at least one fire on the field and another one in the stands.

They ran around the bases.

They ripped the field apart.

They slid down a foul pole.

They went into the opposing team’s dugout.

They destroyed the field.

Police dispersed the crowd, but the damage had been done.  Because the field’s conditions were not playable, the White Sox forfeited the second game of the doubleheader.  Dickson explained, “After this announcement, players from both teams had to lock themselves in their clubhouses for hours to protect themselves from rampaging fans.  The action spread to the parking lots, where players’ wives who had come to pick up their husbands were forced to lock themselves in their cars while fans rocked the cars back and forth.  The fans were finally removed by police in full riot gear.  Thirty-seven fans were arrested.”

Disco Demolition Night could easily be renamed Disco Demolition Disaster.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 15, 2013.

Happy Birthday, Baseball Hall of Fame!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Today, we celebrate the birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Opened on June 12, 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a time tunnel that journeys its visitors through a cornerstone of American history. More than a mere sport, baseball is a vehicle of social change.

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“Who’s On First?”

Friday, June 1st, 2012

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is America’s trunk of baseball memorabilia. A really massive trunk.

For baseball history buffs, the Hall of Fame library houses invaluable artifacts, including the minutes of the first meeting of the National League clubs in 1876, Lou Gehrig’s famous scrapbook, and a file on every major league baseball player.

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