The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
The Sox are off to a miserable start this year—after last night’s loss to the Cardinals, they’re 8-20—but really, what do you expect when your ballpark is identified with a giant downward-facing arrow? Let’s look back on happier times, to the reign of Bill Veeck, the man who had a much better eye for decoration than the current owners and who is responsible for the exploding scoreboard. He installed that in 1960 during his first stint as the Sox’ owner. He sold the team the following year due to poor health, but he bought it back in 1976 in order to save the Sox from leaving Chicago for Seattle. (Yes, that was really a thing.)
That spring, he sat down for an interview with the Reader‘s Dan Vukelich. Vukelich interspersed Veeck’s present-day reflections with news items from his colorful past, mostly complaints from sportwriters and other owners that he was too colorful. (“UPI Item—March 17, 1953: ‘We stood by while he introduced fireworks and midgets. He often has shown little regard for normal baseball protocol … This is where we must put our foot down. We’ve had enough of him … ‘—the other baseball owners.”)
Vukelich wrote in his introduction.
Had he been born into another place or time, Bill Veeck might have been the beckoning captain of an adventuring ship. Or he might have joined the circus, or managed trade exhibitions, or even become a promoter of rock concerts (indeed, if he had had anything to do with Woodstock at least there would have been good toilets). It was merely a matter of fortune for Bill Veeck that he was born into baseball at a time when it was the undisputed king of national diversions.
Veeck, he noted, was, in addition to his ridiculous stunts like sending the midget Eddie Gaedel (who had a correspondingly short strike zone) up to bat and offering free admission to White Sox fans with the last name of Smith as long as they cheered for outfielder Al Smith, responsible for a lot of practical innovations that still exist in major-league ballparks. When he owned the Cleveland Indians, he integrated the American League just a few weeks after Jackie Robinson started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He introduced promo giveaways like bats and caps, and deserves credit for opening up a nursery for small children so their parents could enjoy the game, and for putting players’ names on the backs of their uniforms. He designed the Wrigley Field scoreboard and planted the ivy along the outfield wall.
He told Vukelich:
I think everyone is a potential White Sox fan, not just the south-siders, but the north-siders too. If we can put on an interesting show, and make it exciting and fun, I certainly anticipate getting casual Cubs fans here like we did before. So I see no reason to think that we won’t do it again.
“And I don’t think our fans fight and drink any more than fans anywhere else. I think that the security, perhaps, needs careful study. But you know, people behave much as the host does. If you go to somebody’s house and they’re throwing cigarette butts on the floor and so on, you’ll start doing the same thing. In other words, you’ll behave in accordance with the surroundings. The better the surroundings, the better the behavior. If people don’t care enough to keep their own place up, why should someone else?
This was the man who, three years later, would introduce the infamous Disco Demolition Night. So people don’t always behave as well as you might want them to. But he also persuaded Harry Caray—who was then the voice of the Sox—to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. Most of all, he got butts into seats at Comiskey Park because he understood that baseball was supposed to be fun. As he told Vukelich:
I believe that baseball should have an element of fun in it. I don’t think of baseball as being the World Series. I think it’s a game. Not that there’s any connotation of not wanting to win—everybody wants to win—because if you didn’t there wouldn’t be any reason to keep score. But you can’t always guarantee that the game is going to be exciting. You can, however, guarantee that you’ll create a festive atmosphere. That’s the reason for things like the fireworks. Often that’s the only explosion that occurs.