By Ben Joravsky
When Marya Veeck was young, her parents took her to Comiskey Park to watch the White Sox play.
Which is not unusual except for this: her parents, Bill and Mary Frances, owned the team. “So I was down on the field behind the batting cage watching Nellie Fox or Minnie Minoso taking batting practice,” she says. “After batting practice I had to go home for my nap. I was only four years old or something.”
Today Veeck, a local artist and gallery owner, is putting together “A Diamond in the Grass,” an art show devoted to baseball. “We’re trying to re-create the romantic aspect of the game that may have been lost over the years,” says curator Jonathan Lavan. (The show opens Friday evening at Veeck’s gallery, August House Studio, 2113 W. Roscoe.)
The exhibit reunites the game of baseball with the name of Veeck. Marya Veeck’s a fairly well established artist in her own right, but what collectors and younger artists might not know is that her father’s a Hall of Famer and one of baseball’s legendary characters. He got his start in the 1930s as an assistant to his father, a sportswriter hired by William Wrigley to run the Cubs. “My grandfather was writing articles criticizing the team so they said, ‘You know so much, you do it,'” says Marya Veeck.
During World War II Bill Veeck joined the marines, served in the Pacific, and lost part of his right leg on Bougainville (“I’m not handicapped,” he liked to say, “I’m crippled”). He came home to run the Cleveland Indians, the Saint Louis Browns, the Chicago White Sox (twice), and, for what it’s worth, Suffolk Downs, a horse-racing track in Boston.
He was one of a kind, to say the least–a voracious reader who smoked too many cigarettes, hobbled about on a wooden leg (in which he’d carved a hole for flicking his ashes), and struck up barroom conversations (or arguments) with anyone who cared to talk. He was certainly the most intelligent and innovative owner in the game. He even had an audacious plan in 1943 (four years before Jackie Robinson) to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock them with Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Monte Irvin, and other Negro League stars. “I had not the slightest doubt that in 1944, a war year, the Phils would have leaped from seventh place to the pennant,” Veeck recalled in Veeck–As in Wreck, a memoir written with Ed Linn. As Veeck tells the story, his offer had been accepted by the Phillies owner when the league took control of the team and sold it to another buyer for “about half of what I was willing to pay. Word reached me soon enough that [National League president] Ford Frick was bragging all over the baseball world–strictly off the record, of course–about how he had stopped me from contaminating the league.” In 1947 Veeck integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby with the Indians.
Locally, he’s known for planting ivy along the walls of Wrigley, and saving the Sox for Chicago. Veeck sold the Sox the first time about a year after they won the 1959 pennant (they were the last Chicago team to play in a Series). The reason, he recalled in his memoir, was that doctors told him he “had a case of lung cancer that spread to the brain.” It turned out he had “what amounted to a chronic concussion,” and Veeck vowed to come back to baseball. He wrote, “Sometime, somewhere, there will be a club no one really wants. And then Ole Will will come wandering along to laugh some more. Look for me under the arc-light, boys. I’ll be back.”
Sure enough. He bought the Sox in 1975 at Mayor Richard J. Daley’s request to keep them from being sold to out-of-town investors who wanted to move the team to Seattle.
He’s best remembered as a wizard of promotions, giveaways, and goofy gimmicks–like the midget he hired to play for the Browns in 1951. “When Eddie Gaedel dropped to his crouch, his strike zone was 1 1/2 inches,” Veeck wrote in his memoir. “‘Eddie,’ I said gently, ‘I’m going to be on the roof with a high-powered rifle, watching every move you make. If you so much as look as if you’re going to swing, I’m going to shoot you dead. You just crouch over that plate and take four pitches.'”
Gaedel took his four pitches and trotted to first and into baseball immortality; from there on out Veeck was despised by baseball’s bosses, who claimed his irreverence was bad for the game. Veeck didn’t care. “I will always be remembered, in the end, as the man who sent a midget up to bat,” he wrote. “It is not the identification I would have chosen for myself when I came into baseball. My ambitions were grander than that. And yet I cannot deny that it is an accurate one. I have always found humor in the incongruous, I have always tried to entertain. And I have always found a stuffed-shirt the most irresistible of all targets. I’m Bill Veeck, the guy who sent a midget up to bat? Fair enough.”
In 1980 baseball’s stuffed shirts got their revenge when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn blocked Veeck’s bid to sell the White Sox to Edward DeBartolo (for reasons never adequately explained). Veeck was forced to sell to the current owners, a consortium led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn. He finished with baseball the way he started in it, sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. He avoided the White Sox, since he
didn’t feel welcomed by the new owners. “He was a man of the people, a real mensch, that’s the only word for him,” says Bob Gordon, an architect and printmaker who was a family friend. “We’d be in the bleachers and people would be streaming up to talk to him.”
The last I saw of him was in the early 80s, when he spoke at a gun control rally in the Loop. He was in poor health at the time, in and out of hospitals with various ailments. After the rally he was chatting with a few fans when he saw several Sieg-Heiling progun counterdemonstrators wearing brown shirts and carrying a Nazi flag. “Excuse me,” he told us, as he walked up to the Nazis and ripped down their flag. He would have bashed them over the head with his cane if police hadn’t intervened. “Didn’t lose a leg fighting fascism to put up with this,” he explained. Veeck died in 1986.
In many ways, Marya Veeck is different from her father; she’s uncomfortable with self-promotion and reluctant to give interviews. “I don’t know where she inherited her art talent. I certainly was never an artist,” says Mary Frances Veeck. “Although there was one young man, a suitor for one of our daughters, who told me, ‘You’re an artist at living, Mrs. Veeck. I thought, ‘What a dear boy, I can’t let him get away.’ He did get away, though–hated terribly to see him go.”
Marya Veeck graduated from Drake University, studied art in London, moved to Chicago in the early 80s, and opened her gallery in 1987. Her specialty is figurative oil painting; she works in a studio overlooking Roscoe Village, with the radio softly playing. Sometimes she listens to the ball games, though she hasn’t been to a Sox game in years.
She still loves baseball. “When we were little, my mother gave each of us our own trunk which she filled with mementos of baseball,” she says. “It’s all there in that trunk–baseballs, programs, letters from my dad. I couldn’t leave the game if I tried.
“The idea for the show came from Tom James, an artist who lives in Evanston. Jonathan [Lavan] said we have to do it. I had never done a show related to baseball before. But it seemed like the right time. The studio turns ten. I thought it would be a nice and special way to celebrate my dad’s life.”
She and Lavan solicited pieces from 14 artists. There will be over 40 works on display–photos, paintings, drawings, sculpture–including a wood carving of a man playing catch, an interactive sculpture of fans in the bleachers, and Reader photographer Jon Randolph’s classic shot of a kid hopping over a barbwire fence in a cornfield, a found baseball in his hand.
One of Gordon’s drawings, A View From the Cheap Seats, harks back to his days as a vendor at the old White Sox park. “I remember so many Sunday afternoons when you could be assured of seats in the upper deck,” Gordon says. “You’d go there the day of the game and you could buy seats that gave you a great view of the field. Bill used to say, ‘The best view is from the cheap seats. The beer’s colder and the women are more beautiful.’ They still have upper deck seats in the new Sox park, but the view’s no good and they’re not cheap.”
There’s a tiny bit of hostility to the Sox owners expressed in a few of the works (though Marya and Mary Frances say they have nothing against Reinsdorf). One brilliant painting by Tim Anderson called Ivy features nine busts of famous (and not so famous) ballplayers, such as Lou Novikoff, Dizzy Dean, Minoso, and Adolfo Phillips. On the back of the work are blurbs about the players. Of Novikoff, not known as one of the game’s brainier players, Anderson wrote, “He stole third base with the bases loaded.” Of Minoso, “Kept from playing in five decades by J. Reinsdorf.”
To be fair, it wasn’t Reinsdorf who kept Minoso from fulfilling his dream of playing in five separate decades, including the 1990s; several Sox players, particularly Jack McDowell, rebelled at the prospect. (Anderson’s mistake is understandable. He’s only a Cubs fan and can’t be expected to know much about the game.)
“It won’t be like your usual opening,” says Lavan. “We’ll have hot dogs and beer and peanuts and popcorn and vendors and bad organ music. We’ll bring the whole idea of visual arts to a more approachable level. It will be almost as good as going to the game. Marya’s dad would be proud.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Marya Veeck by Robert Drea.