Extra Point

By Mike Fitzgerald

For Bill Veeck, it was always a baseball day

IT was a bitter January day, Chicago's infamous winter wind - "The Hawk" - was sweeping down Michigan Avenue like a thousand razor blades, cutting through countless layers of clothing to chill to the bone.

But inside the Palmer House banquet room, it was the middle of summer.

"Halloooo...," a voice called out as I nervously surveyed the room, which was filled with smartly dressed military school students and teachers.

It was the first sports interview of my career 19 years ago.

"Sit right here, son," said the smiling man with the shock of white hair and deep blue eyes, motioning to the chair beside him.

Then he leaned over and whispered: "Do you realize we're the only two guys in this whole damn place without a tie on?"

A few minutes later, he delighted the audience with a speech about baseball that brought laughter and tears and then more laughter.

When he sat back down, children of all ages quickly surrounded him and asked for his autograph.

They didn't really know who this funny old man was, but they were attracted to him like moths to a flame.

"Honey," he said to a shy little girl, who clenched a piece of paper and a pen in her tiny hands. "By the time you grow up, girls will be playing in the major leagues."

She walked away with eyes as wide as an on-deck circle.

When the last autograph had been signed, the final hand grasped and the last story told, the man suddenly jumped out of his chair. Despite having one wooden peg leg, he walked down the hallway faster than the rest of us and opened the brass-handled door with a shove.

He only wore a light sport coat over the knit polo shirt in the icy, late-afternoon air. No thermal jacket. No wool stocking cap. No fur-lined gloves.

Then he gave a shrill whistle and a quick wave as a taxi screeched to a halt. The man hopped into the front seat and immediately started talking to the driver. Then they suddenly disappeared in a cloud of steam and exhaust.

For Bill Veeck, it was never winter. Every day was summer. His life of 71 years was one continual baseball season, a never-ending splashy celebration of the game.

Ironically, the Chicago White Sox opened the 1996 season last night in Seattle's cement cave known as the Kingdome. Hardly an "opening day."

Veeck saved the White Sox from moving to Seattle back in 1970 by scratching enough money together to buy the team for the second time.

And, as always, the fun began.

The huge scoreboard lit up and spit fireworks after each home run and a baseball holder mysteriously popped out of the ground in front of the backstop. The umpire could forget his whisk broom because a blast of air periodically swooshed from the top of home plate between innings.

There was a shower and free haircuts in the center-field bleachers, bands roamed the aisles and there were plenty of giveaways and ethnic nights. One time, Minnie Minoso came out to coach first base dressed in a bullfighter's outfit on Mexican Night before a sour-faced umpire sent him back to the locker room to change.

Veeck didn't sit in a lavish owner's skybox. He preferred the bleachers, with a cup of beer in one hand and a cigarette precariously balanced on the ash tray that was carved out of his wooden knee. His leg had been shattered and then amputated during World War II.

The ballpark was his home, from the time he grew up in Wrigley Field when his father was president of the Cubs. Chicago lore has it that he helped plant the famed ivy on the outfield walls.

"Where else can you sit in the warm sunshine, drink beer and tell a lot of lies?" he said.

His players wore shorts one year and they even managed to win a few games back in those magical seasons.

Veeck had his share of winning, with a World Series title vrr in Cleveland in 1948 and a pennant with the White Sox in 1959. But unlike most of today's owners and players, he put winning, salaries and egos in their proper perspective.

The ballpark was a place for fun; it was a haven for fans to forget their troubles and enjoy two or three hours of baseball with their families - without having to spend a week's salary.

And he was a true champion of the underdog. He broke the color barrier in the American League when he signed Larry Doby to the Indians.

His health was always a problem and he fought off cancer for many years. One time he was in critical condition in Chicago and everyone said the end was near. A few weeks later a friend met him in front of the hospital in an old pickup truck - and they immediately cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate his latest victory over death.

The Veeck stories are wonderful and endless. Sending a midget to home plate when he owned the St. Louis Browns is the most famous. But once he told me his personal favorite:

He was owner of the old Milwaukee franchise, then a Triple-A team, and he wanted to liven up opening day. So he had the ground crew roll in the left-field fence - AFTER the visiting team had batted in the top of the first inning.

Of course, the fans went wild. And so did the umpires, who immediately ordered the wall returned to its original location.

"The rest of the owners had to pass a rule saying that you couldn't move the fences during the game," Veeck chuckled.

I called him at home every October for many years. His number was listed and he often took calls in his Comiskey Park office directly from the switchboard.

"Can you believe they're paying guys a million bucks a year to drop fly balls in the World Series?" he once told me.

In 1991, five years after his death, the maverick owner was inducted into the Hall of Fame. No one deserved it more.

The last time I saw Veeck he was in the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, where he spent many of his final days after greed and big business had swallowed up the White Sox and so much of the game.

He had his shirt off, a beer in one hand and he was gesturing with the other as he talked to the nearby fans.

It was always summer for Bill Veeck. And the baseball season never ended.

Here's an opening-day toast in his honor.

Mike Fitzgerald's commentary appears every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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