More than seven decades ago, the circus came to town.
In Summer 1946, Bill Veeck became controlling owner of the Cleveland Indians, and baseball would never be the same. A showman par excellence, Veeck will forever be remembered for his creative innovations and colorful promotions, many of which remain present throughout professional sports — although executed with far less panache.
Despite frequent comparisons to P.T. Barnum, Veeck would never be accused — apocryphally or otherwise — of referring to a customer as a “sucker.” For Veeck respected the fans above all else.
Sadly, 75 years later, respect for both Veeck and the fans is nearly undetectable in the game and the city that Veeck so indelibly impressed.
Before assuming ownership of the Tribe, Veeck surveyed the city’s bars, restaurants, cab drivers and commuters to gauge how those in Cleveland felt about their team. He found that people loved the team, but found ownership detached and parsimonious. Once in charge, Veeck quickly went about improving the team on and off the field.
Veeck’s strategy was simple: Win games, but win or lose, make sure the fans went home happy. Veeck permitted fans to keep balls hit into the stands, sold tickets over the telephone, and upgraded stadium amenities.
He delighted female fans by personally handing out nylon stockings and orchids, and amused fans of both sexes with zany prizes like 50-pound blocks of ice, bushels of fruits and vegetables, and livestock.
Veeck’s commitment to his working-class clientele reached its apotheosis on Sept. 28, 1948, with “Good Old Joe Earley Night” at Municipal Stadium in honor of one of the record-setting 2.6 million fans the Indians drew that year. On his eponymous night, Earley — a factory security guard from Lakewood, Ohio — was showered with gifts ranging from a convertible to a cocker spaniel.
Veeck’s fealty to the fans did not stop at the foul lines. On the field, he created a “people’s team” of former Negro League stars and war veterans through a series of historic acquisitions and shrewd trades.
Veeck’s deference to the Tribe faithful was tested and rewarded when he scrapped plans to trade star player-manager Lou Boudreau amidst a popular backlash. Veeck took to street corners, nightclubs and bars to personally express contrition to the fans for merely contemplating such a deal.
The fans were vindicated when Boudreau went on to win the American League most valuable player award while leading his team to victory in the 1948 World Series.
Through it all, Veeck could be found chatting with fans in the bleachers sans necktie and right leg — the result of a wartime injury. Such populism is missing in the Major Leagues today. And nowhere is its absence more conspicuous than in Cleveland, where in recent years, Indians chief executive Paul Dolan has managed to insult Veeck’s memory and betray his spirit.
The insult came when Dolan removed the Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” logo from the team’s uniforms.
In doing so, Dolan genuflected to the notion that the logo was demeaning to American Indians — an idea in conflict with the exculpatory fact that the logo was originally commissioned by Veeck, the man who integrated the American League, and whose commitment to racial tolerance is beyond question.
In his 1962 memoir, “Veeck-As in Wreck,” Veeck candidly expressed distaste for ethnic jokes. He also had a lifelong appreciation for Indigenous culture, and recognized American Indians as the “most underprivileged, mistreated and neglected of our citizens.”
Veeck’s greatest unfulfilled ambition was to become a lawyer and advocate on behalf of American Indians. Dolan’s implied suggestion that Veeck would have commissioned a logo demeaning to American Indians is further belied by the presence of the Wahoo logo on Indian reservations.
But Dolan’s treatment of Veeck was a mere dress rehearsal for his recent decision to discontinue the “Indians” name at season’s end. By doing so, Dolan joined Art Modell, Ted Stepien and the fictional Rachel Phelps from the Paramount Pictures film “Major League” among Cleveland sports executives who have repudiated Veeck’s “fans first” ethos.
Dolan reneged on prior assurances to fans, having previously stated that he was “adamant” about keeping the team’s name.
Worse was Dolan’s citing of George Floyd’s death as the impetus behind the change. The local chasm displayed by Dolan’s linking an act of police brutality — in which race played no part, according to the trial record — to the “Indians” moniker, must make Indiana residents relieved that Dolan is not their governor.
Less fortunate are those in Cleveland, who wanted nothing more than to see the Indians win their first championship since the days of Veeck. Now that hope has been forever foreclosed.
And under the arc lights, the grinning ghost of Bill Veeck is nowhere to be found.