Mike Veeck has been called the funniest man in baseball.
When Veeck — along with actor/comedian Bill Murray and lawyer Marv Goldklang — started the independent minor league St. Paul Saints in the then-Northern League (now the American Association) in 1993, it looked as if the joke might be on them. Independent baseball was all but extinct, and few thought their plan would work. It not only worked, it thrived and spurred independent leagues across the nation. Today, Veeck is part-owner of five teams, most prominently the Saints and the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs.
Twenty-two years since their founding, the Saints are still thriving and now play in a gorgeous, new $63 million ballpark in the historic Lowertown neighborhood in St. Paul. The team, which draws as many as 10,000 fans per game, has provided opportunities for players such as Kevin Millar, J.D. Drew and Darryl Strawberry to start, continue or resurrect their careers. St. Paul is also where Ila Borders became the first woman to pitch in a men’s professional league in nearly 50 years when she did so in 1997.
Veeck’s slogan is “Fun is Good,” and his teams host some of the most entertaining — and outrageous — promotions in all of sports. Who else would hire a dog or pig to deliver baseballs to the umpire or have mimes perform instant replays? Who else would lock fans out of the stadium to set an all-time attendance record for fewest people at a game? In 2005, Veeck was recognized by Baseball America as one of the 25 most influential people in baseball over the past 25 years.
His grandfather, William Veeck Sr., was once president of the Chicago Cubs. His father, Bill — a Hall of Fame owner with the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers — will always be remembered for signing Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League.
Veeck, 64, recently chatted with ESPN.com’s Jim Caple about thinking outside the batter’s box, making ballpark magic with his dad and Bill Murray’s best acting performance.
When — and why — did you think independent ball could be successful?
Veeck: It was when [then-MLB Commissioner] Fay Vincent ruled in 1991 that Minnie Minoso could not play for my Class A Florida State League team in Pompano Beach. [The ruling ending a bid by Minoso, then 68, to play professional baseball in a sixth decade.] I had four busloads of people coming from Miami’s Little Havana to see Minoso. And at the last minute, Vincent said that it was not in the best interests of baseball and so Minoso couldn’t play. Then a year later, Miles Wolff (who helped found the Northern League) called Marv and me about starting a team in St. Paul. I just loved the idea of getting away from the commissioner’s office. So I told him, “I’m in.” I had no money. So I went to my cousin and borrowed $100,000 and put another $50,000 on credit cards and came to St. Paul.
I come up with 11 different budgets during the first 45 days in St. Paul and then gave up because everyone was saying we would be out of business by July 15. But I knew that independent baseball would work. I didn’t know if it would work here. I was scared to death. We were eight miles away from where the Minnesota Twins played and I was a little shaky about that.
But independent baseball has become part of baseball’s food chain. That’s what’s so astounding. I think the Twins were the last ones to buy in, as far as signing independent players, but it just makes sense now. You have all these kids who were released, many of whom may not make it, but they have enough talent to play for a moment at the minor league level. And every once in a while, you find a Kevin Millar — an undrafted guy who starts here. Max Scherzer pitched in Fort Worth (in the independent American Association). Some really fine players have come through independent league teams.
What did you learn from your dad?
Veeck: That it’s all about the fans. If you pay attention to the fans you will always do OK. It’s when you deviate from the fans too much that you don’t. That was the No. 1 thing he taught me: Be accessible.
And, of course, have fun with it. This is a form of entertainment. I’m not in the entertainment business the way so many people say they are. I’m in the baseball business. I want to entertain fans in addition to the baseball, but I can’t just do it with a steady diet of Dr. John concerts.
People will always dismiss us by saying, “You can’t do that. That’s what they do in the bush leagues.” But if you put Bill Murray in the first base coach’s box at Wrigley Field [as the Saints have done several times over the years] they would laugh just as much — in fact, they would laugh louder because there are more of them. I love it when people say, “Oh, that’s a minor league thing.” As soon as we monetize something, it goes to the big leagues. That would please Dad.
Do you still “see” your Dad even though he passed away nearly 30 years ago? You once told me that you would see him on the field.
Veeck: Absolutely. My wife, Libby, told Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz that I talk to Dad on the field and the flag answers. I do go out there and just kind of talk out loud. I went to Cooperstown recently, and it felt like a place where I could visit my father. How am I going to visit him in Lake Michigan, where his remains are? But I go and visit him in Cooperstown, and I feel the same way at the ballpark. When there are a lot of people there having a good time, something about his spirit endures. You never hear a bad Bill Veeck story. Have you ever heard one? You don’t. He was just a fun guy.
He loved the fans . . . and he listened to people. A guy recently told me, “Your father used to say, ‘I’m in the phone book, call me up.’ And one night, I’m embarrassed to say, a bunch of us got drunk and actually took him up on that.” The guy couldn’t remember the question he asked or exactly what Dad told him, but he remembers being stiff drunk and calling my old man at midnight and Dad answering, “Hello!” He asked Dad a question and Dad answered. The guy hung up the phone and he couldn’t believe it.
Try calling a major league owner now. You’ve got ticket guys who are too busy to call you back.
What’s your favorite Bill Murray story?
Veeck: The one when he played Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott during a Saints game. I don’t think I really realized until then what a fine actor he is. He sent one of our guys out to get a St. Bernard in the morning. But the night before, when we were talking about the idea, Bill lit a cigarette while standing on the dugout steps then turned around and he was Marge Schott, the improv version. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ That was something.
How did you meet up with Murray to buy a baseball team?
Veeck: I was in Pompano Beach, running an ad agency. Bill and Marv and Van Schley had bought the Miami Miracle. Marv says, “I hear Bill Veeck’s son, Mike, is in South Florida. Maybe we should talk to him.” And Bill says, “Mike’s not going to be done pouting yet.” Because I hadn’t had a baseball gig since leaving the White Sox [after his 1979 Disco Demolition Night promotion went awry and forced the Sox to forfeit the game, Veeck resigned the following year].
And so they call me to say “Hey, we’ve got the Miami Miracle!” And I’m like, “And 11 people. Don’t call me.” They replied, “Well, you used to be in the business and you’re being a little snotty.” I say, “I’m not snotty at all. You just have to find a place to play and have a club.”
Then Van gets on a flight, and he’s sitting next to [White Sox executive] Roland Hemond. And Van says very proudly, “Bill Murray, Marv Goldklang and I just bought the Miami Miracle.” And Roland probably doesn’t even look up from reading the paper, but says, “Well, if you’re dumb enough to buy the Miracle, then you’re dumb enough to hire Veeck.”
What’s your favorite baseball movie?
Veeck: “The Natural.” Hands down. It has all the supernatural elements that I ascribe to this game. There are these magical moments, particularly when the ball hits the lights and the light towers blow up. That was spectacular.
When will there be a movie about the Saints?
Veeck: The guy who directed “Radio,” Mike Tollin, makes these little movies that are kind of important. He’s the guy who did the “30 for 30” piece on the USFL football league when Donald Trump owned it. He took Gary Smith’s article from Sports Illustrated [about Mike and his daughter, Rebecca] and turned it into a script. But baseball movies don’t make money overseas. Any American movie will make money overseas except baseball movies.
There has been a script floating around for 20 years about Dad. Mom would say, “Somebody who is handsome has to play Bill.” And I told her, “Mom, somebody like Bill Murray has to play Dad.” There was a great deal of interest. Bill has a script — to this day he doesn’t think I know he paid for it, but I do. So there’s a script about Dad out there. But it comes back to that baseball movie thing. It has to be the right time or right place or somebody has to be crazy enough to say, ”Let’s take a shot. We’ll probably lose money but let’s do it.”