The St. Paul Saints started their 27th season as the flagship of independent baseball this weekend, beginning defense of their American Association championship with six games in hub city Sioux Falls, S.D. It wasn’t easy getting there.
With that in the background, co-owner Mike Veeck spoke with the Pioneer Press via phone from Charleston, S.C., where he also owns the Charleston Riverdogs, a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees. A veteran of four major-league front offices, Veeck is the son of the legendary Bill Veeck, who owned the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, and grandson of William Louis Sr., the Chicago Cubs’ president from 1919-33.
The coronavirus pandemic has virtually canceled all sports since mid-March, but teams are inching closer to starting abbreviated seasons. After a short training camp, the Saints are Minnesota’s first pro team to compete in nearly four months.
“I would like us to be a Petri dish, have people come and see what works, what doesn’t work, social distancing — how you can do it,” Veeck said. “Because I’d like to think we’ve always been able to innovate because we’re a league and because we’re flexible — and because we’re not governed by the constraints of the Commissioner’s Office.”
Veeck, 69, talked about several topics, ranging from the current wave of social justice protests throughout the nation and why co-owner Bill Murray is so popular, to the possibility of the Saints — independent since opening in St. Paul’s Midway Stadium in 1993 — becoming an affiliate of the major league team across the river.
I guess I want to ask you about a ton of stuff, since I’ve never talked to you before …
That’s when people like me the most.
This is a weird time, not just for the American Association but the major leagues and the minor leagues, and the country. Is it a kind of a milepost for baseball?
Yeah, I think so. First of all, it was a huge opportunity for us, and I’ve worked for four major-league teams, so I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth. The contraction of the minor leagues, this pandemic has played right into major league baseball’s hands because they’d just like to be able to control all of organized baseball, if you will. And they don’t understand because rarely have any of them ventured down into the minor leagues to understand that we grow the new fans. And at the major league level, our leadership is such, the Commissioner’s Office is such, that we didn’t seize a tremendous opportunity we had.
After 9/11, everybody rallied around, you know, Rudy Giuliani and Paul McCartney on a Friday night at Yankee Stadium, signifying a return to some sort of normalcy. And here now we had a whole month, or a whole month and a half, ahead of any other sport and we squabble about money instead of doing the right thing, which is helping the country. And I’m not Pollyanna; I’m the first one to admit it’s a business. But when you have a golden opportunity to help the societal framework around you and you don’t avail yourself of that, well, we just missed a chance. …
(Commissioner Rob Manfred) could have said to both sides, “Hey, we’re going to argue in private. This is not a time that people want to hear about people with a lot of money not getting along. All we need to do is get back to our game.”
It’s also different this time because it’s not a lockout or a strike. Fans are being affected by the same thing, which is the pandemic, and a lot of them already have lost their jobs, or taken pay cuts …
I don’t believes those polls very often, and I guess that makes me not very smart, but they’re bandying about 9 percent of the population still calling baseball ‘America’s pastime.’ Nine percent. And of course the same thing was true in the late ’60s and the early ’70s, when there was the same kind of societal upheaval. We were a violent, angry nation, and football then was the favorite. It’s cyclical, is the point I’m trying to make. During the Vietnam War, everybody loved football. It was the old George Carlin routine: “In football you play on a gridiron; in baseball you run home.” Our favorite sport is very much a reflection of our society, and this was a chance we had to be the leader that we’ve been over the years, going back to when African-Americans were starting to play. And as far as I’m concerned, we blew it.
We can still squabble, we can fight, but we can do it privately and step up and for a month and a half, we have the stage to ourselves. And then maybe people who don’t like baseball are rediscovering and saying, “Gosh, I forgot about how wonderful this game is.”
Do you think if the major leagues control all of the minor league affiliates it will become more expensive and less fun?
I don’t think it will be more expensive at first because I don’t think they’re going to have any idea how to operate the teams. But the idea that they can have hundreds and hundreds of wood-bat league teams is also preposterous. St. Paul’s an independent; say what you will about the St. Paul operation (but) we’ve operated continuously. Running an independent has its challenges. So, when the major leagues go, “We’re going to build dream teams out of these and they can be independent teams or they can be wood-bat leagues,” they’re not really certain what they’re talking about.
And the other thing that has to be considered in this whole equation is what happens to all of these communities, where baseball clubs that for all intents and purposes have been there forever are going away? People aren’t paying attention to it now, but when they suddenly wake up and go, “Hey, we just lost our Cedar Rapids Kernels” and “We just lost our Clinton Lumber Kings” or out in Butte, Montana, where we used to operate the Copper Kings. If I were Major League Baseball, I would go to all the teams right now, the teams that are going to be contracted, and I would hire as many people as I can on each team because what the major leagues need is accessibility, and … if they went down and picked off a lot of this available talent and put them in their major league operations, they would learn to become more accessible.
Your dad was a White Sox fan. Well, my dad was a White Sox fan, too, and he was accessible, and that’s what fans so desperately want; they want to be part of the operation. They pay the bills, they ought to be part of the operation, and right now is an incredible opportunity for baseball to learn by grabbing all this talent and figuring out how to make it more relevant to fans. You know, 10 minutes before these (NASCAR) guys drive 250 mph you can go down in the pits and spend time with, quote, your driver — and you can’t get near a shortstop hitting .220 at the major league level. They shag you. (Laughs). You come to a Saints game and you can walk up to Bill Murray and get an autograph. That’s amazing when you consider that people couldn’t get near Derek Jeter for the last 10 or 15 years of his wonderful career.
My father was a better father than he was an operator, and he was a pretty good operator. But the fact is, he never made a decision that wasn’t based on the fans. The Saints’ model, it’s lovely, but it’s really what Bill Veeck learned from William Louis Veeck before him, passed down: Be available, listen to your fans. You know everybody goes, “Bill came up with the idea of having the names on the uniform.” No, a woman came up to him one day and said, “Who’s No. 5?” He said, “Bubba Phillips.” And she said, “Well, how am I supposed to know that?” He said, ‘Well, you have to buy a program.” She goes, “What if I can’t afford to buy a program?” That’s where the idea came from!
Some people are just comfortable with their celebrity, I guess.
My dad was the least judgmental man I ever met. I married a woman who is the same way. You do what you do. And dad was always interested in other people. He was never interested in talking about himself, but boy, if you stopped him and wanted to talk about, in quotes, his ballclub, he’d talk to you all day. And I think Bill Murray is cut from the same mold. Your father and I, you and I, we never talked about how he was going to be an iconic, multi-generational celebrity, but it was his accessibility. There are two, three generations of people who’ve grown up loving Bill Murray, because why wouldn’t you love a guy you could walk up to and say, “I really loved you in ‘Lost in Translation.’ Thank you. Could you pose for my son for this picture?” Of course they go to his movies! It’s pretty simple. But I think there are just people who understand human nature. It’s easier to be nice, frankly.
What were your grandparents like?
Well, I never met them but by all accounts when my grandfather died, he was known as the nicest man in baseball. Back then there were eight teams. He ran the Cubs, he got seven sets of silver from every team in the National League. He was just well-liked. And, of course, my dad looked at that and said, “Well, I can’t be my father, nobody’s gonna outdo him at being the nicest; I might as well be the quirkiest. And by the way, I’m not going to wear this tie.”
It’s seems to me another guy associated with your father, who was like that, was Harry Caray …
Remember, Harry started singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the South Side. And I can tell you first hand, because I was there in those days, that he didn’t want to do that. He did not want to do that. He said, and I almost quote, “Bill, they’re going to laugh at me and make fun of me.” And my dad looked at him and he said, “Harry, that’s exactly the point. Everyone in Comiskey Park is going to believe that he can sing it better than you, and that’s what makes it a great gag.
So, it seems to make sense for the Twins to have the Saints as an affiliate; I’m not sure it makes sense for you. How do you feel about it?
I can tell you this, that originally when the Saints came to the Twin Cities, we never talked about baseball because the Twins played the greatest baseball in the history of the world, because it’s major league baseball. So, we came up with “Fun is Good,” we positioned ourselves as fun and you’ll see good Double-A baseball, and if the pitching’s good, maybe it’s Triple-A baseball. But (former Twins executive Andy) McPhail and I didn’t care for one another, and that was genuine. (Current Twins president) Dave St. Peter, on the other hand, for the past 10 or 12 years we’ve had great relations.
So, down the road, if it made some sense, it would be worth at least chatting. But I have to wait and see how this all shakes out and what happens. For us, we’ve never had to ask permission, and that’s why we founded the Northern League that grew into the American Association, because we could try things.
To me, you guys are like pirates, and I don’t know how pirates do with being told what to do.
Yes. Yes. And so, we have our philosophy and obviously that’s a huge … I mean, I joined up years and years ago because the Commissioner’s Office ruled against Minnie Minoso, Orestes Minoso, in a game with Pompano Beach — or Fort Myers, then — in like 1990. I had like four busloads of people coming up from Little Havana to see their hero. I had him greet each of those buses, and he signed autographs — but he couldn’t play. We found out three hours before. People would have loved that, the first (player) to play in five decades, and the Commissioner’s Office said it was not in the best interest of baseball. They said it would make it a farce. And that’s when Miles Wolf called me and said, “Hey, you wanna start an independent league?” (Laughs). And I said, “I’m in!” I moved in November of ’91, and we opened in St. Paul in June of ’93. So, we must have had secret meetings in St. Paul.”
You’re not opposed to being an affiliate?
Not with the right club, I’m not.
You live in Charleston, S.C., down in the thick of the former Confederacy. What do you think of all the statues being taken down and the changing of names down there?
It’s long overdue, and I mean, I wish we were worrying about jobs, and I wish we were worrying about education, but there’s no question. I can tell you horrible stories of things that my parents endured when my dad signed Larry Doby. People are capable of such cruelty and inhumanity. I think Tom Petty was the best of my generation who came out and said, “You know, I was just raised a rebel and I never really paid attention and I’m sorry. I wish I had paid attention.” And I think that was really heartfelt.
I’ll tell you a story about an interesting story about AME Emmanuel Church. That little creep comes down and shoots nine people (in 2015) and everybody assumes that Charleston’s going to blow up. And that night, they’re already forgiving. There are two things I’ll tell you about that. The first is that Chris Singleton, who was drafted by the Cubs and spent two years in their organization, he works with us at the Charleston club, his mother was killed. Second thing is that the mayor called, and he was the only man who could make Michael a 17-syllable word, he said, “Michael, we need the Riverdogs to play a game.” It was three days after the shooting, and I said, “Mayor, we can’t have a ballgame. I don’t want to be shooting fireworks and doing anything that can be construed as not respectful.” And he said, “Michael, I don’t want any of your histrionics, I just want you to open the gates for once and play a game of baseball so we have a place to heal and gather.” And we sold out that night. I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. I thought he was crazy, but that was the truth. People came, because they needed that.
Baseball has been the constant, I guess; that’s what James Earl Jones said (in the movie “Field of Dreams”). Can baseball really help over the next few months? Is it just a distraction, or is it something else?
Oh, it can really help. And don’t get me wrong, it can really help our game, too. You get more by giving, and this is one time when we have to do every single thing that we can do. When I was teaching at The Citadel, I presented a plan to basically interview and do research with African-American kids in grade school, because that was when they decide what their favorite sports are going to be. It’s too late even in middle school and high school. We had it set up so colleges across the country would have it set up and run all of this information and research, and it was just very involved. I presented it to Dave Dombrowski when I was working with the Tigers, and then he presented it to (former MLB commissioner Bud) Selig, and then in the changeover (of commissioners), of course, it went nowhere.
We have to do those things now. What got us a lot of positive reinforcement in Charleston was, the day we opened the new ballpark in ’96, we retired Doby’s uniform and we named Doby’s Deck, which remains to this day. And we do five tributes a year to Larry Doby because I think he’s one of the great unsung heroes. Jackie Robinson gets all the credit, but Larry didn’t have a college degree and Larry didn’t have handlers and Larry didn’t come up through the minors. Dad purchased his contract from the Newark Eagles and that was it, he was with the Cleveland Indians, and he had a really tough go-around. But we campaigned for him shamelessly because the Veeck family and the Doby family are intertwined.
I went back this week and read an interview I did with Buck O’Neil and one thing that stuck out was how back then, every great athlete wanted to play baseball, didn’t matter what color you were or where you came from. Is there too much distraction now for baseball to mean what it once did to this country?
If an independent team with a ragtag, like Mad Magazine’s usual gang, can open up eight miles from the Metrodome and play at Midway and have the kind of results we’ve had, then imagine what you do at the major league level when you have giants of the past walking through the stands and handing kids baseballs. One of the things that people responded to about the Saints when we went to the capital was we had relationships with 2,000 charities. You have to go to the grassroots. We still leave town for 10 days at the beginning of our season for the high school tournament, and we should. It’s not something we should get a pat on the back for. It’s more important.