Outside of players and managers, there are few names in baseball that are as recognizable as the name Veeck. It is a name that is on equal standing with such legendary baseball figures as George Steinbrenner, Ken Burns, and Bill James. Many recognize the name Bill Veeck as a Hall of Fame owner, but it is his son, Mike Veeck, that has taken his personal passion for the game and built the most highly successful independent league baseball team in North America, the St. Paul Saints.
Mike’s father, “Sport Shirt Bill” Veeck, owned the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns at various times, and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. As owner of the Cleveland Indians he became the first American League owner to include an African-American player on his club, and his efforts aided in the integration of America’s pastime. In 1980, Bill Veeck retired, and six years later he died after battling cancer. In 1991, he was inducted into Cooperstown where he has taken his proper place amongst the legends of the game.
With a pedigree like that it is easy to see why son Mike would have such a passion for the game. Mike Veeck has always been a fan of baseball, and over the years he has turned that love into one of the most highly successful careers the game has ever seen. Mike has been involved in the operations of several Major League clubs, including the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Miami Marlins, as well as part owner of five different minor league clubs.
He has always been known as a great promoter, but not many gave him credit for being a brilliant baseball mind. In 1993, Mr. Veeck decided that he could prove them all wrong. He started an independent league team in St. Paul, looking to fill a need that not many people believe existed.
With the Minnesota Twins playing just seven miles to the west, not many thought that a minor league team was really needed in the area. “Everyone thought I was crazy. I remember Sid Hartman saying, ‘Oh Veeck’s father was so smart, but his son is stupid.’ Andy MacPhail (the general manager of the Twins at the time) was always talking about how the team would fail. The funny thing was that the more they criticized us the more successful we became. I always thought I should have put MacPhail on the payroll,” Mike explains with a laugh.
Many in the community gave the Saints 45 days before they expected the team to fold. “I know I did 11 budgets in the first 45 days,” recalls the owner. “Then I realized that we really had something going here.”
What made the idea so brilliant is that Mike understood something about the area that few others recognized. “St. Paul is a neighborhood community. I went through these neighborhoods and could see that they support their neighbors, their neighborhoods. The Midwest is also such a hotbed for baseball, so it was easy to see how they would support the team.”
Support is what they have done. For 21-years fans have flocked to games, sometimes in even bigger numbers than the American League club seven miles away drew. That loyalty has enabled the team to build a new ballpark in Lowertown St. Paul that will open in May. A stadium that Mike believes his team will be playing in for decades. “There is no doubt that this stadium will last for 50 years.”
The success of the club has been a source of great pride for Mike Veeck, but not to the point of hubris. “I am very, very satisfied with what I have done here. But it is not about getting praise from others. It is like one of those moments when you are alone and you think to yourself that you really nailed it. You don’t allow yourself to get caught up in hubris, but you are proud of the fact that you really got it right.”
Getting it right is one of the things that makes him so special. Most who recognize the name associate Mike Veeck with the 1979 Disco Demolition Night, where over 55,000 fans packed Comiskey Park. Fans rushed onto the field and the event became so chaotic that the team was forced to forfeit the second game of a double-header.
Others see a guy that comes up with wild and crazy promotions, but there isn’t much baseball savvy to him. Such ideas as umpires being replaced by a sitting judge and mimes performing reenactments of controversial plays were ideas that caused some to postulate that Mr. Veeck was more interested with promotion than baseball, a thought that is as far from the truth as it gets.
Local media outlets have continued to show very little respect, frequently seeing the team and its ownership more as a circus act than a professional baseball team. An unfair caricature that the owner is quick to dismiss. “We have sent 124 some players to Major League organizations in 21-years. That is a pretty remarkable number.” Amongst those 124-plus men have been such outstanding players as former New York Met Rey Ordonez, and the Boston Red Sox J.D. Drew. The Saints gave Darryl Strawberry a chance to resurrect his career, and he won a World Series with the New York Yankees a year later. Ila Borders became the first woman to play professional baseball, and she did it at Midway Stadium playing for St. Paul. (Note: Minnie Minoso, who was the first black Latino player to play in the Major Leagues played his last professional season as a St. Paul Saints player in 2003. Minoso passed away today, and the Minor League Sports Report would like to pay our respects to a true pioneer.)
Undrafted free agent Kevin Millar is Mike’s favorite success story. Millar played in 63 games in the inaugural season for St. Paul, and immediately caught the attention of the then Florida Marlins. Six years later he was in the big leagues where, for a span of a decade, he was one of the most feared hitters in the game.
Mr. Veeck is honored to know that he played a small part in seeing these men reach their dreams. “The next best thing to the birth of your child,” he explains warmly. He truly wants to see his players reach the next level, and when they do there is no one happier for them than the Saints’ owner. “It’s a real feeling of pride to see these guys make it. A great feeling.”
While there is great joy in seeing his players advance to Major League affiliates, there is a side of the game that was tough for Mike to accept at first; cutting and trading players. It was a lesson his father taught him early on in life. “When I was nine, my father bought me a John Callison glove. It was one of only two gloves I have had in my whole life, and he was my favorite ball player. Two weeks later, my father traded him. It just broke my heart. What stuck out in my mind was that my father gave me that glove knowing he was going to trade Callison. He then told me, ‘Never fall in love.’ It’s a lesson I have hung onto ever since.”
That was a lesson he had to carry as an owner, and he is fully aware that running a ball club requires tough decisions at times. “Players know I am a players’ guy, but I have no problem releasing a guy.” Yet, he also understands that at times his objectivity about his players gets clouded by his personal feelings for them. “I am not a good evaluator of talent, because I will fall in love with a guy, and you just can’t do that in this business and be successful.”
Dealing with people and making a difference in the lives of those around him is something he learned from his parents, and he is extremely honored by the lessons they taught him. “My parents were both activists. Both marched in the Civil Rights movement, and both were real pros at handling people and working with the media. They respected people around them, and it showed in the way they were treated by others.”
An affection for people is one thing that really makes Mike Veeck stand out. It isn’t many owners that are standing in the ticket booth on game day welcoming fans as they give out change. That is Mike Veeck though. He is a guy who knows all the people who are working to build the new stadium, and you can see that they feel as comfortable coming up to talk to him as if he was a part of their work crew.
“My father is in the Hall of Fame for one reason; because he listened to the fans. He cared only about what was good for the fans, and that is what kept them coming.” There is no doubt that this is a true case of “like father, like son,” because the son is just like his dad in the affectionate way that he interacts with those he comes in contact with.
Many owners look upon those in their employment and who attend their games as just part of the business. That is not the personality of Mike Veeck, however. Mike could have easily starred in the Blues Brothers, as his persona is very much like Dan Akroyd and John Belushi. He even broke out in a song at the end of the interview, much to the amusement of those gathered around. He is a guy that makes people feel welcome and they like being around him. I think there is no greater honor to him than that.
Unfairly, there are those who see him as no more than a ring master in a three-ring circus or as some kind of buffoon, but that is because they don’t have the slightest idea of who Mike Veeck really is. Yes, he is a showman who will do outrageous things to draw people to the ballpark, but it is clear that deep down his actions are not business based. This is a man who loves baseball, and he wants to do whatever it takes to get people to the park hoping they will have the same kind of passion for the game that he does. “I love baseball. I just found a way to be around a game that I wasn’t good enough to play.”
At its core, baseball is a game that is supposed to be fun. I think the reason why so many people misunderstand Mike Veeck is because they have forgotten this fact. In an age when player salaries, drug scandals, and billion dollar stadiums dominate the headlines, it has become easy to forget that the sport is supposed to be something to be enjoyable to watch and play. The Saints’ owner gets it, and this is why Mike Veeck’s name deserves to be mentioned among the giants of the game, maybe even as high as that of his Hall of Fame father’s.
I never met Bill Veeck before, but I am sure if he could be asked right now he would say that he has a Hall of Fame son. No need to bring in a judge to rule on that. An adoring baseball nation knows Mike Veeck is what is right about the game, and the St. Paul Saints are blessed to have him as part of their ownership group. Preach it!
By Robert Pannier
Rob is the managing editor of the Minor League Sports Report, and the managing editor of Tellus News Digest.