The Funniest Man in Baseball
Mike Veeck, scion of a storied baseball family and comic maestro of the minor leagues, will stop at nothing to get you to the ballpark—and get you to laugh
“I know a little bit about anger,” Mike Veeck tells me. “I have a passing acquaintance with anger, too,” I reply. We discuss how anger can be an energy source. Some use it in destructive ways. Beat the wife, the kids, the dog; blow planes out of the sky. Some put it to better use. Throw the money changers out of the temple, demand justice for the weak, write a book, pitch a no-hitter, make people laugh. That last one is Mike Veeck’s cause. He’s demented about making people laugh.
Veeck (as in wreck, as the title of his father’s autobiography puts it) is sixty-one, getting round, with eyes like a ferret, a goatee, and dark hair I know he dyes. He has a limp. Once on the fourteenth fairway, a guy in a golf cart reached for a lighter for his cigar and ran over him. Veeck wrote a column about it for the Lowcountry Sun, a monthly paper distributed around Charleston, South Carolina. He published the guy’s name and phone number so people could berate him for breaking Veeck’s leg. Funny, angry, or both?
We’re sitting under a hot noonday sun in the exposed left-field bleachers of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, home of the minor-league Charleston RiverDogs, the single-A affiliate of the New York Yankees of which Veeck is part-owner and president. A groundskeeper manicures the field below. A few kids are tidying up the stadium for a 5:05 p.m. game against the Delmarva Shorebirds. Veeck and I are catching up. We’ve known each other fifteen years but don’t see each other much. He travels a lot, to conventions and conferences, where he makes people laugh. He lives just across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant with his wife, Libby, and their twenty-year-old daughter, Rebecca. Veeck’s son from a previous marriage, William “Night Train” Veeck—his name was Mike’s idea—works for the
Chicago White Sox. The Veeck men have long worked in baseball, going back to Mike’s grandfather, onetime president of the Chicago Cubs. Mike’s famous father, Bill, who lost a leg due to an injury suffered while fighting in World War II, co-owned three major-league teams, won a world championship, and brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League, in 1947. He also notoriously brought the three-foot-seven Eddie Gaedel to the AL, for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, for one at bat. And he invented the exploding scoreboard, which some think made the game more entertaining and others say diminished its purity. “The P. T. Barnum of baseball,” Bill was called.
Bill would entertain Mike’s childhood friends by hammering a nail into his wooden leg, then saying, “Go tell your fathers to do that.” His house was always “filled with laughter and Dixieland jazz,” Mike says, “but it wasn’t a Beaver Cleaver home.” Bill was the kind of father who didn’t connect with his son until Mike was a man of twenty-five, working for him with the White Sox. By the time he died, in 1986, Mike says, “we had said it all.”