Veeck was ahead of game

The Baltimore Sun

Had Bill Veeck had his way, Jackie Robinson would not have been pioneer, hero, inspiration. That mantle would belong to others.

Four years before Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, Veeck tried to buy the floundering Philadelphia Phillies. His plan? Stock the team on the cheap with top players from the Negro leagues, fill the park and turn the game on its segregated ear.

Had baseball's maverick pulled that off, the game today would be honoring a different cache of groundbreakers such as Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin. All were established stars in the Negro leagues by 1943.

Robinson, who served in the Army during World War II, would have been, at best, a footnote in baseball lore instead of the man remembered Sunday on the 60th anniversary of his big league debut.

Imagine that.

That his late father sought first to integrate the game doesn't surprise Mike Veeck, 56, an author, minor league baseball magnate and alumnus of Loyola College.

"Dad was pragmatic," Veeck said yesterday. "He saw the Negro leagues as a source of talent. He knew he could buy a ballclub and people it with some of the best players in the country, and for not a lot of money."

But Bill Veeck's scheme failed when he blabbed his plan to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, an ardent segregationist. Shocked, Landis arranged on the sly to sell the Phillies elsewhere.

"In effect, my father slit his own throat," Mike Veeck said.

Never mind that his father's story lacks documentation, the younger Veeck said.

"Baseball researchers are constantly screaming that there is no paper trail to prove this," he said. "But I never knew my old man to deal in falsehoods. That wasn't his style."

Bill Veeck would later own three American League teams: the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns, a bedraggled club that he peddled to Baltimore, where it became the Orioles in 1954.

His father learned early on that bigotry and business don't mix, Mike Veeck said.

"When Dad was 10, my grandfather [then president of the Chicago Cubs] took him into the team's money room and dumped all the receipts from the day onto a table. Then Grandfather asked, 'What color is our money?'

" 'Green,' my father said.

" 'And what's the color of the person who put that money in our till?'

"'I don't know,' my father said.

"Grandfather looked at him and said, 'Always remember that.' "

Small wonder that in July 1947, three months after Robinson smashed the color line, Indians owner Bill Veeck put a black infielder in the Cleveland lineup. Larry Doby became the second African-American to play in the majors.

"That was one of my father's proudest moments," Mike Veeck said.

Last Saturday, in Doby's hometown of Camden, S.C., Veeck attended a ceremony dedicating a recreation complex to the Hall of Famer, who died in 2003. The event took place on April 14 - a nod to Doby's jersey number, long retired by the Indians.

The next day, Robinson was feted on a national scale.

The disparity between their places in history rankles Veeck.

Seven years ago, Veeck said, Doby accompanied him on a trip to Cooperstown. It was a bittersweet visit. Veeck's 8-year-old daughter, Rebecca, had retinitis pigmentosa and was going blind. So, while she could, the child wanted to see the Hall of Fame tributes to both Doby and her grandfather.

"I remember Larry lifting her up so she could see my father's plaque," Veeck said. "She rubbed his visage with her hand. Then someone handed Rebecca a picture of Doby standing with my dad."

The youngster squinted at the photo as best she could, then asked:

"Which one is Grandfather?"

The question resonates with Veeck today.

"If you are blind, you can't tell black from white," he said.

"And in a perfect world, nobody else can, either."

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