Veeck Family Values Marilyn Monroe look-alikes, nuns giving back rubs to fans, cross-dressing dog mascots, death-to-disco night, Bill Murray leading a marching band, Elvis tributes...just another typical scene for the prince of baseball promotion, Mike Veeck. Peel back the zaniness and find constant innovation, no fear of failure, and an inherited calling.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – If the name Bill Veeck means anything to you, it brings to mind a wacky showman out of baseball's golden era. He was a guy who pulled wild stunts like sending a midget to the plate for the old St. Louis Browns in '51, a good-time Charlie running loose among his dour fellow owners, and a symbol of what some people feel is missing in baseball today, namely fun. "We give the fans good baseball. That's good enough for the dyed-in-the-wool fan," he'd say, winding up for his big pitch. "But for the others, for the fellow who is just out for amusement, it takes something a little different, a little extra, to tip the scales and bring him out to the ballyard."
Bill Veeck, who owned ball clubs in Milwaukee and St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago, was forever dreaming up new promotions like bat day and postgame fireworks, and ballpark innovations that have since become standards, like exploding scoreboards and on-site nurseries. His son Mike, 52, remembers all that stuff, of course. No matter that he was just a child (one of nine from two marriages) when the old man was in his prime. But he remembers other things too, things that hint at the spirit behind his father's bursts of color in the sky.
"We used to have fire drills," says Mike Veeck, sitting in a borrowed office at Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, Mass., home of the Brockton Rox. The team is the latest addition to the Goldklang Group family of minor league baseball franchises, of which Veeck is president. He arrives late this morning, galumphing through the door, loud and friendly, a big grin prying apart his salt-and-pepper goatee. "One kid would get the ladder," he says, continuing, "and one kid's job was to get this box of index cards. In the box were ideas. Just these pieces of paper--index cards, cocktail napkins, matchbook covers. With ideas, you know?" Mike Veeck shakes his big head; he still can't get over how cool that is. "That has a huge impact on you. You're a 10-year-old kid, and you're having a fire drill, theoretically to save your butt if something's burning, and you're thinking, 'There must be something really valuable about ideas.'"
Veeck (rhymes with Wreck, the subtitle of his father's autobiography) inherited that same respect for--and endless supply of--attention-grabbing ideas. Not all of them work, of course. But the net effect is to create an anything-can-happen atmosphere that people want to be a part of, distinct from the outcome on the field. It probably wouldn't work in the big leagues (and in fact it hasn't), where the stakes have gotten too high for anybody to take anything resembling a creative risk. But there's nothing minor about the results Veeck gets: He has turned around a half-dozen money-losing teams and helped build the Goldklang Group into a $20 million to $30 million business, along the way fueling a renaissance in minor league baseball. He's also found a way to keep his father's legacy from crowding him and to make productive use of what got handed down. "I'm a minor league guy," he says, marking the turf in which he's more comfortable. For now, anyway.
For all his notoriety, Bill Veeck never accumulated what could be called a fortune. But there was the wild streak, the childlike sense of playfulness, and the love of the games--baseball and business. And there was a near reverence for an entrepreneur's greatest gift, his own ideas. All those, and the last especially, now belong to Mike.
"Mike comes up with hundreds of ideas," says Marv Goldklang, Veeck's partner, speaking from his office in Livingston, N.J. "Some of them don't work. But if you go in that direction, you've got to be prepared to risk the unsuccessful." Choosing a pig as the mascot of the St. Paul Saints worked. That was obvious from the way the fans reacted, even before Sports Illustrated sent a photographer and a stylist all the way from New York City to take the pig's picture. Enron Night--paper shredders at the gates, attendance figures that kept having to be revised downward--at PGE Park in Portland, Ore., sort of worked, except that somebody should have checked first to see who owned Portland General Electric: It was Enron. Vasectomy Night in Charleston, S.C.--all male fans eligible for a drawing to win a free snip job--was not going to work at all. "It was unfortunate that we had a Catholic bishop who was a season-ticket holder," says Goldklang. At least Vasectomy Night was canceled in time. Unlike Veeck's first big promotional idea, which was nearly his last.
July 12, 1979. Veeck was still in his 20s, working for his dad in the White Sox marketing department. It was his first real job. He wasn't trying to make history, just sell a few extra tickets for a twi-night double-header against the Tigers. His brilliant idea: Disco Demolition Night. Fans who brought, say, a Donna Summer record for the bonfire between games got in for 98 cents. Veeck told security to expect 35,000. Instead about 100,000 people showed up, twice the capacity of old Comiskey Park. Outside, disappointed fans rocked the ticket booths. Inside they chanted, "Disco sucks!" throughout the first game, then stormed the field, forcing only the fourth forfeit in Major League history. THE HORROR AT COMISKEY was the headline on Bill Gleason's column the next day in the Sun-Times. "Crowd control?" says Veeck, displaying a wisdom that comes only with experience. "That's a misnomer. There's no such thing as crowd control. You just bank on the crowd never thinking with one mind."
The story is that Veeck's own father fired him after Disco Demolition Night, but Mike says that's not true. Bill Veeck was the only one who understood! "He said it was a promotion that worked too well," says Mike. A year later, though, the old man sold the team, and suddenly Mike was unemployed. He tried to find another baseball job, but his last name was still a handicap in those days ("My dad went out of his way to step on toes"), plus Mike was drinking. As he says, "Why would you hire a drunk Veeck?"
Veeck moved to Florida. He hung dry wall (because "wallboard doesn't talk back to you"), watched a lot of jai alai, mourned the 1986 death of his father, had a son, had a heart attack, got divorced, started going to AA meetings, pulled himself together enough to start his own ad agency, and was living alone in an apartment in Pompano Beach ten years later, in 1989, when he got a call from Goldklang, who had just bought the independent Miami Miracle. Goldklang says former White Sox general manager Roland Hemond had told him, "'If you're foolish enough to have purchased that franchise, you're probably crazy enough to hire Bill Veeck's son to run it.' That's how I was turned on to Mike."
The Miracle was something rare at the time, an unaffiliated minor league team. Not by choice, but because no big league club would go near it. Like every other existing franchise the Goldklang Group would later acquire, it was losing money. Veeck turned it around. From there, Goldklang and Veeck (partners now with, among others, comedian Bill Murray, who bought his first minor league team back in the mid-1970s) went on to launch the St. Paul Saints as founding members of the independent Northern League. St. Paul was nobody's idea of a prime spot for minor league baseball, there in the shadow of the recent world champion Minnesota Twins. When Veeck called Twins general manager Andy McPhail to tell him the Saints were coming, he says, McPhail laughed at him. Today the Saints are the most profitable of six moneymaking franchises in which the Goldklang Group has a stake, either as owners or, in Brockton's case, as consultants with a claim on earnings. It generates revenue from everything from the rag business, concessions, and advertising (even the cup holders are branded) to nontraditional sources like concert promotion and a three-on-three hoops tournament.
Wherever Veeck brings his trademark management style, he's always worried first with making his ball club known. Whatever it takes. Whether it's another boundary-stretching promo like, oh, Randy Moss Hood Ornament Night (celebrating the Vikings wide receiver who allegedly upended a traffic cop), or Guaranteed Loss Night (his promise: heartache and disappointment, or you get a free ticket), or possibly the most counterintuitive promotion ever staged, Nobody Night, in which fans were locked out of the ballpark until the fifth inning with an eye toward establishing a new all-time attendance record--zero. He succeeded. "The Nobody Night? Yeah, it was really a stupid idea," Veeck says, grinning. "Two hundred thirty-seven interviews all over the world we did, from Charleston, S.C.! Lesley Visser came from Real Sports. And then people say, 'Why did you do it?' I realize instantly I'm dealing with a Martian. 'Well'"--he's laughing hard now, a chugging, honking chortle that breaks into a weeping wheeze--"'to get attention!'"
Once Veeck has your attention--if he can get you to come out to the ballpark even once--then his chief concern shifts to making sure you'll want to come back. That decision has a lot to do with whether the home team wins or loses, sure, but on a given night, Veeck knows he can't control that. So he concentrates on what he can control: "The product in the venue," Goldklang calls it, as opposed to the "product on the field." Veeck's ballparks are famously cheerful, welcoming places, where tickets cost $8 tops; you might find walleye sandwiches (St. Paul) or clam chowder (Brockton) at the concession stands, but you'll always be able to buy a buck-fifty hot dog and a $2 beer; mimes perform instant replays on the dugout roof; and the usher may well be an unemployed actor whose job it is to make you laugh.
You might wonder why some of that stuff wouldn't work in the big leagues. You wouldn't be the first. Veeck has had opportunities over the years, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Florida Marlins, and the Detroit Tigers. The first two ended badly; the jury is still out on the third. Major League Baseball may be too stuffy for a Veeck. "I think clubs spend more time worrying about being embarrassed than in trying new things," says John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and the one who briefly hired Veeck when he owned the Marlins. "Not many fans write letters about the things they like. They write to complain. That's fine. But it doesn't help those responsible who are sensitive to criticism and who may work with someone as creative as Mike."
As a third-generation baseball man (his grandfather, the original Bill Veeck, ran the Cubs in the 1920s), Veeck has been thinking about his legacy--about the life he loves, the business he's good at, and who will carry on. He's at the elementary school in Mount Pleasant, S.C., today, with his second wife, Libby, watching their daughter Rebecca's fifth-grade field day. Rebecca suffers from a form of retinitis pigmentosa called cone-rod dystrophy, a rare and incurable disease. When she looks at you, she turns her head 90 degrees and catches you out of the side of her eyes. Eventually she'll be blind. But there she is, a real gamer. Throwing Frisbees and kicking soccer balls and jumping rope--doing her best. And so reminding Veeck in yet another unexpected way of his father, who lost his right leg below the knee in a Marine Corps training accident, was crippled, sure, but would never admit he was handicapped. Nor does Rebecca. "If you take your hand and put it across her nose," Veeck says, "with the blond hair, the blue eyes--she's got the old man's spirit. There's no question."
Which gets Mike to thinking in funny ways these days. He has a son, William Night Train Veeck, a bass player like his rock & roll father. But Rebecca--she has that spirit, that weird affinity with the grandfather she never met. He thinks she'd make an excellent baseball executive. "I hope she does it," he says. "I think she kind of has a feel for it." And there he goes again, laughing out loud. The idea of it!
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