Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick – Interview with Author Paul Dickson

Tuesday April 24, 2012

MLB reports – Jonathan Hacohen: Today is a big day in the world of baseball, as we are proud to announce the release of the Paul Dickson Biography, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.” Probably the most important person to influence the game of baseball as we know it today, Bill Veeck was a baseball pioneer. From night games, interleague play, racial integration and so much more, Bill Veeck is responsible for many of the key changes to the game that we take for granted. I was very excited to hear that Paul Dickson had written this book, as all baseball fans that truly love the game must get to know Bill Veeck. With so much information to cover on such an important baseball figure- Paul Dickson was certainly up for the role as biographer. 

As the book is launched today in stores, I had a chance to catch up with the author and cover many topics. From the life and times of Bill Veeck, to the process in creating the book and the road ahead for Paul Dickson. You are in for a treat today folks, as you will get to know about the book directly from the author himself. In talking to Paul, I was blown away by the dedication and commitment he showed in putting together The Greatest Maverick. From the number of people he interviewed and the amount of research he undertook, Paul went to great lengths in putting together the book. Now as Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick hits the bookshelves, you will find out why the book will be an important addition to your baseball library.


Featured on MLB reports, I proudly present my interview with baseball author, Paul Dickson and his newest baseball book – Bill Veeck – Baseball’s Greatest Maverick:

JH:  Thank you for joining us today on MLB reports Paul. Your new book “Bill Veeck- Baseball’s Greatest Maverick” is about to be launched. You must be very excited!

PD:  Very excited, Indeed. The book releases on Tuesday April 24, 2012. My publisher is Walker & Co. The year is important because it is the 50th anniversary of Veeck’s own biography Veeck: As In Wreck, a groundbreaking book which still commands an immense readership. But that book was Bill’s own story—a true autobiography—mine a true biography.

For example, Veeck’s book has a paragraph on his experiences in a war zone in the South Pacific during World War II. It is a full chapter in my book. This is the situation where Veeck was wounded and this is where he became part of a cohort of men who saw combat and came to baseball. Few know that Yogi Berra was in the second day of the D-Day invasion or that  Monte Irvin went in on the 6th day. I interviewed a lot of war vets for the book including Irvin but also the late Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Jerry Coleman, and Lou Brissie who lost part of his leg in combat but came back to pitch for Connie Mack.

JH:  How did you come up with the topic for the book?  Were you always interested in Bill Veeck?

PD:  I had always wanted to write a biography and felt that if it were to be a sports biography it had to be about a transformational character in the history of sports which Veeck was. I also wanted to able to tell a story in the context of the subject’s time. Because of Veeck’s interest in racial equality, his position as a war veteran and amputee, and his genius as a promoter and businessman, he was perfect. He was also witty, provocative and drew outside the lines. He attracted the descriptor “maverick” more than any other figure in sports before or since.

The challenge of biography is intriguing. If you asked a dozen Pulitzer Prize winning biographers to each write a biography of Benjamin Franklin, you would get 10 different Franklins because each would be re-creating a life that he had not lived. So the biographers job is to get his or her  subject as correctly as possible within the framework of building a strong narrative. Veeck again was perfect because his narrative was rich beyond expectations. My book may be the only baseball book that has Salvadore Dali, Howard Hughes and Al Capone in the index.

JH:  This is not your first entry into the baseball literally world. Tell us about Paul Dickson, the baseball author.

PD:  I have written ten bat and ball books altogether if you count major revisions. I say bat and ball because one of those in the count was a book about softball. My major work is the Dickson Baseball Dictionary which has come out in three editions (1989, 1999, 2009). The Third edition has more than 10,000 entries and over 18,000 definitions. My book Baseball’s Greatest Quotations has gone through one major revision and I am now working on a third.

I wrote Baseball The President’s Game with Bill Mead and have written books on scoring (The Joy of Keeping Score) signs and sign-stealing (The Hidden Language of Baseball) and the codes of conduct at play within the game (The Unwritten Rules of Baseball).

Fortunately for yours truly  and others who write about the game, there is a  strong market for books about baseball. There are three on the New York Times best-seller list this morning. Ardent baseball fans tend to be ardent readers.

JH:  How long did it take you to research the topic? Can you even begin to quantify the number of people you interviewed, materials you read to put your information together?

PD:  I interviewed well over a hundred people for the book some of whom are no longer with us. I may have conducted the last interview with Ernie Harwell before his death.  Ernie loved to talk about Bill Veeck who he considered a friend.

I used a lot of existing interviews with Veeck and found over 300 short radio shows he did for Armed Forces Radio which had been archived at the Library of Congress. I used as much primary source material as possible. For instance, I got hold of his military service record and obtained his FBI file. I ended up with boxes of clippings including those from the African-American newspapers where Veeck was covered with special interest.

JH:  Without giving away too many secrets…what is one thing about Bill Veeck that fans probably didn’t know?

PD:  Perhaps his immense impact on the renovation of Wrigley Field in the late 1930s including the planting of the ivy and the re-building of the bleachers. There is also his time in the Marine Corps and his minor league ownership period, and his attempts to integrate the game which began in 1942.

JH:  Did you have the Veeck family permission in writing this book? Were any of the family members involved?

PD:  I didn’t ask for permission but I did ask the family for access which I was granted after a long discussion with Mike Veeck. I had countless phone conversations with Bill’s wife Mary Frances Veeck and interviewed five of his children and his nephew.  Veeck was far from perfect and I warned the family in advance that there would be a few times when they would wince while reading the book. The only promise I made was that I would be as accurate as I could be.  

JH:  Bill was considered one of the most (if not THE most) influential people in the game.  What does that statement mean to you?

PD:  Veeck desperately wanted to win ballgames but he also knew that he had to keep the fans happy especially during losing streaks. This meant doing everything he could for the fans. Whenever Veeck took over a team he immediately renovated the women’s rest rooms and then went to work improving the food and setting up a schedule of promotions.  When he died in 1986, former Detroit Tiger great, and Hall of Famer, Hank Greenberg, Veeck’s close friend and business partner, in his eulogy said: “Bill brought baseball into the 20th century.  Before Bill, baseball was just winning or losing.  But he made it fun to be at the ballpark.” Veeck’s combination of financial creativity and marketing genius was unlike anything else in the history of sports and drew in so many fans that he set records for ballpark attendance that stood for many years.


JH:  Imagine baseball today if Bill Veeck had never been a part of the game. How would it be different?

PD:  For, starters the White Sox would certainly not be in Chicago because when he bought the Club in 1975 he was the only prospective buyer who intended to keep them there. Veeck was the engineer that got the St. Louis Browns into Baltimore where they became the Orioles. He also did all the initial work in preparing the National League for its move West. Because of this the NL got San Francisco and Los Angeles and the AL got Oakland and Anaheim.  A sidebar to this was the fact that Veeck was involved in a scheme which helped keep the Boston Patriots in New England.

Veeck brought in the clowns, the fireworks, the exploding scoreboards and worked hard to broaden his fan base. One  night in Cleveland right after the end of World War II  he gave  all the women who came to the ballpark  free nylon stockings which were quite scarce at the time. Veeck offered free baby-sitting in Cleveland.. The grandchildren of the diverse group of fans who Veeck first attracted to the ballparks during his four ownerships are now helping to fill the ballparks.


JH:  With the big book launch ahead- tell us all about your planned promotion schedule. Very glamorous!

PD:  I am doing a number of events close to home including events at the National Press Club and the Library of Congress. Further afield, I will first be in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kansas City, and a bit later in Los Angeles and Portland. The Baseball Reliquary has set up a month-long Veeck exhibit at the Arcadia, California Public Library which  will culminate in Veeckfest where I’ll be speaking on Saturday May, 19 from noon to five. I will be giving a lecture at the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 3 and we will be scheduling events around that time in New York City.

JH:  Are you already working on your next project Paul? Can we get a sneak preview?

PD:  One of my other great loves is words and I am working on a book that will be called Words from the White House. It’s about words and phrases coined or made popular by Presidents of the United States. For example, Jefferson created 113 new words including “belittle.” Warren G. Harding was responsible for normalcy, bloviate and founding fathers (before Harding they were referred to as the framers.) This book is pure recreation for me. We will have it out in time for President’s Day 2013. I think my next book after that  will probably be another  baseball book.

JH:  Why should a baseball fan purchase Bill Veeck—Baseball’s Greatest Maverick?  

PD:  To make me smile?

Seriously, I think I got a lot more insight into the inner workings of the game through my research on this book and I think I impart this to the fan. What I and my editor George Gibson sought to give the reader was a fast-paced move through much of the 20th century through the lens of baseball beginning with Veeck’s father who was President of the Chicago Cubs. I think we achieved that.

JH:  Where will the book be available for sale?

PD:  It goes on sale everywhere on Tuesday, April 24th  and should be in just about all the independent book stores as well as Barnes and Noble. And will be available on Amazon and the other online sites including Powells and Indiebound.

JH:  I am currently reading Baseball’s Greatest Maverick and will be posting the review on the site. I have to tell you, in my estimation- this is a very important book that every baseball fan needs to read. This is not just about Bill Veeck, but about the game of baseball as a whole. You have given a very important gift to the game.

PD:  Thank you!


JH:  Final question: Will baseball ever see another Bill Veeck…and can the game grow and survive without a Bill Veeck?

PD:  Baseball badly needs what Veeck brought to the game every day–the ability to connect, deeply and personally, with those who make the game possible, players and fans. His innate understanding of what was right extended to his treatment of fans.  He made a habit of sitting in the cheap seats with his patrons; acting on their gripes, and doing such things as spontaneously picking a fan at random and dedicating a special night to him or her. He made coming to the ballpark pure fun.

Baseball has become more and more corporate and, for lack of a better word, aloof. The day of mom and pop ownership is long gone, but if Veeck owned a team today and that team lost a game while he was in the park he would come down from those cheap seats, station himself at one of the exits and thank all the fans for coming. Baseball is missing an element of fun and spontaneity which it needs to sustain its continued growth and popularity. A maverick with Veeckian sensibilities might be just what the doctor ordered.


JH:  Thank you Paul and best of luck on the launch of your book!


***A special thank you to Paul Dickson for his time and effort as part of being interviewed for this article. Whether you are a fan of Bill Veeck, baseball history or the game of baseball in general, this book has something for everybody. Jump into your car and get over to your local bookstore, or click on your favorite book website and place your e-order for Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Stay tuned for our review- coming soon on MLB reports!***


Jonathan Hacohen is the Lead Baseball Columnist & Editor for MLB reports:  You can follow Jonathan on Twitter (@JHacohen)


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About Jonathan Hacohen

I practice daily yoga. Most foods are organic. If you catch me in the supermarket, it will be in the produce aisle. Warrior 1 Yoga was born from my wish to help people be healthy and happy. I preach the 4 key's to life: nutrition, exercise, water and sleep. This is my journey - I am hope to meet you along the way to share a similar path!

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Interviews with MLB Stars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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