(On Disco Demolition Night) "Well, sometimes a promotion works too well.”
Despite what you might read on social media these days, good things are happening in baseball.
You have to walk past the seven-inning doubleheaders, make a left at the ghost baserunners in extra innings, dodge Rob Manfred and put blinders on as you amble past the looming labor negotiations, but there are good things happening.
Case in point, this past December the St. Paul Saints announced that they were leaving the Independent Ball ranks to become the Minnesota Twins AAA affiliate.
This was great news for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it brought Mike Veeck back into Major League Baseball.
The son of Hall of Famer Bill Veeck and purveyor of the zaniest ballpark promotions you’ll ever see joins us this week for Spitballin’.
It’s impossible to list all of the promotions Veeck and his team have concocted and inspired, but we can use one as an example for all.
In August of 2020, with the country still aching for any sense of normalcy, the Saints held “Free Pot Night” complete with a fireworks show set to Bob Marley songs. When fans showed up, sure enough they were given free pot…a small flowerpot with the Saints logo on it.
Last week, the Saints tweeted that if the game time temperature was colder than it was that day in St. Paul, beer would be free that game. The temperature in St. Paul that day was 15 degrees below zero.
Veeck’s legacy is not just wacky antics though. Like his father, he is a champion for the fans and recognizes that baseball should be fun.
In addition to remaining an owner of the Saints, Veeck and Fran Zeuli co-founded Fun is Good, a group that provides keynote speeches, presentations and entertainment to companies around the country.
Mike Veeck, decked out in a top hat and tails for an early Halloween celebration at the Saints game Friday, schmoozes with ``Saints III``, the team mascot.(Photo By JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
“For me, the thing about bad promotions is that they make great stories. I liked Free Vasectomy Night, I thought that was fun. Giving away one on Father’s Day wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
There isn’t enough room on the internet to capture Veeck’s spirit and isn’t that what baseball needs right now? A figure whose track record and lineage satisfy baseball purists and whose forward-thinking jives with a younger generation. A self-depreciating genius to contrast the Manfred stuffed-shirt nerdfest.
Someone who appreciates the place in history of people like Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso but who also can have a Ball Pig named Bud Squealig bring new baseballs to the umpire.
Goddamn, fun is good, so let’s go Spitballin’ with the great Mike Veeck.
Hello Mr. Veeck, thanks for taking some time to talk with us this week. It’s an absolute honor to speak with you.
Let’s see if you say that when we’re done talking.
It’s already worth it! Before we get into your career, I would like to go back to your childhood first. Who were your favorite teams and players growing up?
I was eight when my dad ran the White Sox and Early Wynn was always my favorite because I never could figure out how someone could get away with saying that if someone dug in on him, he’d throw at their mother. That always had a huge impact on me. I also loved [Luis] Aparicio and [Nellie] Fox.
Growing up with your dad being Bill Veeck, were you around the game a lot?
No, that was our father’s thing. We weren’t country club kids. It was a real special treat to go to the ballpark. My mother had nine kids and she spent a lot of time telling us not to pay attention to what our father did. She told us to be proud of him and love him. We never discussed what dad did. If someone knew, that was great, but we never brought it up because it made life a lot easier on the playground.
Your dad didn’t get elected to the Hall of Fame until 1991, five years after he passed away. He was kept out much longer than he should have been. What did it mean to you and your family when he was finally enshrined?
If it was anybody other than my mom who called me, I never would have believed it. He made a stand early on and, as they say a little too easy these days, spoke the truth. Because of that, I never thought he would get in. They fooled us on that one too.
It showed that if you paid attention to the fans, that you’ll always win out. A huge lesson was that the cheap seats were always full. The dignitaries in the first 25 rows were a little light, but the real fans were always in the cheap seats. Those were his people.
Portrait of, from left, American disc jockey (from WLUP radio, 'The Loop') Steve Dahl (in helmet), model Lorelei Shark, and Mike Veeck, the son of the Chicago White Sox owner, during an anti-disco promotion at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, July 12, 1979. The event, hosted by Dahl and held between games of a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, allowed fans to attend the games for 98 cents along with an unwanted record and, following the detonation of those records, eventually resulted in the White Sox forfeiture of the second game due to unsafe playing conditions when fans stormed the field causing serious damage to the venue and playing surface. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
It’s amazing he had to wait so long considering the impact he had, but I understand that’s the way things work when you are your own man.
Years later, I found out the story was wonderful. They were waiting to have a vote. Birdie Tebbets and a few of the fellas were having a conversation and they were telling Veeck stories. At the end, someone said, “Well, we just spent 20 minutes telling funny stories about the guy, how come we don’t elect him?”
It was like Anne Tyler said in The Accidental Tourist, he just happened to be there. He would have loved it. I always said, and my mother hated hearing it, but he had to go into the Hall posthumously because he would have still been talking and that would have kept him out.
Before we move on to your career, I just wanted to ask what you thought your dad’s legacy is in Major League Baseball.
His legacy was really simple to understand. He listened to the fans. He learned that from his father who ran the Cubs for 14 years. The fans always have better ideas because in today’s jargon, they’re your end user. The thing that was most heartwarming is that people never believed my dad owned the club; they believe that they owned it with him.
He was in the phone book. They could call him and tell him that he loused up a trade or that he wasn’t seeing something that was happening. He was totally accessible. The fans felt pride of ownership and he was just that kind of fella.
You worked with your dad later in his career with the White Sox. How did you get involved with the White Sox?
He didn’t have any money and we were estranged. I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band and on the road for three years after I got out of high school. My life was good, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the legend that he had become. You gotta be an idiot to want to work within that shadow.
But one Thanksgiving we had a lot of beer and he said to me, “I’d like you to come and work with me with the White Sox.” I was like, “Excuse me? Do you know who you’re talking with?” He said, “Yea, you’re my son, right?”
I said, with the arrogance of youth, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’m only staying two years.” Because he didn’t have any money and it was fascinating to watch him buy a club with no money. I stayed six years and I never had more fun and when he died, we had nothing else to say. The healing power of baseball really does exist because my dad and I put together a relationship that turned out to be quite interesting based on the game we both loved. That was the common ground.
1995 - Mike Veeck sumo wrestles with television sports anchor Joe Schmidt between innings at the Saints opener earlier in June. (Photo By JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
In mentioning your time with the White Sox, I have to bring up Disco Demolition Night. For better or worse, it has its place in baseball history. You can’t talk about the 1970s without it. Can you reflect on that for our readers?
Socially and musically, I take full credit for that. I recognize that it’s in baseball lore and I answered 10,000 letters from people who wanted me killed in various methods. I’m sensitive about it now because obviously when I had the idea, there was nothing about it that was meant to be homophobic or denigrating of anyone. Honestly, I had spent three years on the road playing music and when disco came out, I didn’t want to play that. It didn’t seem like rock ‘n’ roll to me.
It was just supposed to be a fun thing, and no one was more amazed than me when that many people showed up. We had been drawing around 20,000 and I thought maybe 35,000 people would show up. That was a really good house draw and something people in my position wish they could do at will.
What were your thoughts when things went sideways with the event?
Well, you can castigate yourself and beat yourself up about it, but the interesting thing about it was the only one who understood it was the old man. He said to me, “Well, sometimes a promotion works too well.”
He said it quietly though, not publicly. He took the heat for it where it wasn’t due and taught me what great leaders do. They fall on the sword. When it’s a success, everyone takes credit and that’s the way it should be.
But personally, I had a tough time with [Disco Demolition Night] until Rolling Stone used it in their retrospective of rock ’n’ roll. I figured then I could forgive myself because I guess sociologically and historically it was an important event. I guess a forfeited ballgame wasn’t really the end of the world the way I had been led to believe.
Mike Veeck is tossed into the air by the St. Paul Bouncing Team at the Saints opener. (Photo By JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
It’s a part of history, that’s for sure. I wanted to jump right over to talk about the St. Paul Saints because I had a lot of questions there. First, what made you want to start a new independent baseball team and do it right next to a Major League team?
I was working with the Pompano Beach Miracle and had an appearance scheduled for Minnie Minoso, and the commissioner’s office killed the promotion. I had busloads of people coming to a team that averaged 700 people. This was ten years after Disco Night, the only gig I could get. They hired me off the bone heap and suddenly, Minoso couldn’t play. It would have been his fifth decade playing.
Miles Wolf called me right after that and he was thinking of having an independent league formed. He said, “How would you feel about being involved in something the commissioner doesn’t have any control over? I said, “You got your guy.’
My partners were Bill Murray, Van Schley and Marv Goldklang. Marv said he didn’t want to fly an extra leg to Duluth, which is where the great old WPA ballpark we wanted. Nobody really wanted to do St. Paul since we would be seven miles from the Metrodome, but I was willing to bet everything I had. I borrowed $150,000 and was hopelessly in debt. I put that in for 25% of the Saints. It had to work, I had no choice, or I was going busted.
1993 - St. Paul first base coach Bill Murray (left) and Kevin Millar while with the Saints (Photo courtesy of Twitter)
That’s great, it’s a gamble on yourself that has surely paid off.
Yes, it has, and I loved it. It’s a pantheon. It’s simply a monument to everything that I’ve learned from my mother and father about promos and ideas and hiring practices and everything that you couldn’t do in the rest of the world.
I hired people with no experience in baseball. I hired home healthcare experts, a guy from TV, people with no preconceived notions. Plus, they wouldn’t know that their leader – that would be me – had no idea what he was doing.
You have talked about your mom a lot. I watched For the Fun of the Game, and someone mentioned that your mom was at the Saints first game and said that night that the idea would work. What did that mean to you?
My mom had spent her life with a guy who chased dreams. A guy who was Quixotic and swung at windmills. For her to say that was very reassuring. Especially since I had Bill Murray in my other ear saying, “Hey Mike, why are there a few empty billboards out there?”
For the 2021 season, it was recently announced that you would become the Twins AAA affiliate. What was the fan reaction to that?
The fans are ready for it. By a vote of about 2.5 out of 3, they wanted us to become affiliated with the Twins. I don’t know how they’d feel if it was the White Sox, but people think it’s a wonderful idea. They view it as the outliers have been invited in.
Was there any apprehension that the experience at Saints games would change?
Like Bob Dylan said, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.” But we’re gonna change all right, we’re gonna be more outrageous. The first night’s promotion is gonna be “The Saints Sell Out” based on The Who Sells Out. We might hand out ties to show we became part of the establishment. But it’s like Groucho Marx said, “I would never be part of any club that would have me as a member.”
What are your hopes for the Saints in the bigger picture of the Major League Baseball landscape? Could you do something about bringing more fun to this game?
I’m really glad that you asked that because what I am looking forward to the most is that we’re gonna have a seat at the table. Because we’re now a part of affiliated ball, we’re gonna have a voice and I think we’re in a terrible position right now. Baseball needs to change, and it needs to change drastically.
[Twins Owner] Jim Pohlad told me that he hoped more of the Saints rubbed off on the Twins than the other way around. Now, I’ve been fired by four Major League teams and I have been conned before, but I was really impressed with that.
I wanted to ask you about some of the promotions and ideas you have. I guess in general, what made you want to have all of these crazy promotions when nobody else was doing it?
People would also say, “Why all this emphasis on fun and not on baseball?” Major League Baseball isn’t fun. I have spent all these years trying to get them to adapt. Once you come up with an idea and they can monetize it, you become a wizard.
In your early days you had some great players play on the Saints. What did it mean for the team to have Leon Durham, Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris play for the Saints?
Darryl Strawberry hit 11 home runs in 29 games for the Saints. He then went right to Columbus and hit three home runs in two games over a weekend. Then he hit 11 for the Yankees. Along that way, he never had to correct his timing. He was ready to go when he got to AAA, so that eased all the complaining about us being “town ball.” Strawberry got to Columbus and said, “I’m good to go” and he was.
But as good a job as [Leon] Durham and Jack Morris did it was Kevin Millar who was the poster boy. Once he was spotted in the Marlins clubhouse with a St. Paul Saints shirt on; he never wanted to forget where he came from. He was the guy who really attracted attention.
Plus, he annoyed all the Major Leaguers because he went undrafted out of Lamar University. Once in a while we had to mention that just to keep them honest. They were always on the attack saying they don’t miss any great players and all the great players are in their organization. Well, that’s not really true.
I want to ask you about Fun is Good before we wrap it up with a couple of fun questions of our own. What is Fun is Good all about?
It was really Fran [Zeuli] who had this wonderful idea and realized that people go to the workplace and they don’t have enough fun. I would get calls and people would ask if I speak.
More and more, people kept asking, “How can I do the same thing [as you’ve done with the Saints]?” It’s very simple, it starts with knowing people’s names and asking people how they are and waiting for a real answer.
I was hired by a huge company to speak and they loved the fact that I was the Senior Vice President of in charge of marketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Naturally, I got fired before I got to make the speech. I remember that audience being particularly kind and standing up at the end and the guy in charge said, “That was great, you gotta come back.” I said, “Not a chance.”
How does this all play into what the country has been dealing with the past year and a half?
I think during this pandemic, people are going, “Rachel? Find me somebody that, you know, makes people happy. Can they be happy at work? Find somebody and make sure it doesn’t cost much.”
We’ve had more business during the pandemic and led more people to have fun. Isn’t that great?
Wrapping things up here, could you pick one of your father’s stunts and one of your stunts to reflect on?
With my dad, I always liked Grandstand Manager Night. I thought that was wonderful. Recognizing that fans are smarter than mangers in most instances. I loved that one.
For me, the thing about bad promotions is that they make great stories. I liked Free Vasectomy Night, I thought that was fun. Giving away one on Father’s Day wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. And Voodoo Night is a really funny idea because baseball has the most superstitions of any sport. But you should never do that on Good Friday.
I am guessing that’s when you held Voodoo Night?
Yes. That was a mistake.
This has been so incredible, and I have had so much fun talking with you. Last one, just an open-ended question on your thoughts on baseball. Something to leave our readers with.
Baseball has survived in spite of the stupid things we’ve done to it. The most important thing to me is don’t speed it up. Don’t hurry yet. We’re gonna need this time to visit with our children. I am an expert on one thing only and that’s kids at the ballpark because I still have the mentality of a six-year-old. If you could get a six-year-old boy or girl to sit for three innings and watch baseball, you leave the rest to me. But don’t speed it up, because in those three innings, they’ll fall in love with the game.
You have a chance to talk at baseball. They’re always telling you to hush up at golf and tennis. Football and basketball, you can’t really do it because the action is so intense. Don’t speed it up, you’re gonna want that time with your kids.
Also, you can have a lot of fun with this game. You can blow up disco records and still have a tremendous amount of respect for the game.
Learn more about Fun is Good by visiting www.funisgoodteam.com. According to their website, “[Fun is Good] presenters help teams and organizations of all sizes to adopt an engaging, fun and collaborative work culture. We do this through inspiring and fun keynote speeches, seminars, corporate entertainment, and workshops delivered by our highly skilled speakers, trainers, industry experts and entertainers.” Mike Veeck also wrote Fun is Good: How to Create Fun and Joy in your Workplace and Career, which is available on Amazon in all formats.