Mike Veeck championing stadium for St. Paul Saints
Every year, Mike Veeck waits for the crowds at the Baseball Hall of Fame to thin. He finds a bench with his wife, Libby, and stares up at the plaque facing them. The visage of Mike's father, Bill, looks down — his trademark grin emblazoned across the facade.
"It's the place I feel closest to him," Mike says, his charcoal goatee turning up in a bittersweet smile.
The plaque enumerates Bill's many accomplishments: World Series owner, renowned innovator, "champion of the little guy."
But Mike doesn't visit for the accomplishments, or the pride. He visits because his father passed away 26 years ago, isolated from the game he'd loved.
No one from Major League Baseball attended Bill's funeral. No fellow owners considered him anything other than a charlatan in a collared shirt.
A self-described maverick, Bill left his mark on the major leagues in ways that no owner has replicated. He sent midgets to the plate, put players in shorts, and let fans use placards to dictate calls. He invented the exploding scoreboard, sewed players' names on the backs of their jerseys for the first time, and attempted to field an all-black team five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Bill is the reason Wrigley Field has ivy, and why Harry Caray sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Bill was an entrepreneur and an innovator — but most of all, he was an entertainer, the best the game has ever known.
Which is why Mike visits his father's plaque every year. That impact — that imagination, that fun — is what Bill handed down to his family and to generations of fans. It's his legacy. It's the reason his grin hangs beside Ruth and Mantle and Molitor.
And it's what Mike, president and part-owner of the St. Paul Saints, needs to find each season: that reason to stay.
Because Mike, too, was scapegoated. Like his father before him, he was blackballed from baseball, isolated from the only game he's ever loved — all because he caused the most infamous forfeit Major League Baseball has ever known.
Midway Stadium is crumbling. Ask anyone on the team, and many lawmakers in the city and state Legislature, and it's the common refrain.
"Midway's great, but it's time to move on," says Kevin Millar, former St. Paul Saint and World Series winner with the Boston Red Sox.
Constructed in 1982, Midway Stadium, near Energy Park, was designed as a civic ballpark to be open to the public. It has since undergone two expansions, and currently seats over 6,000.
Thirty years on, Midway retains its semi-pro charm. Murals wrap the park's outer walls and the trains still rumble by left field. It's still the only professional ballpark that offers no individual seating. And the cherished memories remain: the championship seasons, Darryl Strawberry's home runs, the first female pitcher to throw — and throw well — in a professional game.
"There's a very vocal, passionate minority that believes we're going to wreck the Saints by leaving here," executive VP and minority owner Tom Whaley says. "But what're you really attracted to? Is it this place you're attracted to, this brick and this steel that you're attracted to?"
The team has been pushing for a new stadium for nearly five years, coming close in 2011 before finding the request cut as debates were coming to a close.
This year, the Saints presented their strongest pitch to date. In a bid supported by the governor and the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, and a coterie of local businesses, the Saints are requesting $27 million from the state bonding bill.
The proposed stadium would be constructed where the current Diamond Products/Gillette building lies in Lowertown, with the city razing Midway Stadium. The St. Paul Port Authority already has a "handshake" agreement to purchase the property on which the Diamond Products/Gillette building sits, and is preparing a land swap with the city, which owns the land on which Midway was built.
Mike and his front office have met with business leaders, city officials, and Lowertown residents to present the plan. The proposed stadium would seat over 7,000, feature open artist space, and maintain the same prices found at Midway.
Which is remarkable, considering that Midway is quite nearly falling in on itself. A brief tour of the stadium's infrastructure reveals cramped concession areas, outsourced refrigeration, and massive blue tarps — "diapers," as Food and Services Director Curtis Nachtsheim calls them — to catch leakage. Fans miss multiple innings waiting in line to use the portable toilets, and Midway's isolated location prevents revenue spill-over when fans enter and exit the park.
"The St. Paul guys, the guys from the businesses downtown, said to me, 'Mike, we love you, but at Midway, we're not gonna buy a single suite, because it doesn't do anything for us,'" Mike says.
The players don't have it much better. The workout facilities consist of a single rusting stationary bike. The lockers are 1982 originals. The trainer's bed is cracked and crusting. Because Midway was originally constructed on a landfill, center field is perpetually sinking — so much so that the city must re-level it every six years.
Legend has it that Scott Leius, only a month after St. Paul signed him from the Cleveland Indians, took one look at Midway's facilities and promptly walked off, still in uniform, never to play for the Saints.
And it's not just Saints players — who play 50 home games every season — who inhabit the park. Midway fields about 120 high school and amateur baseball games every year, as well as the annual Minnesota State High School Baseball Tournament. All have to deal with the dank surroundings.
"That's a locker room I'd definitely wear flip-flops in," quips Chamber of Commerce Director Matt Kramer.
Reconstructing or adding onto Midway Stadium, according to Whaley, would be cost-prohibitive.
"Every year the city comes to us with a list of things we need to fix," he says. "If we just reconstruct, there are dozens and dozens of new additions we would have to make, things that we've been able to get away with thus far."
Whaley cites codes that the team has managed to forego due to a grandfather clause. He points to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, noting that Mike's father Bill, who walked with a peg leg after sustaining injuries in Bougainville during WWII, wouldn't have been able to attend a Saints game.
The juxtaposition with the Vikings' recent financing attempts couldn't be starker.
"[The Vikings] are threatening to leave, are kidnapping our children, unless we give them a stadium," says State Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker), chair of the Capital Investment Committee. "The Saints are saying, 'You know, we love it here, and we're sure not leaving, but we sure would like to play in a better facility in Lowertown, and develop the economy out there. Would you please help us with the ballpark?'"
The Saints are asking for far less money than the Vikings and are relying far more on good will generated through 20 years of ingratiation.
"We know our place in the food chain," Mike says. "People ask me, 'What's your leverage?' And I go, 'We don't have any.' What am I gonna do, threaten to move to Burnsville?"
Mike was born into the game of baseball. During his first two years of life, he lived with his father and mother, Mary Frances, in St. Louis's Sportsman's Park.
Bill was majority owner of the St. Louis Browns, and needed to live as close to the team as possible. Hence the apartment just beyond the park's bleachers, complete with an indoor picket fence. Ballplayers and sportswriters populated the dining room table on a nightly basis. Mike's first sandbox was the bullpen.
The time at Sportsman's Park went quickly — Bill sold the Browns only two years after Mike was born — but Mike has no problem regaling listeners with tales of Early Wynn, Satchel Paige, or Eddie Gaedel, the midget Bill sent in for a single at-bat.
"I'm at [Chicago's] Comiskey Park, and I'm holding hands with my father, and I've never felt as safe," Mike says, recalling his earliest baseball memory. "I remember thinking, God, he knows everybody in the world! We went walking through the concourse, and the groundskeepers, the guys on the trucks, the guys loading the beer — everybody was saying 'hi' to my dad. That's what I really remember. That there was this beautiful playground in the middle of this concrete, and my dad must know everybody in the world."
Mike's early life was itinerant — he moved 11 times in his first 11 years — and he, like his father, was restless.
The longest stretch came in Chicago, when Bill bought the White Sox in 1959. It was there that Bill perfected his spectacle, inventing the exploding scoreboard and turning a moribund, forgotten franchise into a pennant-winner and, for a time, a bigger draw than the Cubs.
But Bill was too involved in the game to spend much time with Mike and his seven siblings. While Bill had followed the footsteps of his father, William Veeck Sr., former president of the Chicago Cubs, he never pushed his son Mike into the game, instead encouraging him to follow his whims and passions.
"He was the easiest to grow up with," Mike says of his father. "He never talked about himself. He never lectured. He was more interested in our school projects. But he wasn't around a lot when we were young because he was working."
After graduating from Loyola College with an English degree, Mike decided to pursue a career in rock 'n' roll. He tagged along with a few bands, bouncing between drums and guitar and signing on for soundtrack work, but he never developed the songwriting skills to make it big.
In 1976, with his music career floundering, Mike received a call from his father, asking him to come to Chicago. After a 12-hour day of binge drinking — their preferred mode for discussing business — the two made a deal.
"That's when I first developed an actual relationship with my dad," Mike says. "Barnum said there was a sucker born every minute. Dad never believed that. He didn't think the fact that you loved baseball was something you should exploit."
Mike soon displayed the familial knack for promotion, and his work in 1977 helped the White Sox set a team attendance record, despite owning only the sixth-best record in the American League.
One of the team's most successful promotions saw 26,000 people turn out for a disco dance contest. A few months later, discussing it with his friend Jeff Schwartz over 3 a.m. beers, Mike couldn't forget the spectacle.
"We just couldn't get over the fact that there are 26,000 people here for this dance contest, and I'm going, that music is just horrible," Mike says. "Then, out of my mouth mumbles the fateful words: 'I'd love to have a night for people who were breast-fed on rock 'n' roll.'"
Two years later, Schwartz would provide the inspiration for the most infamous night of Mike's life.
"Schwartz calls me up, and he goes, 'Mikey, Mikey — Steve Dahl just blew up a disco record on the radio,'" Mike recalls. "I hung up the phone, and five minutes later I called Dahl and said, 'You want to do that live?' And that's how the thing happened."
"The thing" would become known as Disco Demolition Night. The White Sox decided to blow up thousands of disco records between games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Fans who brought a disco record could get into the game for 98 cents.
On that warm July night, 60,000 people packed Comiskey Park, with another 40,000 outside, backing up traffic all the way to O'Hare. During the first game, anti-disco banners flew through the stands, and chants of "DISCO SUCKS!" rang through the ballpark. Intermittent firecrackers popped, and as Mike describes it, "the haze over the top of the ballpark was astounding."
After the Tigers won the first game, nearly 20,000 records were carted to center field. Dahl, bedecked in an army helmet and drab-green trench coat, set off the explosions along with DJ "Rock Girl" Lorelai Shark.
Disco records promptly began whizzing onto the field, and fans by the hundreds started hopping the fences, shimmying the foul poles, and bear-hugging security guards scampering to stop them.
The batting cage was shredded. Bases were uprooted. The field, through fires and mayhem, was ruined.
Mike watched it all unfurl, his stomach churning.
"The second the riot started, I knew my life was over," Mike would later say.
Thirty-nine people were arrested and six were injured, including one vendor who broke a hip. Deeming the field unplayable, the umpires forced the White Sox to forfeit the game.
The condemnation was swift. Reactions rolled in from executives and sportswriters, with the brunt of the anger directed at Bill.
"People were getting ready to crucify him, the family, the whole organization," Mike says. "My old man took this lambasting over it, but he didn't even know what disco was. ... [He] just looked at me and said, 'Sometimes they work too well.' He understood."
It wasn't long before heads rolled. Mike managed to hang on for another season, but once his father had decided to sell the team at the end of the 1980 season — he couldn't compete with ballooning free agent contracts — Mike was the first to go.
"It was certainly never intended to happen or to be malicious — too many people showed up!" Mike says. "I was 28. ... How was I supposed to know?"
Mike wound his way to Florida, picking up odd construction jobs along the way. Hanging drywall was mind-numbing, but it allowed him to forget the sense of failure.
Three months in, he began to miss the action. Hanging drywall was no substitute for baseball to someone bred for the sport.
His letters to baseball teams — major league, minor league, and everyone else — went unanswered. His new marriage began to crack, soon ending in divorce and the loss of custody of his first son, Night Train. His new life in Florida began to darken.
"Mike had been blackballed," his second wife, Libby, says of that period. "I think it broke his heart."
Alcohol and drugs took construction's place. A bottle of whiskey, every day. Drugs inhaled at open turns. A heart attack during a Lamaze class. Nights in jail. Days and weeks of being broke, living a life of debt.
And then, as his life was unraveling, Mike's dad died.
"I'm starting to look around, drinking more heavily," Mike says. "I'm ... slipping into the abyss."
The nadir came when a police officer stopped Mike for drunk driving. Showing leniency, the officer sent Mike home in a cab. But when Mike arrived at his place, he didn't have money for the fare. He spent the next 30 minutes crawling through his apartment, drunk, looking for loose change to pay the cabbie.
Eventually, he found the money, paid the fare, and collapsed. He'd bottomed out. There was no more he could give.
The next day, he called Alcoholics Anonymous. Going to 150 meetings in 90 days, Mike thrived under the regimen, though he didn't take to its absolutism — he now drinks only beer, wine, and the occasional bloody Mary.
Mike's career picked up. He found work promoting a jai alai organization, then worked in advertising. But, a decade removed from baseball, he'd heard not a whit from his old friends.
"No job offers came," he says. "If my name were Brown, I would have gotten a job offer. 'Veeck' works great in a saloon, but not in the boardroom."
While Mike stewed, a minor league team, the Miami Miracle, struggled nearby. The team played without a home stadium, and by December 1990 didn't have a single full-time staffer.
Marv Goldklang, who had just purchased the team, cast about for something, anything, to light a spark. When Goldklang mentioned the predicament to Roland Hemond, the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Hemond remarked that if Goldklang was dumb enough to purchase the Miracle, he may be dumb enough to hire Mike.
"I called two or three people whom I knew in Major League Baseball to ask them about Mike," says Goldklang. "They told me not to touch him. But I was so desperate that I couldn't afford not to hire him."
After a decade without baseball, Mike sat silently through his first phone call with the Miracle. Then, thinking it was a prank, he hung up.
Luckily, Goldklang called back, and managed to reassure Mike that his offer was for real. Mike jumped at the job: $20,000 a year to run one of the worst organizations in baseball.
Mike's second chance had arrived.
"We didn't make money, but we certainly didn't lose nearly as much as I'd thought, and almost all of that was due to Mike's efforts," Goldklang says.
The Miracle survived, scraping together a new home in Fort Meyers and latching onto the Minnesota Twins organization. Mike bought a share in the team, joining Goldklang, Van Schley, film star Bill Murray, and musician Jimmy Buffet as part owners.
He also found a partner: Libby Matthews, the daughter of Mike's neighbor, heard his voice on the radio, recognizing it from a conversation they'd had months previous. Intrigued, she drove to the Miracle's nearby park.
The two were fast to fall in love and, in late 1991, Libby gave birth to their daughter Rebecca. Libby took stock in Mike's work, and was as much a driver of the Miracle's success as Mike.
"We drew about 700 people on average, and I later learned she was bringing half the people out to the game," Mike says, laughing about the 1991 campaign. "At the end of the season, some guy comes up to me and says, 'Don't think you're so cool. Libby browbeat all of us.'"
After two seasons with the Miracle, Mike heard from Miles Wolff, an editor at Baseball America with a longtime jones for independent baseball. Wolff wanted to start the Northern League, independent of the major- and minor-league systems that made up professional baseball, and he wanted Goldklang's group to jump-start one of the teams.
The original plan was to take over the squad in Duluth, but Goldklang vetoed it, citing the lack of direct flights from New York. The second choice was St. Paul. Goldklang and Veeck would be setting up shop just across the river from the Minnesota Twins.
"We didn't do any study or survey as to how the Twins would affect us," says Goldklang. "Mike and I just thought it'd be a hell of a lot of fun."
The impetus for the team was independence, and the goal was to rebut all the conventional wisdom that had been bundled into baseball. It was that wisdom, after all, that had seen fit to banish Mike for more than a decade.
"Everybody always said that by having the team in St. Paul, we were going to split our market in half," says Whaley, who joined the team soon after its inception. "Mike went right on and said, 'Bullshit.'"
There'd be no affiliation. There'd be no button-down, sacrosanct reverence. Instead, there'd be what Mike felt the game was long missing: fun.
Cobbling together a staff of baseball nobodies — Whaley came in as a lawyer, Annie Huidekoper had worked in health services — Mike shaped the St. Paul Saints in his own image.
"We're like his children," Huidekoper, now a VP, says. "He taught us that we need to give people a break from their lives. I do more for peoples' health and well-being than I ever did working in health care."
Pigs hauled baseballs to the plate. Nuns offered massages. Mimes acted out replays. Players stayed for hours after the game to sign autographs.
There was the championship first year, the season that saw St. Paul crowned kings of the Northern League. There was Murray, jersey stuffed with a pillow, bouncing off the umpire in red-faced pantomime.
If the staff found a lull, if they slacked on sales or outreach, Mike would stand in the middle of the office and light a firecracker on the floor. He would laugh, and sit back down. And the lull would end.
The season, seeing nearly 100 percent capacity, couldn't have gone better. Mike was putting together a show that, on certain nights, actually outdrew the Twins.
He had returned. He'd conquered the game that had forgotten him.
"Baseball is my oxygen," Mike says. "Nobody was more surprised than I was."
But he wasn't back, not all the way. The Saints were professional. But they weren't the majors.
And so, just as before, a team floundering in Florida called Mike. This time, he wasn't as desperate to take the position. But the opportunity to run promotions for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — the opportunity to remove, finally, the stain on his name, and his father's — was too good to pass up.
The Devil Rays, besotted in the domed Tropicana Field, were one of the worst draws in the Majors. Mike was recruited as senior VP for marketing and promotion in the fall of 1998, right after the Devil Rays had finished their inaugural season dead last.
He arrived in Tampa, and back in the big leagues. His name was redeemed. "Veeck the Wreck" was no more.
But the game hadn't changed, and neither had Mike. Character difficulties soon set in. His promotions didn't resonate in the office or on the field — fireworks are wonderful at Midway, but not in a dome — and the staff, he says, was all too eager to leave the stadium before the games even began.
Citing "ethical considerations," Mike submitted his resignation only seven months after reaching Tampa.
"I just tell everybody I got fired," he says. "Makes it a funnier story."
His decision to leave could have been more drawn-out — his resignation was accepted "in a nano of a nanosecond," he says — but, as he was faltering with the Devil Rays, his personal life had taken a new, calamitous turn. In early 1999 he learned his seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, had developed retinitis pigmentosa, a gradual tunneling of her vision that, 13 years on, now forces her to use a cane.
As soon as he learned the news, Mike dropped any pretense of baseball and took his daughter to all the places she'd otherwise never see: the Grand Canyon. Belize. He took her to the Blarney Stone in Ireland. He made her sit in his lap as he drove down Highway 101.
When Rebecca was scared, worried that one day she'd wake up and the lights wouldn't come on, she'd take her blanket and sit under the portrait of her grandfather, the peg-legged man who'd called himself a cripple to anyone who'd listen. Everyone says she looks like him even more than she does Mike.
Today, she sees smudges, colors. She's not fully blind, but she'll never again see the sport her father produces.
But Rebecca still comes to the games. Father and daughter still ride tandem bicycles — Mike in front, Rebecca in back. She still believes, as her father's always attested, that "Fun is good."
"I've seen all these lifestyles, these people, these Japanese retirees, the oldest tree in America," says Rebecca, as buoyant as her father and as smitten with baseball as he's ever been. "Blind people can do anything you guys can do."
She's still in there, of course. She's still the tow-headed sprite that used to jump from her stroller and yell "Hi!" to anyone who passed through the Saints' office. She's still the baseball nut her father raised her to be.
But the travels, the campaigning for funds, the realities of a daughter who can never enjoy the sights of a ballgame, all took a toll. Where Mike once had to overcome his father's legacy, he now has to deal with his daughter's difficulties.
"This isn't what he and Libby wished," Huidekoper says. "But Mike is now aware that everybody has someone like that in their life. And I think that has made him a better man."
He's turned from the scraggly man with a loud laugh he was in those early days with the Saints into something a bit more mellow, a bit more reserved.
"Mike has had the challenge his entire life of being born the son of perhaps the greatest promoter in the history of baseball," Goldklang says. "He's done an admirable job of trying to live up to that, but it's not easy.
"I think Mike has, in a positive way, clearly matured," Goldklang continues. "Mike used to come up with five ideas, four of which are great, the fifth of which could get you arrested. But Mike no longer comes up with the idea that'll get you arrested."
It's late March, and Mike is sitting in Whaley's office. The two are busy concocting the team's newest promotions, the ones that will get the Saints more play than their Michael Vick dog toys or the infamous Larry Craig Bobblefoot.
Mike's been shuffling through the papers in his lap, murmuring to himself. His hair is even more unkempt than usual. He looks up.
"How do you say 'cheap beer' in Spanish?"
Whaley ignores the question. He has no desire to pursue a Spanish-only radio commercial — to be run during a Twins game, no less.
Mike continues: "I bet Brian would know."
Suddenly, booming through the office: "Brian!"
Whaley, eyes still on his laptop, says, "You know, we have a PA system."
Mike, with a grin: "And this is mine."
Brian Kaufenberg, promotions director for the Saints, scurries to the doorjamb, pad and pen in hand, look of concern on his face.
"Brian, how do you say 'cheap beer' in Spanish?"
Kaufenberg looks confused — he speaks only limited Spanish. Before he can give an answer, Mike starts in again: "Frijo! Wait, no, that's 'cold.'"
Then, to a jingle in his mind alone, Mike starts dancing an impromptu cha-cha, singing, 'El frijo beero cheapo! El frijo beero cheapo!'
"Let's just repeat that phrase for 30 seconds. The Twins'd make us pull it after one spot, but we'd kill it. Think we can get 30 seconds of it? Think that would fly? 'El frijo beero cheapo!' That'd be great! Imagine that."
Kaufenberg shuffles away, his look of concern even more pronounced.
Mike stands, wrapping himself in a scarf, wheels still turning. He grins, eyes glinting. As he walks off, opening the door to a bright spring day, he says to no one in particular: "Imagine that."
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