RHODES SCHOLAR MANQUE: Fall, 1962
I arrived in Baltimore by train from New York. The Chair of the mid-Atlantic states Rhodes Scholarship Committee was none other than Milton Eisenhower (1899-1985), Ike’s younger brother who was then President of Johns Hopkins University. On the committee was Bruce McClellan, the Headmaster of Lawrenceville Academy and, as it turned out, a Williams alum. I had sailed through the first round without a problem—along with John Edgar Weideman, an intense, intelligent English major and All-Ivy basketball player from the University of Pennsylvania. John also happens to be Black. My problem in Baltimore: it was October 1962 and, it turned out, the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I got into a heated discussion with the younger Eisenhower and McClellan about the nature of those Cuban missiles—whether they were offensive or defensive weapons. As I argued these slippery points, I realized that I had blown the Rhodes. How dumb can one young Leftie be? Weideman, one of the angriest persons I’d ever met, played it safe and smart, ruffling no feathers. A two or even three year free ride; a prestigious tag tacked on after your name, Robert Jerome Seidman, Rhodes Scholar. During a short break, a sympathetic panel member—a small, neatly attired man, a lawyer I think and of course a former Rhodes— came over to me and advised, “Keep your sense of humor.” But it was too late. I’d blown it.
At lunch we had the choice of eating with the other candidates at Hopkins or grabbing the Midas-like per diem and squandering it on a meal. Since there was no reason to stick around, I excused myself, hailed a cab and asked the driver to take me to the best crab place in Baltimore. I arrived at “Obrycki’s Crab House and Seafood Restaurant,” a noisy, sprawling bistro. I was led to a booth and sat down and ordered a beer. Next to me I noticed a familiar face—Bill Veeck, legendary owner of the Chicago White Sox, the man who shook up stolid Major League Baseball with outrageous, crowd-pleasing and crowd-generating antics—like sending Eddie Gadel, a 3’7” midget, to the plate against the Tigers in 1951. (Overnight M.L. Baseball banned any stunt vaguely resembling Veeck’s.) In 1940 Veeck promoted his Milwaukee minor league franchise by giving away beer, cases of canned food, live pigs. He doubled the club’s attendance in a year. During World War II Veeck offered morning ballgames for the swing-shift factory workers. He also came up with the innovative, mammoth 130-foot Comiskey Park scoreboard that, whenever a White Sox player homered, unleashed unearthly electric pinwheels, fireworks and ear-splitting sound effects. Mr. V’s signature “exploding scoreboard” began an escalation of bells and whistles that jazzed up the untimed, unhurried, pastoral game; within a few years most major league parks had variants of Veeck’s electronic extravaganza.
One year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed Larry Doby, the first black A.L. ballplayer and added the fabled, 40-year-plus (Who knows how old?) Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige. The legendary Paige, who had an endless supply of quips, once said, “Don’t look back. They might be gaining on you.” Doby and Paige both became Hall-of-Famers. Anyhow, there he was sitting alone one booth to my right. I got up, walked over, and introduced myself. “Mr. Veeck, I’m Bob Seidman. I’ve just blown the Rhodes Scholarship. I’m feeling stupid and down. I wonder, would you mind— can we have lunch together?”
Mr. Veeck flashed a wrap-around, coruscating smile, said, “Call me Bill. Come sit down.” I retrieved my half-empty beer and signaled the waiter that I was changing venues.
Sitting in that booth, as Bill Veeck regaled me with stories, defeat’s galling whiplash began to subside a little. He described his own embarrassment when word of his attempt to trade the Indians’ popular player/manager Lou Boudreau was leaked to the press. He kept Boudreau, who rewarded Veeck by leading the perennially woeful Cleveland Browns to a World Series championship. Next season, when it was obvious that the Browns would not repeat the unlikely feat, Veeck ordered the World Series flag ceremonially buried on the field. He initiated “Grandstand Managers’ Day,” which involved giving out thousands of cards that read “Yes” on one side and “No” on the other. When a team official held up placards that suggested strategic moves—steal, bunt, hit-and-run, go to the bullpen for a reliever—fans would indicate their preference. Meanwhile, the team’s manager, Zack Taylor, rocked in a rocking chair in the dugout smoking his pipe. The fans did a commendable job—the Browns won that game 5 to 3, ending a four-game losing streak. There were the weddings at home plate, and there was a game at which Veeck presented his manager with a giant birthday cake—out of it popped a talented, much needed left-hand pitcher picked up on waivers.
At lunch Mr. Veeck complained about his troubles with the Major League’s front office and retrograde club owners— about their conspiracy to keep the game segregated when, in 1942, he tried to buy my hometown Phillies and hire Negro League stars to play for the club. Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, the then Commissioner of MLB, rejected the idea. The subsequent commissioner, Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, Sr. (1898-1991), helped integrate baseball with Jackie Robinson’s 1947 entry into the National League.
The voluble Veeck, I noticed, did not wear a tie. I thought at the time, ah, at last, a grown up who insists on being casual. Years later I read that Bill Veeck was nicknamed “Sport Shirt.” He suffered from a skin condition that made tight collars unbearable. (Our beloved, departed friend Dick Sabot, of whom you’ll hear later if you hang in here, insisted during his entrepreneurial career—and he and his younger partner Beau Peabody sold Tripod to Lycos in the late ‘90s for $63 million— “Never change your dress code.”)
Mr. Veeck did most of the talking. But I did describe my first disillusionment with professional sports when I was 7 or 8. My Dad and I were going to a game at Schibe Park, the stadium shared by both the Athletics and Phillies back in the Stone Age of the late 1940s. We’d parked our car in one of those abbbreviated driveways that fronted the row houses around the Park in North Philadelphia, paid the owner the requisite 2 bucks and walked toward the field wondering if we’d later remember exactly where the old Mercury was temporarily moored. As we approached the looming structure, I noticed a dazzling spotless black Cadillac limousine. Looking into the open window, I saw one of my heroes, Connie Mack, longtime skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics. (Mack managed the team for a half-century, longer than any other manager in baseball history. Of course he owned the team.) Still holding my Dad’s hand I took a step closer and burst out, “Mr Mack, Mr. Mack.” He directed a reptilian gaze at me, a look void of human interest, and I watched with swiftly mounting humiliation as an opaque black sheet of glass rose between us, slowly obscuring the bony, bloodless face. Later I read that Mack was notoriously tight-fisted. For instance, it is said that he liked his team to get off to a good start early but finish no higher than fourth. "A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don't have to give the players raises when they don't win."
Veeck, who seemed to enjoy my story, laughed and concluded, “Mack was not a hero of mine.” His grandson Connie Mack, IV, is an ultra-conservative from Florida in our House of Representatives.
Near the end of our meal—hard-shelled crabs galore and several draught beers, he offered to pay. I declined, saying that I had expense money for lunch. He insisted I save it and grabbed the check. Finally he turned his soft brown eyes to me and said, “Don’t worry, kid, you’ll do fine.”
I thanked him profusely and got up. He stayed seated. The movie scene would appear to end with my exit, cut back to Mr. Veeck struggling to get up then dragging himself upright. One foot was amputated in 1946, the result of a wound he received as a Marine in World War II in the South Pacific. After 36 agonizing operations, doctors were unable to save the right foot.