For quite a while now, Mike Veeck has been on our list of people to interview. The son of Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck, Mike has worked in baseball for nearly forty years at the major league, affiliated minor league, and independent minor league levels.
After a few emails to help set things up, we finally connected on the phone late last week. Below, in the first of our two-part interview, we spoke about following his father into baseball, the difficulty of dealing with his famous name, whether he would take back Disco Demolition Night if he could, and the young man who he believes will one day outshine all other Veecks.
The first thing I was wondering is why you were the only one of your father’s kids who followed him into baseball?
Well, I wasn’t really. My brother actually went in also, but he went into the concession business. My youngest brother, Chris. He died when he was 34, but he ran the concessions at Arlington Racetrack, the Woodlands, but his premiere was at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, before they built Camden Yards.
I went in kind of by mistake. My father DIScouraged any of us from going into baseball. My son works for the White Sox now, I ENcouraged him. But my dad felt it was a dangerous way to make a living. You know, you were never certain of employ and you were in and out of work and things like that, but after I got out of school I did three years on the road playing rock & roll. And when he bought the White Sox he was underfinanced, and I think he figured that, “You know, I’ll show my kid what I do at least, we’re not really very close as father and son,” which was true. Some would say we were estranged – that might be a little strong – but it was baseball that really gave us something in common, that put us together.
When he asked me over Thanksgiving in 1975, he said, “I’m gonna buy the White Sox and I’d like you to come,” I was so flabbergasted and flattered that I said yes. And I told him I’d stay two years and I stayed six and I never had more fun. So that’s how it happened.
That was actually my next thing, was that I’d seen that you mentioned before, you mentioned just now, that you never planned on following him in. But I also read that after you were sort of blackballed after the Disco Demolition Night incident, it was really hard on you personally. What was it that happened in that time with the team – what made you go from being not really interested in following in his footsteps, or following his path, to having such a difficult time with it?
Well see, you writer guys, you like facts, so watch this, I’m gonna actually say something factual.
My father was the son of the president of the Cubs, and he disliked being the son of the president of the Cubs so much that he changed his name legally to Bill from William Louis Veeck, Jr. You can’t get much more to distance yourself. In other words, when you’re “the son of…”, you never have your own name and you never have your own identity. So I come along and I might as well have been Bill Jr., or Billy. You know, my name was Mike and I didn’t want any part of being the son of a legend any more than the old man did.
So we actually, strangely enough, bonded because he understood better than anybody the situation that I was in. So for the first couple of years I was on my muscle about being Mike Veeck. I worked 20 hours a day. If somebody worked 19, I worked 21. I had to work two years just to prove myself because of course I was a mistake of genetics: I got the job because of my last name.
And over that six years – I had always loved baseball. I mean, I wanted to play ball, and I wasn’t good enough, so I grew to just love this thing called the business of baseball. And I stayed six years, until we determined that we had to sell because we were going broke. So I left in September of 1980, but I just fell in love with it.
And I thought after all – I didn’t realize that the world would judge you only on one act. I thought that after suites and all the party areas that we built and all of the things that emanated – you know, Harry singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” – all the things that started on the South Side, that people would look at my overall record and say, “Well, he caused a forfeiture with Disco Demolition, but he has this other body of work,” and that didn’t happen.
Veeck is a great name in the saloon. It’s a lousy name when you need a job.
Mentioning that incident with Disco Demolition Night – obviously, that was a hugely important part of your past. If you could go back in time and just undo those events, just wipe that from existence, would you do that? Or do you think that that experience was an important part of who you became today?
Yeah, it’s a huge part because you’ll take any chance. Right now, we’re getting ripped coast-to-coast, literally, about doing Atheist Night here August 10. You know, I’m a practicing Catholic for God sake. I don’t believe in atheism. But atheists, whatever they believe, have a right to believe it just like I do as a Roman Catholic, right? I mean, they have the right to do that. That’s what I love about this country.
Right now, I’m not that comfortable defending certain elements of my Catholic faith. I think we’ve disappointed some people. So these guys who are calling – and I mean, Fox is just murdering us – these people are going on and on about, “no God in their life.” Well, my religion is settling huge lawsuits. So I don’t have anything to say, one way or another, and I’m certainly not going to deny the atheists what they believe in because as long as they leave my Catholicism alone I’ll leave their atheism alone.
And I would never have done that if it weren’t for Disco Demolition. That moment, when I saw all those people come on the field, I realized that no matter how well I planned it and how hard I had worked at it and blah blah blah, that you can’t control certain aspects. I was a control freak until the age of 28, and it’s made me a much better person, a much freer person.
But for the first ten years after I did it, would I have redone it? Absolutely. [laughs] If you’ll notice, oddly enough, everybody takes credit. Whether it’s [Steve] Dahl, or [Keith] Olbermann was always asking, “Whose fault was it? Well, it was Veeck,” but I’m the only one who admits that I made mistakes. The only one. [laughs] Everybody else will take the credit but nobody will say, “I made the mistakes.” But I told the coppers we were gonna draw 35,000, which is obviously a mistake, and I hadn’t prepared – I don’t think you can prepare for 100 [thousand], but you could’ve prepared for 60 [thousand], and there were 60,000 in old Comiskey. I read these things about 45,000 – there were legitimately 100,000 people around the ballpark that night. I mean, traffic was backed up.
So, I would’ve redone it for the first ten years. The last twenty, however many it’s been, now it’s become the stuff of folklore. And if I’m the Godfather, or the Man Who Killed Disco, well so be it.
You talked about the [Veeck] name, and from what I’ve read in your dad’s writings, it seemed like he kind of thrived on the fact that the Veeck name was something that worked against him. Did you and he ever sit down and have a conversation about that, that things would get difficult based on the fact that your name was Veeck?
No, but his sister, Peg, whom he was very close to, said from a very early age that Bill, or Billy as she would occasionally call him, hated pomposity. He could never resist, when he saw someone being pompous, taking a hatpin, as she used to like to say, and deflating him. So Dad went out of his way to step on toes. He just kind of enjoyed that.
I don’t feel that way. I’m not the same kind of person. I love confrontation when it comes naturally, but I’m not going to go out and create it. And you’re gonna say to me, “Well, why do I believe that Mike?” And I’m gonna say, well, unlike my father, I have a blind daughter, and I know what REAL confrontation and trouble is like because I watch her live with it every day. She doesn’t have to create chaos around her to feel comfortable. She’s got plenty of chaos to deal with. And I just kind of approach my work place like that.
But we never discussed it because that was his natural state.
You said you encouraged your son to pursue a career in baseball?
Oh, god, he loved it. He did 970 games with the RiverDogs. Nine hundred and seventy minor league games, and now he’s officially been with the White Sox for one year and two months. He started at the bottom and served an internship while he was going to Northwestern and he is selling group tickets in the group sales department, which is exactly where he should be. He’s working with really good people, and every day he goes in there and has to slug it out and prove himself and I applaud it. But I know underneath that they also got a tremendous deal because this kid’s got a thousand games working for a minor league team. That’s a lot of games. There’s a lot of guys you’re gonna interview don’t have those kind of numbers.
He loved it. He is so passionate about it. It’s gonna be like I never existed. That’s how good he’s gonna be, and I’m so proud of him.
Do you feel like he runs into the same thing that you said you’ve run into, living up to the father’s past? Like you were talking about: you were always gonna be Bill Veeck’s kid, he was always gonna be William Veeck’s kid.
It’s very funny. His boss at the White Sox said, “Boy you don’t have the courage” – his name is William Night Train Veeck – he goes, “you don’t have the courage to be Bill Veeck, do you?” And Night Train looked at him and said, “You oughta see what it’s like to have your name as Night Train.” And I did that deliberately to give him something that really stuck out. I never had a nickname. I don’t even have a middle name. And I wanted him, if we traveled around a lot, which in the very beginning we did, to have a name so he would get chosen for sandlot ball, which is almost gone away.
He isn’t gonna have the trouble. He’s better educated, he’s smarter, he’s more articulate. Pretty soon they’re gonna know Night Train Veeck and after awhile it’ll be like, “Yeah, Bill Veeck was his grandfather and Mike Veeck was his dad but that Night Train’s fairly cool.”
Thanks to Charleston RiverDogs Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations Sean Houston for coordinating this interview.