IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT IN POMPANO BEACH, Fla., and the hometown minor-league Miracle is facing the Sarasota White Sox. Down on the base-hall field, Jericho the Miracle Dog is shagging foul balls for the home-plate ump. In the right-field stands, Donna the Stylist is giving haircuts to fans, and the Phantom of the Ball Yard, in his cloak and black-and-white catcher’s mask, is handing out roses to female patrons. Upstairs in the WSBR radio booth, play-by-play man Jim “Tiny” Lucas is going over stats with color man Don Wardlow, who is blind.
All in all, it’s an average night at Pompano Municipal Stadium—at least to team president Mike Veeck (rhymes with wreck). The 40-year-old Veeck is the son of the late baseball showman Bill Veeck, onetime owner of the old St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. A promoter par excellence, Veeck senior was the man who introduced exploding scoreboards and bat day to baseball, was first to put players’ names on their jerseys and once sent a midget to bat for his ’51 Cleveland team in order to take advantage of his tiny strike zone.
Veeck died in 1986 and will be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame next month. Here in Pompano. son Mike is enshrined in a tiny, doorless, wood-veneer office that could easily belong to a playground manager. The Miracle drew only 715 fans per game last season, and Veeck is hoping to lift average attendance to 1,000 this year with his gimmicks and come-ons. “It ain’t brain surgery,” he says. “All I’m trying to do is entertain.”
After a decade’s exile from the game, that may be quite enough. The oldest of six children, Veeck graduated from Baltimore’s Loyola College in 1972, played with a small-time rock band for three years and then took a job from his dad cleaning storerooms at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Unfulfilled, he took over the team’s promotion department and began planning for a career in base-ball’s front offices. But then came some curves.
The first was Veeck’s disastrous 1979 “disco demolition,” a promotional stunt that involved dynamiting 10,000 disco albums in a Dumpster mi the field. The event filled (he White Sox’ 65,000-seat stadium and left thousands more unhappy disco haters on the streets outside. When the dynamite was detonated, between games of a doubleheader. fans inside the park rushed the field, damaging the turf, and a miniriot began among those still on the outside. The field was unplayable, and the Sox forfeited the game. Veeck was blamed.
The following year he struck out again after getting into a fist fight with White Sox broadcaster Jimmy Piersall, then 50, a onetime outfielder. Piersall later claimed that he had only called Veeck’s mother, Mary, “a colossal bore,” but according to Veeck, “he called my mother a word that I don’t use.” After the dustup, “the papers murdered me,” says Veeck. “It was a young guy versus an old man.”
In 1981 Bill Veeck sold the team, and his son moved to Florida. All but blacklisted from baseball by then, he hung drywall, tried promoting a local jai alai arena and even launched an advertising agency. When he began drinking too much, his wife, graphic artist Jo Mariner, now 35, walked. “I had nothing left,” he says. “My marriage was gone. My life was gone. My self-respect was gone.”
Eventually, says Veeck, love for his son, William “Night Train” Veeck (nicknamed after former football star Dick “Night Train” Lane), prompted him to stop drinking three years ago. Soon after, the Miracle was purchased by a group of investors that included actor Bill Murray and singer Jimmy Buffett, and a grateful Veeck was hired as president. At that point, “I needed that big one,” he says, “that one big one that said, ‘Mikey’s back, and he’s going to shake everything up.’ ”
Veeck found his comeback gimmick in a convenience-store parking lot where he spotted a golden retriever carrying groceries to waiting cars. Signed to the team payroll (along with his trainer), Jericho the Miracle Dog now sports a team jersey and baseball cap as he fetches fouls and carries soft drinks to the umps between innings.
Other stunts followed—broken-down-car giveaways, shoeshinesin the stands, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna look-alikes cavorting for the fans. “It’s the kind of baseball I like,” says investor Buffett. “I love Mike. I guess it’s that showbiz part of me that’s attracted to the showbiz part of him.”
Veeck now lives modestly in Pompano Beach, 10 miles from his ex-wife and 5-year-old son. For Veeck, however, the bonds with his late father and mentor also remain strong. “I go out there to center field, and it’s very easy to talk to him,” says Veeck. “His life was a tribute to joy. You can emulate someone for worse reasons. I can’t think of a better one.
CHARLES E. COHEN
DON SIDER in Pompano Beach