I'd Like 15,000 Tickets For
Tonight's Game Please
The fifteen minutes of fame that the late Andy Warhol promised each of us came to me in the spring of 1984. 1 was the point man in a nationally publicized effort to outflank Calvin Griffith, the owner of the Minnesota Twins baseball team. Griffith wanted to sell his ball club to a group of Florida businesspeople who would have moved the Twins to Tampa. Another group, consisting of Twin Cities people, with which I was involved, wanted to keep the club there, under local ownership and see to it that we didn't get caught up in a very expensive bidding war.
Unlike Calvin, we had a secret weapon: Bill Veeck.
In case you don't know who Bill Veeck is, he was the man who, in 1951, as owner of the hapless St. Louis Browns, staged an innocent-appearing promotion that so upset the baseball establishment and so endeared him to baseball fans that for as long as the game is played, he will be remembered as the man who "sent a midget to bat."
At three feet, seven inches and sixty-five pounds, Eddie Gaedel, ordinarily a vaudeville performer, gave the Browns one of their rare distinctions. He was the first and only certifiable midget to appear in a major-league baseball game. For the record, he walked on four straight pitches and upon reaching first base was replaced immediately by a pinch runner. True to form, the runner was stranded on third and the Browns lost the game. But from the uproar Veeck had created you would have thought he'd called Babe Ruth a transvestite.
Veeck also operated five baseball clubs, three inthe majors and two in the minors, won pennants, set major-league attendance records, was the promotional genius who helped innovate bat night, glove night, fan appreciation night, players' names on uniforms, exploding scoreboards, the ivy-covered walls of the Wrigley Field bleachers, the expansion of the major leagues, the unrestricted draft, and such yet-to-be-adopted proposals as interleague play.
In a word, he was a visionary. In another word, he was a maverick. My first contact with Veeck was simple enough. I picked up the phone and called him. Veeck prided himself on being totally accessible to anyone. Unlike most club owners, Veeck roamed the stands, schmoozing with his customers, instead of hiding out in a private box, à la Steinbrenner. Veeck had opinions on just about everything, and he loved to lay them on anyone who would listen.
As the situation in the Twin Cities began to unfold, I found myself calling Veeck almost daily. Here's what we were up against: Griffith had an escape clause in his stadium lease that permitted him to cancel if the Twins' attendance did not reach 4.2 million fans over a three-year period. Thanks to an inferior product, attendance over the previous two years had been so bad that by the end of the 1984 season the Twins would have had to draw 2.4 million to reach the 4.2 million total. However, if the total was reached, Griffith would be bound to his lease, and to Minnesota, for three more years.
Though he'd be free once again to leave after each three-year stint, he knew and we knew that once he had announced his desire to leave, the already disgruntled fans would turn on his shoddy product with a vengeance, and he would be forced to endure another three years of horrendous attendance and red ink.
So, unwilling to spend the money necessary to improve the team, he was determined to sell. Just as we were determined to see that the Twins hit 2.4 million in attendance in 1984. And he had only one group to sell to: us.
Our problem was that 2.4 million was an almost impossible goal. Veeck had set a major-league record that stood for fifteen years when he drew 2.8 million with a pennant-winning club in Cleveland. Less than a month into the 1984 season, it was clear the Minnesota Twins were going nowhere.
Confident that there was nothing anyone in Minneapolis or St. Paul could do to bind Griffith to his lease, in late April the Florida group endeared themselves to Griffith. They accomplished this by ridding him of a longtime antagonist, Gabe Murphy, when they bought Murphy's 43 percent minority interest in the club for $11 million.
Griffith then announced that he was open to all offers for his majority interest as long as they were for at least $50 million, which is what the pennant-contending Detroit club had just sold for. Calvin then sat back waiting for the bidding war to unfold between Tampa and Minnesota for the remaining stock.
What he hadn't counted on was the tenacity of the Twin Cities community and the long memory of Bill Veeck. Twenty-five years earlier, Veeck, as the owner of the Chicago White Sox, had voted at an American League meeting in favor of Griffith's move of the Washington Senators franchise to Minnesota. In exchange, Veeck felt he had an agreement from Griffith to support Veeck's bid for an expansion franchise in newly vacated Washington. To Veeck's mind, Griffith reneged on the deal when he voted for another group. It was an act Veeck would not forget. He devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, to Griffithian duplicity, a topic that also included another ancient wound inflicted years earlier when Griffith's uncle, Clark Griffith, supposedly reneged on a promise to let Veeck move the Browns' franchise to Baltimore.