NO ONE HAD the ability to laugh at himself the way Bill Veeck did. With an irreverent twinkle in his eye, he was always full of charming stunts, none better than the one he dreamed up as the owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1949. League champions the previous year, the Indians had surrendered the flag that September to the New York Yankees, a joyless circumstance that would have been cloaked in gloom were it not for the whimsy of "Sport Shirt Bill." The consummate showman had an altogether droll idea: He would hold a funeral to commemorate the loss of the pennant.
The whole point of the gag was . . . but here, allow Veeck himself to explain it, as he did in his classic autobiography, "Veeck - As in Wreck":
"It seemed to me that we would be showing that we could kid ourselves just as readily as we could anybody else," wrote Veeck, who played the part of the undertaker in a high silk hat. "To the accompaniment of a funeral dirge, the flag was lowered and folded sadly into a pine coffin." Veeck dabbed his eyes with a "well-soaked handkerchief" as he circled the field in a horse-drawn hearse, which was followed by a procession of Cleveland players. The coffin was then lowered into a grave below the flagpole in centerfield as a Municipal Stadium crowd of 35,000 fans howled in laughter.
"I had not even been born when that happened, but I do remember the old man telling me he thought it was the funniest thing in the world," says Mike Veeck, who owns pieces of six minor league teams and authored the book, "Fun Is Good." "And the papers buried him for it, if you will pardon the expression. They said it was in poor taste."
Oh, if only Bill Veeck were alive today and at the controls of the Phillies, who are closing in on the unwelcomed milestone of 10,000 franchise losses. Who knows what he would come up with, except that it surely would have been unusual and undoubtedly fun. Mike says his dad would have jumped at the unique promotional window that 10,000 losses present. And the elder Veeck surely would not have allowed it to pass unheeded, the strategy the Phillies have in place for the event in question.
The bottom line, from the club perspective, as enunciated by vice president of public relations Larry Shenk, is that "we are not celebrating it. We do not celebrate losses." In weighing the question, Schenk looked into what the Phillies did when they reached their 5,000th loss, which occurred in an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of the Cubs on July 24, 1945. Shenk discovered that the subject did not even come up in the local papers. "And I am assuming that if we are the first to 10,000 losses, we were the first to 5,000," says Shenk, who adds that 10,000 losses is a function of longevity and some truly awful decades that included 962 losses from 1920 to '29, 943 from 1930 to '39 and 951 from 1940 to '49. "So it is what it is."
But are the Phillies letting an opportunity slip away? Some think so. Mike Veeck says that the Phillies "should lighten up and have some fun with it." He says, "I would play this nonstop, with the hook being: '10,000 Losses: The End of an Era. (Good riddance!).' " But Veeck says that baseball people do not understand that "poking fun at yourself is not to say you lack dignity or an appreciation for the finer points of the game." And it is not to say that you take losing lightly, which has always been the slam on Bill, despite the fact that he won a World Series with the Indians in 1948 and an American League pennant with the White Sox in 1959.
"No one took winning more seriously," his son says. "But he also understood that 65 percent of the people who come to games do so because you lure them in."
So what would Mike Veeck do in honor of 10,000?
He thinks it over and says: "I would hold a seance. Bring back Connie Mack! See what he has to say. Who cares if he owned the Athletics? I am sure he would he would have an opinion on it."
"Or you could always have a giveaway," he says. "Give away 10,000 of something."
A "giveaway" also occurred to Pat Williams, senior executive vice president of the Orlando Magic and a former 76ers general manager. Long an admirer of Veeck and the author of a book on him, Williams is certain Veeck would have embraced "the long litany of losses" the Phillies have authored. "Bill never let a promotional opportunity go by," says Williams. "And this would have had him salivating, especially since it has never been done before. He would have been rubbing his hands together in glee."
So what would Williams give away?
"Say you handed out a 10,000-loss coffee mug," says Williams. "Except they would have to have a crack in them. Or perhaps a hole in the bottom. Some type of defect that would be in keeping with the occasion. Or do you give away a souvenir pennant with the records of 'Our 10 Worst Seasons' with the recommendation: 'Put it up in your den!' "
But as funny as any of this is, Williams is also aware that "it is easy for an outsider to poke fun." Such a cavalier attitude in the face of losing is far less advisable if you have to be an insider, which is to say "a club executive with 19 children, four grandchildren and two more on the way." That would be Williams, who has adopted children from across the world and who says he plans to keep on working until his final breath.
"Advertising your losses in probably not a wise career move," says Williams. "Knowing that long term, if you keep producing wins, they keep paying you every 2 weeks. And if you do not produce enough wins, they have a very strange custom in which they slide you off the stage and here comes someone else to take your place. I understand the sensitivity the Phillies have regarding this."
So Williams says he would probably let the 10,000 losses pass without bringing attention to it. "That would be the safe play," he says. "Perhaps only someone like Bill Veeck could get away with doing something. And that was what - 60 years ago? Times have changed."
Back when Veeck operated, a lot of his better ideas came to him spontaneously, usually over beers at a bar. Today, the practice he called "promotion" is called sports marketing, and the study of it is rewarded with university degrees. There is a very calculated approach now to bringing fans into stadiums, a uniformity that involves the careful assessment of the "positives" and "negatives" of any promotions. In the case of fixing a spotlight on 10,000 losses, Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Center at the University of Oregon, says there is an upside and a downside.
The upside: Swangard says the Phillies could show "their authenticity."
"This is an 'it-is-what-it-is' event," he says. "Use it as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with the fans."
The downside: Swangard says fans could interpret it as an acknowledgment that the club is content with losing.
And what would Swangard do?
"I would acknowledge it," he says. "Marketing is criticized for being the colorful wrapping on a sour piece of candy. This is a somewhat sour event and, hey, perhaps you do that. You team up with a local confectioner and hand out 10,000 pieces of sour candy and say, 'We know this leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but we are still here and better days are ahead.' Or you hand out 10,000 of those glasses with the water trapped inside and say, 'The glass is half full!' "
Swangard adds, "I think fans would prefer that you be who you are instead of pretending that you are something you are not."
Dr. Scott Kelley is not so sure how that would play in Philadelphia. "I would be wary of playing it up as a big deal," says Kelley, director of sports marketing at the Gatton School of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky. "My sense of the Philadelphia fan is that they would not take it as well as, say, Cubs fans, who have come to embrace their team as lovable losers. I would be concerned the Philadelphia fans would take less kindly to it, which is why I would let it pass without comment. I understand the concept of laughing at yourself, but you could easily become a laughingstock."
But Mike Veeck says the Phillies should treat it as "a new beginning and celebrate it." While he acknowledges with some humor that he has been fired by four major league organizations - and is the same Mike Veeck who was the inspiration behind the fiasco that was "Disco Demolition Night" in Chicago on July 12, 1979 - none of that would stop him from taking the necessary risk to exploit 10,000 losses.
"I sometimes think the guys who own baseball clubs ought to buy insurance companies instead," he says. "They are what I would call risk-averse. But in this business, you have to take a chance if you are going to bring in new fans. The more it plays off of Page 1, the better off you are. And part of that is being self-effacing."
Veeck laughs and adds: "Remember, this is supposed to be fun. And fun is good." *