Alternate Baseball, Chapter Seven

Bill Veeck, Jr. (right), doesn't get the recognition he deserves (via ABC Television).

Bill Veeck, Jr. (right), doesn’t get the recognition he deserves (via ABC Television).

It’s been a while since I’ve messed with the history of baseball. In a series that began two years ago, I have taken numerous cracks at nudging the course that baseball has followed to see what craziness I can cause with changes that may not seem pivotal at the time they occur. (You can look back at Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six of the series at these links.) More than once, I have surprised myself by how widely an alternative can diverge from the history we know.

Today’s adventure will be a little different. Before now, I’ve focused on altering particular events that did or did not happen. This exercise is going to settle on a specific individual and several things he did, attempted to do, or at least wanted to do throughout one of the most colorful careers baseball has witnessed.

Bill Veeck Jr. changed the face of baseball even without fictitious intervention. He was the game’s foremost promoter, bringing a free-wheeling, creative style out of his minor-league experience into four stints of ownership at the major-league level. Exploding scoreboards, outrageous giveaways, fans managing the ballclub, and even crazier stuff spun the turnstiles and gave the game’s stuffier mavens headaches. On a more dignified note, he integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians in mid-1947, a stepping stone to their winning the World Series the next year.

One paragraph doesn’t suffice to encapsulate the man, and it doesn’t need to. His autobiography, Veeck—as in Wreck (actually penned by Ed Linn), is close to required reading for serious baseball fans. He fills hundreds of pages with everything from inside stories of his ownership travails—including his long-running feud against the New York Yankees—to his dances on the edge of the letter and spirit of the rules, in the bigs and minors alike.

It’s all a lot of fun, unless you’re particularly partial to the Yankees or to ballplayers being at least five feet tall. It’s also a little problematic, at least to me in my current purpose. To weave alternate histories, you need to know what the original one was—and there are times when you cannot trust Bill Veeck to be telling it the way it was.

Printing the Legend

With or without ghost-writing, Veeck was a superb storyteller. As most people who write either fiction or non-fiction can tell you, there are times when reality gets in the way of a good story. I encountered this sometimes in my science-fiction writing, and while I naturally used the SF writer’s privilege of going beyond what’s currently known or done, I did feel bound to stick somewhere close to reality. Veeck, perhaps not having as exacting an editor, could wander further afield from the facts.

Veeck himself acknowledged this tendency without actually regretting it. In Wreck, he closes a long story by observing that some people accused him of fixing the weather to his team’s benefit. He dismissed this as ridiculous, but added:

That’s what happens, though. I have found that once you get a reputation for being a man who is willing to meet a good story half-way, you begin to get credit for anything that happens on your side of the horizon.

That is what happens, especially if you’re the one crediting yourself with such stories for 400 pages at a time. Granted, Veeck was not producing a footnoted history but an entertaining memoir. He chose wisely, going with his strength, but it came at a price. It fuzzed the line between the raconteur and the serious Veeck, and there is controversy to this day over what we can believe about him.

Chasing down what’s true or what tales got “improved” is tricky work. One instance of a Veeck whopper is the Hal Peck anecdote. Veeck told of bargaining to sell outfielder Peck from his minor-league Milwaukee Brewers to Connie Mack and the A’s, doing so via a party-line phone at his home. (Party lines were an old-time economy measure where several nearby households shared one phone connection.) During the negotiations, neighbors kept picking up their phones, hearing the bargaining, and telling Veeck he was asking for too little. Mack merely complained of a noisy connection, and agreed to Veeck’s heightened terms.

The hitch is that the Peck sale took place in August of 1944. At that time, Veeck was in the Marine Corps, serving in the South Pacific, and someone else was running the Brewers day-to-day. Veeck couldn’t have done the deal, as he had no phone connection back to the States, party line or otherwise.

Another anecdote involves Jackie Price, whose seven-game career came with the Indians in 1946. Wreck relates how Cleveland second baseman Joe Gordon talked Price into releasing a couple of his snakes (he kept several as pets) on a train the team was riding. Some women bowlers on the train got very put out, and the conductor confronted Gordon, demanding to know who he was. Gordon’s answer: “Lou Boudreau,” the team’s shortstop and manager, whom the authorities then tried to throw off the train at its next stop.

Bill James repeats this story in his second Historical Baseball Abstract and raises the caveat that Gordon and Price never played on the Indians at the same time: Gordon came over in a trade after the ’46 season. However, Jason Kaminski at Cleveland fan site “Did the Tribe Win Last Night?” traces the story to March 26, 1947, when the Indians were playing across California in spring training (a detail Veeck himself provides in his book). In this telling, it’s a rather humorless Veeck who banishes Price from the team for his prank, where according to Veeck, Boudreau did the cashiering.

Going by either Retrosheet or Baseball-Reference, this explanation would have been impossible. Both sites (B-R drawing from Retrosheet) say the Indians released Price on Sept. 30, 1946. This seems to be a placeholder for a transaction not tracked to a specific date. Sept. 30 was the day after Cleveland’s 1946 season ended, a plausible catch-all date. Had I not stumbled upon the DTTWLN story, I would have spent the last few paragraphs lamenting the unreliable Veeck making more stuff up.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

These examples demonstrate that researchers have the worst of both worlds. We have a subject given to exaggeration or outright fabrication, so we cannot relax and take his stories at face value. Sometimes, though, stories that look implausible check out if you dig deeper, so we cannot dismiss him as reliably unreliable. You could argue that every historical source suffers from this duality to some extent, but Veeck strikes a frustrating balance.

I’ll be tackling Veeck’s most debated story soon, but to start I will go with his most famous story, one nobody doubts really happened. Seldom do we look past the humor of the tale to see how it could have gone horribly, game-changingly wrong.

Scenario 8.1: Eddie Gaedel, 1926-1951

Veeck’s most famous stunt, so famous he rather wearily put the story in the first chapter of Wreck to get it behind him early, was sending three-foot-seven Eddie Gaedel to bat in the first inning of a nightcap Browns game in 1951. Detroit Tigers pitcher Bob Cain missed Gaedel’s tiny strike zone with four straight, sending Eddie to first, fans into raptures, and unamused distant observers into apoplexy.

Cain regarded the stunt with perspective and good humor: he was even the lone baseball person to attend Gaedel’s funeral a decade later. (Veeck at the time was ailing from medical problems that soon would force him to sell the White Sox.) For Gaedel’s part, he told reporters after the game that he hoped soon to face Bob Feller and Dizzy Trout, the latter Cain’s Detroit teammate.

He might have regretted that meeting. Trout told Cain that, had he been on the mound when Gaedel stepped up, he would have drilled the midget right between the eyes. Gaedel never got another plate appearance, but what would have happened if the one he did get had come against Dizzy?

Trout was in the twilight of a fine career and would lead the American League in losses that year, though with just 14. Manager Red Rolfe acknowledged this by the way he leveraged Trout’s starts. Only nine of his 22 came against the four teams in the top half of the AL; the other 13 came against the sixth-through-eighth-place squads. Five were against the cellar-dwelling Browns, his most against any team.

Trout had started against St. Louis just eight days before the Gaedel game, and he would relieve in the ninth of that very game itself, long after Gaedel had left to his ovation. (This was an era when starters still frequently were used for relief work between starts.) His previous start was three days earlier, against the White Sox, so he wasn’t in line for starting duty that day, even in a doubleheader. But tweak a relief stint here or there in the previous weeks, and it’d be pretty easy to line up his schedule with that fateful twin-bill.

Given the opportunity, would Trout really have beaned Gaedel? Setting aside intent for the moment, Trout still had control enough to do the job. His 3.5 walks-per-nine-innings rate in ’51 was below the league average of 3.98, and his hit-by-pitch rate was a quarter of the league standard. That cuts both ways, though. He didn’t often hit batters accidentally, but he also didn’t show much inclination to plunk them deliberately. Then again, few other batters made a mockery of the game by their mere presence, at least in Trout’s eyes.

Imagine Trout standing on the mound, steaming, as Browns manager Zack Taylor shows the plate umpire the contract, as photographers scurry across the field to snap pictures for the papers, as the fans go loco over Gaedel being waved to the plate. He sends catcher Bob Swift, approaching for a conference, back behind the plate with a snarl. Not taking time to think or cool down, he rears back and fires away, maybe rationalizing in the depths of his mind that the shrimp’ll have a chance to duck.

A ballplayer would. But Eddie Gaedel was no ballplayer. That might have been his final thought as the baseball intercepted a head protected with nothing but a flimsy cloth cap.

Drama, and my lurid sub-head, call for the worst possible result. Sportsman’s Park would have been in chaos the instant Gaedel dropped to the dirt. Trout, his belligerent spell broken, would have been lucky to get inside the clubhouse before enraged fans or Browns or both got to him. The riotous conditions ensuing would have stopped the game cold and probably forced a forfeit. Whether the forfeit would be against Detroit for its assault with a deadly horsehide, or against St. Louis upon retroactive judgment of their having made a travesty of the game, is debatable.

As for Veeck, shock would have given way quickly to the dread realization that his career in baseball had just ended.

There was no commissioner at this time. A.B. Chandler had resigned the previous month, and Ford Frick was not elected to the post until September. The highest authority to Veeck at that time was AL President Will Harridge. In our timeline, Harridge was incensed by Veeck’s end-run, submitting Gaedel’s team contract as required but on a weekend when nobody would be in the league offices to examine it. He voided the contract two days after Gaedel’s appearance and tried to have Gaedel expunged from the official records.

With a dead man on his hands, the escalation of Harridge’s fury is easy to imagine, and the need to limit the damage of a public-relations nightmare more so. Harridge would have sought to impose the greatest punishment possible on the two men responsible, Trout and Veeck. In both cases, that would have been expulsion from the American League, Veeck’s effected by forcing him to sell the Browns.

Trout might have wriggled off the hook through immediate denials of intent, as Carl Mays did in 1920 when he was widely suspected of evil purpose with the pitch that killed Ray Chapman. Veeck, for putting in harm’s way a non-athlete peculiarly unsuited to absorbing such a blow, would have had no such escape route. Indeed, if Trout dodged severe consequences, it would have been doubly important that Veeck be served up as a scapegoat.

Veeck would be gone, in ignominy. The minor-league style he had brought to the majors, the willingness to lure and entertain fans with things other than baseball, would have been discredited with him. A generation would have passed before there was an owner iconoclastic enough to test the bonds of the straitjacket the death of Gaedel imposed: likely Charlie Finley of the A’s, if someone that disturbingly Veeck-ish would have been allowed into the owners’ club at all.

Perhaps only now would fun at the ballpark not related solely to the game be coming back into style. The art of the giveaway would still be primitive: bobblehead dolls would be a novelty, not a mainstay, and T-shirt slingshots still would be relegated to the minors. The sausage races in Milwaukee and the Presidents’ race in Washington would be wild-eyed notions, not beloved standards. A guy in a Teddy Roosevelt costume winning a footrace would not be national news, the way it was in late 2012.

And with Veeck out of baseball, a number of pivotal events would not have taken place. He never would have bought the White Sox a second time in 1975, saving them from being shipped out as reparations to Seattle, which was suing baseball for the Pilots being moved in 1970. He wouldn’t have been around to sign Harry Caray to call White Sox games, beginning his iconic relationship with Chicago. He also wouldn’t have been there to hire a young manager named Tony LaRussa, who might then never have gotten the break that sent him to Cooperstown.

We’re fortunate that the moment in 1951 brought us Bob Cain, someone who feared hitting Gaedel and thus was content to pitch around him, not at him. Veeck and Trout were lucky, too, that this wasn’t how baseball brought their two names together. They did, though, end up together in a way. When Veeck was ailing in 1961, he stopped driving himself to the myriad speeches and appearances he made to plug his ballclub. Taking the driving duties was none other than Dizzy Trout.

Hey, you have to make a living somehow after your fastball gives out.

Scenario 8.2: The Philadelphia Experiment

This is, briefly stated, the most controversial episode of Veeck’s career, a magnet for heated debate over whether it happened as Veeck described, or even at all. Braving the flames, I’m going to accept the premise, if not uncritically, and run with it.

After two years of owning the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, Veeck decided in late 1942 to take a chance on buying the Philadelphia Phillies from struggling owner Gerry Nugent. His bid failed, the Phils being first taken over by the National League and then very quickly sold to William Cox. Only revealed later—some say suspiciously later—was Veeck’s master plan: to load up the Phillies’ roster with black ballplayers and charge from the cellar to the pennant.

This is a highly provocative idea that recently has drawn provocative attention. An article several years back in SABR’s The National Pastime claimed this plan never came to light until Veeck put it in his own book, casting serious doubt on its veracity. A later SABR article, though, found counter-examples in the press well beforehand. Paul Dickson, in his recent biography of Veeck, unearthed several other instances of Veeck’s plan coming to light well before Veeck—as in Wreck, and on that basis stated his belief that Veeck’s plan was genuine.

Dickson’s thorough scouring of the archives, though, does not do away with some inconsistencies in Veeck’s story. Veeck told several people openly about his plan to pack the Phillies, yet he somehow expected to train all his black signees in secret before adding them to the team en masse just before the season began. When getting backing for his scheme from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), he refused to guarantee there would never be nine blacks (or nine whites) on the field at one time; however, he told other people that his team would be all-black, possibly as a sop to segregationists by not having blacks and whites in the same clubhouse.

Further, Dickson’s accounts of a speech Veeck made to the Urban League in February of 1949 are contradictory. In one passage, he has Veeck tell his listeners he had discussed breaking the color line while planning to buy the Phillies. In another, Veeck says his first idea of signing blacks came while he was in a Marine Corps hospital. Veeck went into the Marines (and got the wound that would eventually cost him his right leg) in 1944, well after his failed shot at buying the Phillies. The stories cannot both be true.

My judgment, worth whatever you think it is, is that Veeck did have a notion of signing Negro League stars and perhaps had a plan of sorts, but one long on enthusiasm and short on specifics. That half-baked idea then grew in subsequent retellings, Veeck effectively doing more planning after his bid failed than beforehand. If the evolving tale sometimes served to burnish his credentials on race, that only suited a man who once confessed himself to be a “sincere phony.” His racial attitudes were genuine, even if the supporting evidence might be creative.

Could Veeck have turned his somewhat nebulous plan into reality? Obviously, it would have required success in buying the Phillies, and that might have required a tighter lip. Veeck informed Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis of his intent to bring black players onto the Phillies should he own them. Landis had been friends with Bill Veeck Sr., one-time president of the Cubs, and the younger Veeck felt bound by family ties and his own respect for Landis to be forthright.

Not long after, Veeck found the Phillies in the hands of the National League, and very soon after sold for much less than he would have given. He didn’t blame Landis for yanking away his chance, hanging the odium instead around the neck of NL president Ford Frick, who would be a bugbear of Veeck’s in the years to come. Veeck related that Frick was soon boasting, wholly off the record, of stopping Veeck from “contaminating the league,” the implied contamination being of course racial.

This may shock those who know baseball history, as Frick was credited with stopping a potential St. Louis Cardinals boycott of Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers in 1947. Frick’s rebuke to the would-be strikers, relayed by New York Herald-Tribune sports editor Stanley Woodward, is stirring and unequivocal:

If you do this, you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. They will be suspended, and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another.

The only trouble with it is that Frick likely didn’t say those words. Frick did give Cardinals owner Sam Breadon a message to relay to the players, one that shut down their loose talk, but the speech above may well have been the product of Woodward’s pen. There may be less in Frick’s high-minded stand than meets the eye, though it’s still a huge distance from that to “contaminating the league.” Veeck may have demonized Frick because he was unwilling to demonize Landis.

Suppose, in this case, that Veeck doesn’t come clean to Landis. Alternately, perhaps he quickens the pace of negotiations with Nugent so they strike a deal before the National League takes receivership of the Phillies. He’d still need approval of the other NL owners, and if his plan became known to them, that could be a problem.

It would have been a bigger problem, though, if they were seen to be rejecting his bid because he sought to integrate baseball. Veeck could stand on Landis’ own statement that owners could sign as many black players as they wanted (quite likely smoke-blowing for PR reasons) and force the commissioner and owners to live up to his words. Had he threatened so public a clash, everyone may have just gritted their teeth and quietly voted him through before he could raise a stink.

Veeck would have his chance—as would a legion of Negro League stars.

I’m not going to be exhaustive and meticulous in devising a path the season would take, partly so this article doesn’t bloat, and partly because others have taken that path first. There are actually several alternate-history novels based on Veeck’s fizzled plan. I have not read any of them, which for my current purpose is lucky, as I won’t be influenced by them.

Veeck, along with others let in on his secret, were convinced that a Phillies team stocked with black talent would be odds-on to take the pennant. The previous season’s nightmarish 42-109 record would be irrelevant, as most or all of the players who produced that record would be gone. When you look at names Veeck could have acquired, one can understand the confidence. Even with black players being drafted into the armed services as the whites were, the pool was deep.

Imagine: at catcher, Josh Gibson, perhaps with young Roy Campanella as backup. Buck at first base—Leonard or O’Neil; either works. Ray Dandridge at the hot corner (we’ll see him again soon). The teenaged but promising Doby in the middle infield (his switch to the outfield came later). Cool Papa Bell could have been in center, but he was 40, so it might have been Sam Jethroe instead, with Willard Brown beside him in right. On the mound, a rotation anchored by Satchel Paige, Leon Day, and Luis Tiant Sr., father of the big-league hurler of the ’60s and ’70s.

Veeck might not have gotten his whole Christmas list. Superstars cost, and some of the dream-teamers above might have been able to get more money elsewhere than Veeck was willing or able to pay. (You’ll see this crop up next scenario, too.) This alternate history is based on Veeck’s ad hoc planning, so something would have gone wrong. Still, that team or a close facsimile, against an average club drawn from the white talent of the era, would have dominated.

But talent wasn’t distributed evenly in the majors. The St. Louis Cardinals were in a three-year stretch of winning over 100 games a season, aided both by fewer losses to the military and Branch Rickey’s robust farm system filling the gaps. They were a dynasty, but a dynasty atop a depleted league.

No other team figures. Cincinnati finished 1943 behind by 18 games, the Dodgers by 23.5. Brooklyn, with Branch Rickey just having arrived, is the likeliest rival to fight the Phillies on their turf and sign their own black players. It wouldn’t have been enough, certainly not with Veeck getting first pick. It would have been the Phillies or the Cardinals.

One can foresee various manipulations by other teams to try to beat the Phillies. Juggling starting rotations to pit their best pitchers against Philly, as teams often did against the Yankees and other top-shelf teams in that era, would have been a partly-opaque and partly-legitimate way of trying to tilt the race. Much worse is the prospect that some teams might ease up against the Cardinals, handing them wins. The game-throwing that Landis stamped out at the start of his commissionership would be back to taint its end.

My guess is that the Phillies would have had the better team, and that the manipulations of other teams would have been enough to besmirch baseball but not to push the Cardinals to the pennant. Veeck and Philadelphia would have faced the New York Yankees in the World Series, a historic and epic clash. However it ended, it might have been great sport, but the ultimate result would have been damaging to baseball—and to America itself.

Baseball today prides itself on how the integration of the major leagues set a moral example for the whole country to follow, so consider how that example was made. It was integration, not of leagues by black teams, but of teams by black players. When integrated clubs prospered, as they tended to do, it wasn’t black players beating white players:
it was black and white players, together as a team, winning. It was integration and inclusion, in the full sense of the words.

Veeck’s 1943 Phillies would have been all black, or so predominantly so as to make little difference. The overriding theme would have been not cooperation, but competition. It would have been black versus white, and only one could have prevailed. One side’s gain was another’s loss: that would be the example baseball set.

Not just fans, but society at large would have polarized. The goodwill borne by some would have been overcome by the zero-sum logic of the situation. The results of the season would have brought triumphalism for some, resentment for others, both exacerbated by any chicanery against the Phillies. Which side got which certainly matters, but the atmosphere thus fostered would matter more.

With America waging a global war, there scarcely could have been a worse time for racial animus and dissension. Everybody was supposed to be pulling together to defeat common foes. If baseball started rocking that boat, baseball might have to go. With his “green light” letter in December of 1941, President Roosevelt declared baseball vital to the war effort and spared it from being shut down for the duration. If baseball instead became corrosive to patriotic cohesion, he could well have turned the light red.

This would have been a thorny political problem. Shutting down baseball would intensify the cross-racial recriminations, the very thing he needed to quell. Also, having white America’s blame for ruining baseball fall upon blacks, a crucial FDR constituency, would not have passed muster with so adept a politician.

Roosevelt would have sought another way to control what baseball was doing to America—and the solution best suited to his ideology would have been to control the game, as so many other things were being controlled in wartime. No later than the start of the 1943-44 offseason, and possibly during the season itself if matters grew vicious enough, Roosevelt would have put the government in charge of baseball.

Veeck likely would have applauded the move. It would tame the metaphorical tiger he found himself riding and would lock in the integration of the game, probably by compelling all the other teams to sign and use black players. As an avowed socialist, he wasn’t theoretically averse to nationalizing the national pastime. If he found his loss of profits and control of his team nettlesome, well, the watchword of the day was national sacrifice. He would have put up with it. There would be no alternative.

This brings on what I have described elsewhere with the science-fiction term “singularity,” a change so comprehensive that it becomes impossible to forecast what happens beyond it. Not in race relations: the civil-rights timetable would have been pushed forward, with much more government involvement, and also much more fractiousness and less amity. There would have been a wider political polarization, too, with a substantial faction of people horrified at the takeover of America’s game.

How the game itself would have fared is less clear. Much depends on whether and when baseball would have been returned to private control after the war was over. It’s nearly impossible, though, to see the game being the better for the experiences, the racial upheaval combined with the intervention undertaken to quiet it. It could have spelled the beginning of baseball’s decline, a picturesque era passing away.

I admit, this tale of Veeck’s good intentions gone awry led to far more trauma than I anticipated. It’s fair to balance it out with a much more placid tale of how he could have hurried baseball along the road to integration. Even here, though, there is someone who may find his place in history greatly changed, through no doing of his own.

Scenario 8.3: Dead Heat Breaking the Line

Veeck did not break major-league baseball’s color line, but he did break the American League’s. He signed Larry Doby midway through the 1947 season, making him the second black player in the bigs since the game was segregated in the 1880s. Had Veeck’s original plan gone through, however, it would have been another player integrating the AL, possibly at the same time that Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers.

Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians on June 22, 1946, after a last-minute money scramble that makes almost too good a story. From the start, he was determined to bring black players to the team and had feelers out early to find the best candidate. Second baseman Doby’s name soon began making repeat appearances in scouting reports, but Veeck had someone else in mind before him.

On a tip from reporter Gordon Cobbledick, who was scouting on his behalf, Veeck invited Ray Dandridge to his Arizona ranch early in 1947. Dandridge had been playing third base in the Mexican League for the past seven years and was possibly its best player. (He would be voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.) Veeck dangled the chance before him to come north of the border and make a little history.

Dandridge said no. He was making $10,000 a year in Mexico, good money back then, and enjoyed playing there. Also, Veeck did not offer him a signing bonus, and Dandridge sensed danger in that. Black players had gotten tryouts with major-league clubs in years past, only to be turned away cold. He didn’t want to abandon his good situation in Mexico just to find another big-league owner was feigning interest to get civil-rights pesters off his back. This wasn’t Veeck’s motive, but one meeting may have been inadequate to persuade Dandridge of that.

History shows Veeck was undeterred in his mission, but he also was put behind Rickey’s schedule. If you doubt the Philadelphia story, you could surmise that his disappointment over being second-best spurred his claim that he could have been, should have been, first. How close was he to matching Rickey’s accomplishment and putting a black player on the diamond for Opening Day of 1947?

Veeck would have needed to move pretty far in his negotiations. Doby reportedly got a $5,000 contract with Cleveland in 1947, for what ended up a part-time pinch-hitting role. (I’ve written a little more about Doby’s rookie season here.) He’d have needed to double that to match what Dandridge was earning in Mexico, likely guaranteeing some of it with a signing bonus.

Veeck could be generous to his players, but he wasn’t a total pushover. Whatever his motivations to break the color line, he wanted value for his money the same as any other owner. He didn’t go overboard to sign a player based just on his race, which at its core is an act of color-blindness. Still, with the deep talent pool Veeck was hoping to tap, a little exuberance on his part might not have been irrational.

So let us imagine Veeck trying to meet Dandridge halfway, and Dandridge willing to be met. Veeck would have had his man—and a problem. Veeck’s Indians had their spring training out West, so Dandridge would have been putting up with a lot less of the segregationist nastiness Robinson was enduring in the South at that time. The problem instead was the kind every team would like to have: not enough room for too much talent.

Dandridge was a third baseman, but the Indians already had an established hot-corner man in Ken Keltner. The 1946 season had been a down one for Keltner, but even if Veeck was inclined to move him, the natural replacement was Al Rosen, cooling his heels in the minors. Shifting Dandridge to second base was less plausible still, as Veeck had traded for keystoner Joe Gordon in the offseason. As for shortstop, that’s where manager Lou Boudreau played.

Rickey had a similar problem at the same time and solved it by installing Robinson at first base for his rookie season. In real life for 1947, the Indians had Les Fleming and rookie Eddie Robinson splitting first-base duty. Fleming was coming off good ’46 numbers, but injuries opened the door for Robinson’s appearances. That’s not an obvious spot for Dandridge, either.

His best shot at regular play might have been the outfield. Cleveland went basically with a four-man setup in the outfield that season, between Dale Mitchell, George “Catfish” Metkovich, Pat Seerey (later superseded by Hank Edwards), and Hal Peck. (Yes, from the party-line story. Baseball’s a small world.) As Veeck bought Metkovich from the Red Sox in early April, there was a space to fill. Veeck converted Doby from an infielder to an outfielder so he could play regularly in 1948, hard training getting a big payoff. He could have been likewise flexible with Dandridge and saved his money on Metkovich.

So with a little forcing, we can see Dandridge in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on April 15, 1947, holding down, say, center field for the Indians as they took on the Chicago White Sox. To the east by 500 miles, Robinson would have been in Ebbets Field at the same time. Two names would have been forged together on the pages of baseball, and American, history.

That twinning would have transformed the narrative. It’s difficult to forecast how Dandridge would have done with the Indians. He could have been a superstar; he could have been a good, if aging, contributor; conceivably, he could have bombed. Almost certainly, Dandridge wouldn’t have had the 10 major league seasons to grant him direct eligibility for a Hall of Fame vote, as he would have turned 34 his first year in Cleveland. In that sense, he wouldn’t have matched Robinson’s accomplishments.

But Dandridge, too, would have been The First.

That unique facet of Robinson’s story, of blazing the trail all alone, would be gone. “He” would be “they.” His status as the hero, the role model, the symbol, would be shared, the singular reverence accorded him greatly attenuated. It’s very probable that “42” would not be the one uniform number retired throughout baseball. Robinson’s number either would remain in circulation or be retired alongside whichever number Dandridge wore for the Indians. (Though there is a decent chance that would also have been “42,” and they would be retired in tandem.)

Jackie Robinson today is almost a sun, a giant astronomical body bending the path of everything around him in the story of baseball. Had Bill Veeck overcome some real practical concerns and made Ray Dandridge an offer he couldn’t refuse, the baseball system would have binary stars. Some of the orbits around them would stay much the same, and some would be vastly changed.

The different baseball system created perhaps can be imagined in the little details. Would Count Basie have been singing to “Did You See Ray Dandridge Hit That Ball?” Would the team that just weeks ago made the final of the Little League World Series have been the Ray Dandridge West All-Stars, not Jackie Robinson West? Would Bill Veeck have gotten enough respect that he would be voted into the Hall of Fame while he was alive, not five years after his death?

There, a much better way to end my alternate-Veeck ruminations than the apocalypse halfway up the page. Add a few “details” of your own too, if that helps.

References and Resources

  • Bill Veeck, Veeck—as in Wreck
  • Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
  • The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
  • Norman L. Macht and Robert D. Warrington, “The Veracity of Veeck,” in The Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, Fall 2013
  • Did the Tribe Win Last Night?
  • The New York Times

Sources for research that did not make the final article edit (yes, this could have been longer) include Bill Veeck’s The Hustler’s Handbook, Philip J. Lowry’s Green Cathedrals (3rd edition), the Milwaukee Journal, and the Milwaukee Sentinel.

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Veeck would not have put Gaedel in against Trout. He would have waited for a more opportune time.

J. Fox
J. Fox

With respect to the Eddie Gaedel scenario, if Mr. Veeck was forced to sell his team after the unfortunate death by fastball, we might well have seen the franchise move. Milwaukee County stadium was already under construction by then, although Wikipedia says the Braves blocked any moves into that because they wanted to keep Milwaukee, their triple A affiliate available in case they wanted to move their from Boston, which they did. I think the Browns could well have been bought from Veeck and moved to Los Angeles, Veeck himself wanted to do that but was blocked by the other… Read more »

Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte

Jeff, I honestly don’t think so. Veeck set up the Gaedel stunt for a Sunday doubleheader that was also a birthday celebration for Falstaff Brewery, the Browns’ radio sponsor. (The Browns needed to butter up everybody helping them stay afloat.) He promised Falstaff a PR bonanza: he was committed. Also, these were the days before locked-in pitching rotations. Veeck couldn’t have known who’d be pitching the nightcap for Detroit until, at best, one or two days before. That wouldn’t have been enough time for a Plan B that he did not have anyway. Besides, there’s no way he would have… Read more »

John C
John C

I would imagine that Dandridge, had he come to the majors in 1947, would have been an immediate impact player, but not for a very long time. He didn’t enter organized baseball until 1949, when he hit .362 for Triple-A Minneapolis, an affiliate of the Giants. Based on his established performance level before 1950 (when he was 36), Dandridge probably would have hit well over .300 if he had come to the majors in ’47, possibly as high as .320 or .330. And if he had, he would definitely have stolen a significant part of Jackie Robinson’s legacy. In those… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

Your scenario about the result if Veeck had fielded an all-black team doesn’t really fly IMO. By 1943, the tide of war was changing; it’s highly unlikely that FDR would have pulled the plug when things were going well. Moreover, there were already significant racial problems during the war; there were riots in, I believe, Detroit, caused by tensions resulting from whites resentful at African-Americans working in defense plants. So, it’s not as if America was a peaceful, racial utopia during the war years anyway and the idea that having an all-black team would have disrupted the war effort seems… Read more »