The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 5, 2014

Thoma column: History lesson: Bill Veeck and the aborted black Phillies


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Donald Sterling scandal in the NBA — in which the league is now trying to strip an owner of his franchise after some racist comments — has an obvious parallel in baseball history, the Marge Schott case.

Schott was the managing partner — de facto owner — of the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1996 she was quoted as using the N-word to describe some of her players and praising Adolf Hitler’s domestic policies in 1930s Germany, and baseball forced her out of the leadership role of the team ownership. It was a few years before she completely sold her interest in the club, however, and baseball never took over the franchise.

There have been occasions, however, when baseball has seized control of a team from its owner. And one of them is an intriguing, tangled tale that could have changed history.

It’s 1942. The United States is in World War II, but still gearing up for the serious combat ahead. FDR issues his “green light” letter, encouraging professional baseball to continue. Most major league stars play out the season, although a few enter the military.

And in Philadelphia, the Phillies are Phutile. Again. A won-loss record of 42-109, a home attendance of 230,183. This follows a 42-111 record in 1941 with 231,000 paying customers.

Owner Garry Nugent is broke. The National League had to pay off a $55,000 bank loan for Nugent and advance him the cash to hold spring training and open the season. Now, with the season winding down, league president Ford Frick is pushing Nugent to sell the team.

Enter Bill Veeck, age 28, son of a former Cubs president and now owner of the Milwaukee team in the American Association. Veeck has financial backers to help him buy the Phillies — and a semi-secret plan to discard the roster and restock the team with black players.

Baseball in 1942 is deeply segregated, but the racial divide, while real, is unofficial. For the record, Commissioner Kenesaw Landis insists that teams are free to sign blacks; behind the scenes, he discourages any such move.

As Veeck told the story over the years, he had the team purchased. But on his way to Philadelphia to close the deal, he visited Landis in Chicago while delayed to make a train connection, and informed Landis of his plan. And by the time he got to Philly, Frick had seized the franchise and was finding a safer buyer.

That turned out to be a fiasco of its own. William Cox didn’t last long; by midseason he was discovered to be betting on Phillies games. He was banished, and the league again took over the team, this time selling it to the Carpenter family, DuPont heirs who would own the Phillies for about four decades.

Anyway, it’s a great what-if. What if Veeck had been able to turn the Phillies into, in essence, a Negro Leagues all-star team?

On talent alone, such a team — which could have featured the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Leon Day and Ray Dandridge at or near their primes — would figure to be almost unbeatable, especially as the war degraded the rosters of the white teams over the next three seasons.

But this would be real life, not a Strat-O-Matic experiment. Philadelphia in 1943 might not have been the ideal time and place to break the color barrier — certainly not as good as Brooklyn was in 1947, when Jackie Robinson arrived.

Branch Rickey carefully plotted out each step when he brought Robinson into organized ball; Veeck, a genius of a different mold, was always more off-the-cuff. It may well be to everyone’s benefit that it was Rickey who made the move.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.