The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

May 5, 2014

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

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.

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