EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears today in Crain’s Chicago Business at chicagobusiness.com.
A train sneaks into town in the shadow of a Bridgeport moon.
The boxcars are packed with fun, dreams, and yes, considerable baggage.
Night Train Veeck has gone to work for the Chicago White Sox, representing the fourth generation of Veeck baseball royalty to roll through Chicago. The Veeck name is to baseball what mustard is to hot dog, what ivy is to the outfield wall at Wrigley Field.
Most of the baseball world is unaware Night Train has arrived. But look closely. The signs are there. The Veecks are back.
I’m a Veeck-o-phile, and I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t spotted a sign while standing at a U.S. Cellular urinal. It was a sale promoting group sales for Grandparents Day on Sept. 9 at U.S. Cellular Field. For information, it said, contact “Night Train Veeck.”
It’s no gag. It’s true, and it’s poetic. William “Night Train” Veeck, age 26, is working for the Sox and is in charge of an event that beautifully evokes the childlike spirit of his grandfather, William Louis “Bill” Veeck, Jr. Grandparents Day.
I call the number on the urinal sign.
He answers his office telephone: “Train.”
The nickname was bestowed at birth. His father, Mike Veeck, named his first-born son after the late Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane. The hard-hitting football player was married to Chicago jazz singer Dinah Washington when she died in 1963. Washington is one of Bob Dylan’s favorite singers. Mike loves Dylan, who in 1965 sang, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
Understanding Train means understanding Mike and living with the specter of the family’s legacy:
- Bill Veeck, Jr. was elected posthumously to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1989. He owned the White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Browns. He integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby. At one point, he considered fielding an all-black team—before there was even one black player in the big leagues.
- William Veeck, Sr. was a Chicago sportswriter who became president of the Cubs in 1919 and remained until his death in 1933. After his father died, Veeck, Jr. became Cubs treasurer. He planted the outfield ivy and built the iconic scoreboard 75 years ago. Veeck, Jr. also created the White Sox’ exploding scoreboard.
- Mike Veeck, 61, is a baseball entrepreneur and author. In 2004 he also worked with Chicago’s Jam Productions to create the summertime Bob Dylan (and sometimes Willie Nelson) tours of minor league ballparks across America. Mike was drummer for the top-40 rock n’ roll band Chattanooga Glass.
“It is all very daunting,” Night Train says during a morning conversation in the seats behind home plate at the Cell. Car traffic echoes from the Dan Ryan Expressway. The park is silent. “I think about it almost every day. Instead of walking in footsteps I’m trying to create my own path and create another branch on the tree. I have developed such an appreciation for the legacy, the love for the game and the organization through my Dad. His relationship with his father and with me has been a big part of that. There was never any pressure. Just to do what I love and to do what was fun.
It’s a real deep thing and I’m up for the task of keeping the name alive.”
Night Train moved to Chicago from Charleston in 2009, working as a sales manager at a sports marketing agency.
He had worked more than 1,000 games over 14 seasons for his father’s Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs of the Class A South Atlantic League. He has the lean looks of Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” with the prominent nose and chin that run as strong as creativity in the family.
Mike Veeck sold his share of the RiverDogs in 2008 but remains president. “As I’ve gotten older the conversations I have had with my dad about the business have been remarkable,” Night Train says. “I’ve worked for and under him for a couple of teams (Charleston, the independent St. Paul Saints), and down the line we could do something together. I love working for him. He is harder on me than anybody else and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
Bill Veeck Jr. discouraged Mike Veeck from pursuing a career in baseball. The kid didn’t listen. Mike Veeck, on the other hand, encouraged Night Train to work in the game.
In a telephone conversation from Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Mike says, “My Dad invited me on Thanksgiving, 1975, to work for the White Sox. He probably did it because he figured the band wasn’t that good and I wasn’t going to be Buddy Rich. In his way, he was parenting, but the invitation came out of the blue. I was shocked. Of course he was underfinanced; but at least I would learn a great work ethic. But he never said, ‘This is a great business.’ There was no discussion of the potential of baseball being a career.
“But I found baseball to be such an enchanting business. As a single parent early on it gave me something wonderful in common with Night Train. He just took to it. I remember him doing Coke racks in St. Paul before the vendors went to work. He just loved being around the ballpark. I found ways to put all kinds of things in front of him.”
Last summer, the younger Veeck obtained a master’s degree in sports administration at Northwestern University. “I can’t be anywhere else but a baseball stadium,” he says. “I did a (White Sox) internship program at the end of 2010 season and all of the 2011 season.”
Night Train was hired fulltime this season.
He looks out at the sun-drenched field and says, “I was surprised and happy they let another one of us jokers in the house after the other one (Mike) left.”
“He was not hired here because of his last name,” says Brooks Boyer, vice president and director of marketing for the Sox. “He was hired here solely on the merits and he had to earn it. He’s a guy that has shown us a great work ethic and passion for the White Sox and the game of baseball. There’s a great saying, ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’ and that’s ultimately how Train will follow his career. There’s no question how much he enjoys being here.”
Was the team worried about taking on another Veeck after Disco Demolition?
“Train did not come in and say, ‘What do you think about blowing everything up?’,” says Boyer. “One of the things I really like about Train is that he does have a lot of ideas that are adaptable to the environment here. He works very hard to understand the White Sox fan base…. We tell him to be as creative as he wants.”
Mike Veeck admits the Veeck name is great in a saloon and “lousy” when looking for a job. “Maybe it’s not as historically relevant as it once was, but fans still remember,” he says. “I told him, ‘You are going to have to work twice as hard because you don’t want to hear those whispers.’ I had one great exchange with my old man when I said, ‘You have no idea what it is like to be your kid.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘And my name would be Bill Veeck. And why do you think I changed my name?’
Mike pauses for a moment of rare silence.
Was working for the White Sox inevitable for the Train?
“The White Sox were definitely a top choice,” he says. “I wanted to make a mark on the organization that had fed my family. This would not only be a great way to advance my career, but also a great way to give back to a team I love–and to make up for some disco records.”
* * *
As I write these words, the White Sox are in first place in the American League Central but 24th out of 30 major league teams in attendance, with an average gate of 24,340 per game (60 per cent capacity).
The Cubs are dreadful and in 10th place with an average attendance of 36,343 (88 per cent capacity).
“There’s a million different reasons you can come up with and legitimize,” Night Train says of the White Sox attendance funk. “Some fans and season ticket holders might feel a bit burned from last season. We set the bar high with the ‘All In’ campaign and we were just as in as everyone else was. It didn’t pan out on the field. It’s getting that faith back. Gosh, if we haven’t responded on the field this year….”
Much of the White Sox fan base of his grandfather’s generation were factory workers from the south side and Northwest Indiana.
The Union Stock Yards, a long and loyal White Sox neighbor, closed at midnight, July 30, 1971, the same night Joel Horlen beat Sonny Siebert and the Boston Red Sox 5-1 at Old Comiskey. This isn’t Bill Veeck’s South Side anymore.
“I’ve learned we have a huge fan contingent in Northwest Indiana,” he says. “We’re making sure we do everything we can to bring them out. I don’t know what factory closures there have been, but no doubt it has contributed. Part of it is going to be us getting out into those communities and doing grass-roots marketing.”
He is open to blending baseball with iPads, smart phones, and laptops.
“Twitter has become a big part of interacting with fans and season-ticket holders,” he says. “People like to have the human aspect with the organization, somebody they know who will take care of them if they have a problem. That’s huge. I make a concerted effort on Twitter to reach out to people.”
It’s a world much bigger than the corner of Miller’s Pub, where Bill Veeck held court.
Night Train has about 1,800 Twitter followers. His handle is @VeeckAsInWreck. Naturally. “People are finding new ways to take in the game,” he says. “I loved how my grandfather hung out with fans. I’m trying to emulate that. There’s rarely a time where a person that’s bought a ticket from me hasn’t seen me, met me, or talked to me extensively. Fans have a lot of great ideas.”
Any struggling major-league team would see a bump in attendance if they deployed some of the Veeck promotions in Charleston and St. Paul. Bill Veeck knew how to tap into people’s curiosity and affinity for incongruity. Mike Veeck learned those lessons and passed them on to Night Train.
“There’s a lot of freedom and creativity in the minors,” Night Train says. “You can mobilize ideas quickly. In the minors the smallest thing can get national attention.”
Night Train assisted with “Nobody Night” ten years ago in Charleston. The night’s theme song was the Beatles hit “Nowhere Man.” Fans were locked out of the ballpark.
“That was one of my favorites,” he says. “First, we hold the lowest attendance record of zero people. We performed promotions for no one. We had tricycle races and no one was on them. Concessions were going, but no one was buying them. But the biggest thing about it, and this is where the fun comes in, is that I have never seen 8,000 people be more delighted to be locked out of a ballpark in my life. We had ladders so people could look in over the wall and watch the game. They were playing to an empty stadium and you could hear everything they were saying.”
Fans were served dollar beers and hot dogs while stuck outside. They were let in after five-and-a-half innings, when the game was official. As soon as the fans entered Joe Riley Stadium, children raced through the seats looking for foul balls. “Obviously we couldn’t do that here,” Night Train says. “They are definitely two different demographics and different styles of fans, but at the core of all of it people want to have fun. They want to see things that make them laugh…. You have to figure out how to bring it to the major league level without blowing things up.”
* * *
Dick “Night Train” Lane got his nickname from the 1952 Jimmy Forrest rhythm and blues hit called “Night Train.” A new generation discovered the song with James Brown’s 1962 version.
“My full name is William Night Train Veeck,” Night Train says, straight ahead. “It’s a great thing to tell if somebody is listening, for sure. My Dad liked the name and he did not ever want me to get picked last for a baseball team. When I was in school, people never believed it. It was on my Northwestern ID. You would not believe how hard it is to get a credit card.”
His father points out that most of the Veeck family does not have middle names or nicknames. Mike was one of nine children from two marriages.
“We moved around a lot,” he says. “I used to lust after ‘Bird Dog’ or ‘Tuna’…instead of ‘the new kid….’ I didn’t want him to be that ‘new kid.’”
Mike and his first wife Jo came up with the name en route to a Jimmy Buffett concert at the old Miami Arena.
Though he owns not one disco record, Night Train has otherwise embraced the family history. He has read the two essential books: “Fun Is Good: How To Create Joy and Passion in Your Workplace and Career,” written in 2005 by his father, and the 1962 autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck,” written by his grandfather with sportswriter Ed Linn.
“Fun is Good” is more business book than baseball book. Night Train’s younger half-sister Rebecca was a muse for the book. At the age of eight she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a gradual deterioration of the retinas that lead to blindness.
Rebecca, now 20 years old, grew up in a world of fun. She dances jazz and hip-hop. She plays piano by ear. She loves horseback riding. Her father says, “She is in Daytona at a transition school and learning to live independently. She’s going to community college and working in massage. She is in a good spot and that wasn’t the case if you had asked me six months ago. She’s in the last throes. There’s just this tiny pin prick of light and everybody who has lost their vision slowly like that has said it is something you have to deal with. But she is embracing her lessons and her living skills.”
Night Train has embraced “Fun is good” as a kind of motto, like the others in his family. “If you come up to me and say ‘Fun is good’ on the concourse, I will buy you a beer,” he says. “I was recently walking along lower reserved, around 141, and a random guy comes up to me and says, ‘Fun is Good?’ I heard the puzzlement in his voice, looked at him and said, ‘I owe you a beer’. We’ve become friends. He’s a season-ticket holder. He sits in the front row of the bleachers.”
That’s the Veeck touch.
* * *
Mike Veeck introduced his pal, actor and Cubs fan Bill Murray, as he was inducted into the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame over the summer.
Murray is co-owner of the Charleston River Dogs and “Director of Fun.” The YouTube video of the Murray induction is inspirational, and its theme goes beyond baseball. Murray threw out the first pitch at this year’s Cubs’ home opener. Mike and Night Train were at the game, each wearing White Sox caps. The sun was shining. Around the bottom of the third inning, Mike swears he heard his father’s distinct laugh.
“I’ve only gone to Wrigley twice in my life,” Mike admits. “I’m a Sox fan through and through. But historically, it’s like Fenway and you gotta go there. When they invited Bill (Murray) I thought we should make it a family affair and I should get over it. I never paid any attention to that third and fourth generation stuff, I really didn’t. I know it didn’t mean to me what it means to him.’
Mike’s voice crackles over a distant phone line as he continues, “The fact I was sitting there with my son…. I didn’t realize how it affected me until that moment. I’m so proud of him. I just love walking around the ballpark with him, I can’t describe it any other way.”
Night Train says, “It was such a magical day. We got everyone together this year, my stepmom (Libby), my cousin Liam, my dad. It was the first time we sat there as father and son, looked out and said, ‘Here we are.’
“It was a moment.”
Night Train Veeck has arrived.
Chicago could be in for a long ride.