As told to Alan Schwarz
Laugh if you want at Labor Day, when pregnant women get in free. Chuckle at the mascots running bases, the silly gags, the goofy promotions. That's exactly what Mike Veeck wants.
One of minor league baseball's most successful owner-operators, Veeck and his Goldklang Group partners have built an empire of six teams on the universal currency of laughter. With franchises from South Carolina to Minnesota, Florida to New York, Veeck has spent the past 15 years reinvigorating the once-languid landscape of minor league baseball into a vibrant, profitable enterprise. He is baseball's Barnum -- after all, who else would have a nun giving massages in the stands?
This nut didn't fall far from the tree. Veeck's father, Bill, spent about 40 years tweaking Major League Baseball's stuffed shirts with his legendary promotions -- including sending a midget up to bat -- and bequeathed to Mike an appreciation for the absurd. But succeeding in his father's shadow was never a given; in fact, being named Veeck kept Mike virtually banned from baseball for more than 10 years, when his career and life both entered a tailspin.
But given a new chance in the minor leagues, Veeck has thrived beyond his dreams, turning clubs that were purchased for less than $2 million combined into assets worth close to $30 million. This spring, he will publish a book about his business mantra, Fun Is Good (Rodale Press).
When I tell people that fun is good, whether they're my employees, reporters, or a crowd of 500 executives paying way too much to hear me speak, their most frequent reaction is to think I'm an utter crackpot. Hey, they might be right -- but my philosophy certainly isn't why.
Fun is a basic human need. Fun is oxygen. Fun is the primary way that I have helped build six minor league teams into a roughly $25 million annual business.
When you work in baseball and your last name is Veeck, people wonder, What's that wacko gonna do next? Yeah, I'm the guy whose team has groundskeepers drag the infield...in drag. I'm the one who has the nun giving massages in the stands, the pig delivering baseballs to the umpire, and inflatable bats with Viagra on them. I tried to give away a free vasectomy on Father's Day, but the local church got, shall we say, snippy.
I learned that fun is good from my dad. Running major league teams from the 1940s into the 1980s, Dad always put the fans' enjoyment first. If they'd get a kick out of seeing a midget step up to the plate, he'd send him up there. If they'd ooh and aah at exploding scoreboards, he'd gladly light the match. Dad was a guy's guy with zero pretense -- he built an ashtray into his wooden leg, for crying out loud. But he also understood people, and that when they had fun, they would spend money.
I never wanted to follow Dad into baseball. He was a legend, and I wanted to follow my own path. I was ambitious enough to graduate 29th in my high school class -- out of 29 -- and spent several years in the mid-'70s playing in a rock band. Then Dad asked me to give him a hand running his Chicago White Sox in 1976. I said okay and began to truly enjoy myself. Then all hell broke loose.
I'm the one who came up with the idea for Disco Demolition Night, when fans were encouraged to bring disco records to Comiskey Park, and we'd blow 'em up between games of a double-header. Did it work? So well that more than 100,000 people tried to get in, traffic was snarled for miles, and when we did blow up the records, our customers -- bless them all -- rioted in celebration, forcing us to forfeit the second game. The embarrassment to baseball was so great that soon enough, after Dad sold the club, I was essentially blackballed from Major League Baseball. No one would hire me.
I didn't handle that well. I began drinking heavily, lost custody of my son in a divorce, and landed in Florida, where I hung drywall before drifting to advertising. This lasted almost 10 years -- I was completely out of it. Then a minor league club owner named Marv Goldklang, looking for someone with new ideas, decided he wanted "someone like Bill Veeck." He tracked me down, hired me, let me do my thing, and I've never taken myself too seriously since. Second chances do that to you.
We hit it huge with the Northern League's St. Paul Saints in the mid-'90s, selling out all our games and every other week having a crew from 60 Minutes or HBO reporting on this goofy club making baseball fan-friendly again. I became a media darling. But I could still hear my father whispering: "Know when to quit." He rarely stayed anywhere for more than five or six years, so I did the same, relocating myself to our club in Charleston, S.C., and focusing on that for a while. Some people say change for the sake of it is silly, but I disagree -- if I'm gonna shake up the status quo, I have to start with myself, right?
Sure, some of my promotions are a little bizarre -- one night in Charleston, we decided to set the record for lowest attendance by locking fans out of the stadium -- but it's all in the spirit of getting over yourself. We listen to our customers. When we ask them at the turnstiles for suggestions, they come up with just as good ideas as we do. Trying to sell something called minor league ain't easy.
My fun-is-good philosophy works not just with customers but also with employees, who have become the most productive and loyal folks I've ever been around. We've never had a Butt-Covering Memo Guy or a That Won't Work Officer. No idea is too stupid for us to tweak into something enjoyable. We have a blast. And when that happens, people become more emotionally invested in the team concept. All this translates into better outward marketing: When people pick up the phones laughing, when they greet customers as if they're trying to let them in on an inside joke, you've created an atmosphere where people want to buy into what you're doing -- literally.
My career testifies to the value of sharing joy openly, honestly, and with a love for the absurd. The only immortality you can have in business comes from your disciples -- people who carry on your beliefs after you're gone.
Alan Schwarz writes about baseball for The New York Times and Baseball America. He is author of The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics.