Mike Veeck had a documentary to promote, but he couldn’t start without getting one thing off his chest.
“What’s going on with my White Sox?” he asked. “Man, they are killing me.”
I told Veeck it was worse than he could have imagined. The man who gave us the Disco Demolition riot disagreed.
“No,” he replied with a laugh. “I can imagine it.”
Veeck, the one-time White Sox marketing executive under his dad, former Sox owner Bill Veeck, is the subject of “The Saint of Second Chances,” an upcoming Netflix documentary by Jeff Malmberg and Morgan Neville to be released Tuesday.
The title refers both to the 72-year-old Veeck’s penchant for taking chances on people no one else would touch and his zigzagging career path from the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Park in 1979 to being unemployed to owning several minor-league teams to a return to the major leagues for one last shot marketing what then was called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
It also alludes to Veeck giving drug-abusing superstar Darryl Strawberry one last chance with his independent-league team, the St. Paul Saints, and other characters he provided opportunities to, including Ina Borders, the first female professional player, and “Super Dave” Stevens, a legless man whom the Saints gave an at-bat.
Veeck’s story probably sounds vaguely familiar to many longtime baseball fans, especially those in Chicago who remember him teaming with radio personality Steve Dahl on the anti-disco promotion that famously went haywire. Veeck finally came to grips with forever being associated with the infamous night.
“I felt guilty for long enough,” he said. “I’m done feeling guilty about it.”
But what happened after Veeck’s brief return to the majors is what separates “Second Chances” from your typical baseball documentary.
No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching even if you have no real interest in baseball. And if you’re a Sox fan, it’s a much-needed balm after a season like this.
Veeck’s son, Night Train, a former Sox employee, talked him into doing the project about the Veeck family — including Mike’s wife, Libby, and daughter, Rebecca — and their relationship with baseball. Mike’s grandfather William Veeck was president of the Chicago Cubs, with whom Bill Veeck helped plant the ivy at Wrigley Field near the beginning of his Hall of Fame career.
It’s a mix of vintage video clips, including interviews with Bill Veeck and highlights of the late 1970s Sox, along with dramatic scenes recreated by the directors, using Mike Veeck as Bill and actor Charlie Day as Mike.
Andy the Clown, Tony La Russa, Jimmy Piersall, Dave Dombrowski, Nancy Faust and other memorable characters from that ‘70s era make cameos, and actor Jeff Daniels narrates Veeck’s story. Day turns out to be a perfect choice to play an imperfect human who suffered from alcohol abuse and self-esteem issues after the negative reaction to Disco Demolition Night basically ended his dream of a major-league career in marketing.
“That chip on the shoulder, the attitude, he really got that,” Veeck said of Day. “He did a great job, except for being too handsome.”
Veeck originally wanted to team with Neville on an aborted project on which they would make someone the manager of the Saints for a week and film what happened. A couple of decades passed before they turned to the “Second Chances” project, which became a more personal film about Mike’s story in and out of the baseball confines.
Veeck didn’t know Neville and Malmberg wanted him to play his father until he got to Los Angeles for filming. He jokes in the film that he wouldn’t let them cut his legs off to look like his dad, who famously had a peg leg with an ashtray built into it.
As the film begins we find Day as Mike Veeck trying to escape his father’s massive shadow, only to be offered a chance to market a team after Bill bought the Sox a second time in 1975.
In our interview, Mike cracked that he could have saved a ton of money on therapy sessions had he played his dad 30 years ago.
“When my dad died, I said there was nothing left to say; we had said everything to each other,” he said. “That was foolish. That wasn’t true. … I would’ve liked to have told him what a great dad he was. Look him in the eye, give him a hug and say ‘I really appreciate all the things as a father you taught me.’
“Thank God I didn’t have to draw on them until I needed them, like going out in the bottom of ninth. I had stuff in the tank he provided.”
Disco Demolition Night, which I admittedly participated in as one of the trespassing hooligans on the field and in the dugout at Old Comiskey, is explored early in great detail. Veeck admits in the film he would not have done the promotion had he thought decades later the anti-disco sentiment would be looked upon by some observers in the 21st century as a display of homophobia from a group of mostly inebriated males in their teens or early 20s.
While the vast majority of the celebrators that night were kids looking to party while supporting rock ’n’ roll over disco, Night Train eventually convinced his father that some people were hurt by the promotion.
“People who don’t know how it really went down, like you or I did, can look at it and say that,” Mike told me. “Some say it with more vitriol, and I respond with a little more. But for people of this current generation, it appears that way, and it pains me.”
I knew Bill Veeck a little from the bleachers at Wrigley. He sat in center field with friends in the early 1980s in his final years after selling the Sox and refusing to return to Comiskey, following a perceived slight by executive Eddie Einhorn. One thing that always amazed me was how much beer Bill could drink without making a trip downstairs to the bathroom.
“And the fans were always willing to let him ahead in line, but he would never accept (cuts),” Mike said. “That’s what made him the guy he was.”
I told Mike it’s crazy his dad’s storied life has never been made into a movie. Bill Murray was rumored to play Bill in a “Veeck as in Wreck” biopic that never came to fruition. Mike said baseball movies typically aren’t made because so much of the financing depends on international sales but noted Murray “would make a terrific” Bill Veeck.
“They have more similarities than people realize — whimsical approach, inquisitiveness,” he said. “It would be a lot of fun.”
Veeck, who lives in Charleston, Va., and St. Augustine, Fla., sold the Saints this year and is looking for a chance to run a team with Night Train, the fourth-generation Veeck in the baseball business. He facetiously said he would be willing to return to the majors “if someone calls me up and says ‘Let’s go after those White Sox.’ ”
That would be a perfect ending, though perhaps too improbable, even for Veeck. But if it ever happened, Veeck promised he wouldn’t move the Sox to any of the rumored sites.
“The ballpark belongs on the South Side,” he said. “It’s almost the heart and soul of it. I think whether it’s Barack Obama, or (Michael) Jordan and those guys, it should be a community effort to rise up. The South is going to rise again, and all hands should be on deck.”