"I can't understand why so many people just don't like mimes," says Mike Veeck, huckster, modern-day P. T. Barnum and co-owner of five minor-league baseball teams. Veeck ("as in wreck," goes the family joke), for one, loves mimes, which helps explain how he came up with the nutty idea -- one of hundreds he spawns daily -- of having them substitute for instant replay at one of his ballparks.
It's 1993, and the St. Paul Saints are playing the Duluth-Superior Dukes. Between innings, staffers toss T-shirts and rubber chickens into the crowd, fans are on the field competing in dizzy bat races, and a nun in the bleachers is giving shoulder massages. The game resumes, and a Saints player gets called out. The fans boo. Five people in black, their faces covered in white makeup, appear on top of the dugout and begin acting out the play.
One slowly swings a "bat" and begins to "run" toward "first base." Another "fields" the "ball" and ever so slowly "throws" to the "first baseman," who "catches" the "ball" before the player "touches" the "bag." Through it all, there is complete silence. The fans don't know what to make of it. Then one guy has an idea: He pelts a mime with a hot dog. A mad rush to the concession stands follows, and before long, the performers are being clobbered by a hail of frankfurters.
"We had to stop the game for 20 minutes," Veeck remembers with a laugh. "The mimes began gesturing things that weren't mime-like."
The experience didn't deter Veeck, who's made minor-league ball an experience not to be missed. No mimes were harmed in the making of this stunt, which was good enough for him. Besides, failure means press, and any press is good press, according to this graduate of the as-long-as-they-spell-my-name-right school of public relations.
In fact, some of Veeck's biggest successes have been failures. There was the time he booked a cockatiel to announce a game, only to find out it suffered from stage fright. And the night game for which he invited a medium onto the field to channel the spirit of lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison. The only spirit the medium conjured up was some spook named John.
Fans eat up the gimmicks, but the 56-year-old Veeck, a purist at heart, knows baseball is perfect with or without them. "You can sit and visit during a game," says the Charleston, South Carolina, resident. "My wife, my kids and I will talk and only catch about three innings, but it's a pastoral sport and you can pick up where you left off." Best of all, the rules don't change. "I live in a chaotic world that I increasingly don't understand. I find it very reassuring that it's been three strikes, four balls, ninety feet forever."
Still, as Veeck learned from his father, while 40 percent of fans are diehards who'll come to the stadium no matter what, the rest want something extra. And Dad knew a thing or two about baseball.
The legendary Bill Veeck, who died in 1986, was the onetime owner of the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox, but he's probably best remembered for sending a midget up to bat. When Veeck père invited his son to help him lead the White Sox, in 1976, the 24-year-old jumped at the chance. After all, who could say no to a guy who thought it would be great fun to carve an ashtray into his wooden peg leg? And fun they had, culminating in the greatest failure of them all: Disco Demolition Night.
It was Mike's idea. Disco fever was running unchecked through the land, and he decided he was just the man to put a stop to it. White Sox fans were asked to bring their disco records to Comiskey Park to be summarily blown up between games of a doubleheader. Was it a success? A hundred thousand people tried to get into a stadium built for half that number, traffic was snarled for miles, and as the disco pyre grew, so did the rioting. In the end, the second game was forfeited.
Then it got worse: The team was eventually sold, and Mike lost his job. "Sometimes," Bill Veeck told his devastated son, "you have ones that work too well."
After Disco Demolition, Mike retreated to Florida, where he spent a few years drinking the memories away. In 1989, the Goldklang Group, a consortium of baseball lovers including actor Bill Murray, purchased the Miami Miracle, a minor-league club (now the Fort Myers Miracle). A team executive was on a plane when he bumped into baseball guru and former Sox GM Roland Hemond, who recommended his old boss's son, adding, "If you're dumb enough to buy the Miracle, you're dumb enough to hire Veeck." Just like that, Mike Veeck, by then clean and sober, was back in baseball.
He returned with a simple mission: Put fannies in the seats. "The best ballparks are the ones run for the fans," he says. So they were treated to Tonya Harding Mini-Bat Night; Labor Day, when pregnant women got in free; and groundskeepers dragging the infield in drag. Veeck even locked fans out of one park for five innings just to set the record for lowest attendance.
Today, Mike Veeck's brand of baseball is more popular than ever. Want proof? Last season, the St. Paul Saints filled Midway Stadium to 102 percent occupancy. Sometimes you have ones that work just right.
This story was written by Andy Simmons of Reader’s Digest.