ARMOUR SQUARE — As crews power washed the concourse and upper decks at U.S. Cellular Field, William Night Train Veeck found a pair of dry seats, settled into the empty stadium and explained how the game day experience means absolutely everything.
“The [team’s] performance helps. Icing on the cake. When it’s great, it’s great, and when the team is not doing so well, it really stands out that we control the full experience ... the amount of fun that fans have, which is the most important thing to me, the experience, the game day, the kid factor. Step into the gates and lose your life for three hours,” he said.
Yes, a Veeck is back at Sox Park.
The 27-year-old Gold Coast resident is in his third year with the Chicago White Sox, working as an account executive in group ticket sales after a 16-month internship and completing his course work for a master's degree in sports administration from Northwestern University.
Born on minor league Opening Day 1986, Veeck started working at ballparks when he was 5 or 6 years old. He hung banners, helped the grounds crews and sold concessions before officially getting on the payroll of the Charleston River Dogs, a team owned by his father, Mike, at age 13.
“I don’t know how many child labor laws I broke,” he said.
Landing the White Sox job wasn’t easy. He's got the Veeck name, sure, but that name has carried with it a sometimes rocky history within Chicago baseball.
His great-grandfather Bill Veeck Sr. was the sportswriter for Chicago’s American who would later own the Cubs, and his grandfather — legendary Hall of Famer Bill Veeck Jr. — was the famous Sox owner and showman whose lasting contributions include signing the American League's first black player, planting the iconic ivy at Wrigley Field, exploding the pinwheels at Comiskey Park and encouraging Harry Caray’s rendition of “Take me out to the Ballgame.”
Bill Veeck Jr. sold the Sox in 1981 for $20 million to a group led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, a relationship that included a few uncomfortable moments over the years.
After he sold the team, Veeck felt slighted over remarks made by Reinsdorf that under the new ownership the Sox had left the days where Comiskey Park "was billed as the world's largest outdoor saloon and hundreds of people used to be arrested and thrown out of the place on Friday night."
Veeck would later remark sarcastically that "I couldn't be at home in such a class operation as they're operating there," explaining that the new owners don't "want me and my kind of people spilling beer on the furniture."
After spending years in the bleachers at Wrigley Field (he left there, too, in a huff, to protest the Cubs selling bleacher seats in advance), Veeck eventually returned to watching the Sox, even being offered the chance to throw out the first pitch during the 1983 playoffs, a gesture he declined.
Night Train's father, Mike Veeck, was a promotions manager for the Sox when Bill Veeck Jr. owned the team, helping engineer the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey. Mike Veeck still works the minor league circuit as partial owner of five major league teams. He also bestowed his son with the "Night Train" moniker, a nod to one of his sports heroes, Dick "Night Train" Lane.
It’s a heavy legacy, but one Veeck said he embraces.
"The last one of us to work here blew up some disco records in center field and got fired by his dad. It's not like I had the most illustrious record walking into the park. I'd like to be able to bridge the gap and bring a piece of our name back into it," he said.
The grandfather's stunts included giving 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel a chance to bat during a game, having players wear shorts and Grandstand Manager's Day, where fans called the shots from the seats.
And so the ideas from Night Train Veeck are brewing.
Veeck said he has a full five pages' worth, and they're being deliberated by the team’s marketing and sales departments. He's keeping them under wraps for now and offered precious few hints, except to say that he's "a fan of the flash, of new and fun things and new ideas."
They might not be as drastic as "Nobody Night,” the minor league ballpark lockout he helped implement in 2002 with his father where fans partied outside the Charleston, S.C., stadium, peering over the outfield walls from cherry pickers until after the fifth inning — all to set a record for the most poorly attended game.
“We only had one season ticketholder who called in [to complain], and we refunded them,” Veeck said.
But Veeck knows that baseball has been virtually unchanged since its inception in the late 1800s. It’s what happens outside the diamond that’s different.
To that end, teams across Major League Baseball have employed a number of stunts and promotions to fill the seats.
To boost attendance for the Sox, it's meant $5 upper deck tickets and commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1983 Winning Ugly ballclub by wearing throwback uniforms, hosting a mascot race and offering the Winning Ugly Grand Slam sandwich, a gluttonous beef-sausage-bacon-pork chop monster.
The team also debuted the first-of-its-kind #SoxSocial Lounge in the park, where fans charge their phones, catch the action from TV screens and watch social media streams featuring Sox content. On designated nights, there's a theme corresponding with a social media platform.
In April, guests were invited to get a picture taken with Manny, the French bulldog billed as the world’s “most followed” dog on Instagram. This month, fans will take part in Mullet Night, a mullet parade and online voting system that's "rich for social media content," said Nicole Saunches, a team spokeswoman.
“We’re all maniacs," Veeck said of his family. "But I’ve learned that maybe blowing up records isn’t necessarily the way to go."