Mike Veeck, “the funniest man in baseball,” is part-owner of the St. Paul, Minnesota Saints and five other minor league teams. He’s also close friends with Bill Murray, who might be described as the patron saint of the Saint Paul Saints, making frequent appearances at their beautiful new downtown stadium.
Veeck, son of legendary Major League Baseball team owner Bill Veeck, lives, eats, and breathes baseball. He took some time to speak with HuffPost about what makes minor league baseball such a great family experience and what the Major Leaguers could learn from teams like the Saints.
Michael Levin: How do you market a minor league team that plays six miles from where the Minnesota Twins play?
Mike Veeck: When we started, we realized that maybe we should talk about a by-product of coming to the Saints rather than baseball itself. You obviously can't say, “Come and see exciting, great minor league baseball” a short drive from the Metrodome, where you can see the best.
So the first three words in the marketing plan that I typed out back then, in those Neanderthal days on a small typewriter, were "Fun Is Good.” We were going to position the Saints as a place where you can go to entertain your family, enjoy yourself, and see a little baseball if you were so disposed.
Levin: Hasn’t Major League Baseball priced itself out of the market when it comes to the average family?
Veeck: The problem is even more rampant than the price. You need accessibility to the players. If you're going to pay five hundred dollars to take your family, then your kids ought to be able to get an autograph. If they can't get to the players, to their heroes, then that's what I think the root problem of major league baseball is.
Levin: How did you start marketing the Saints?
Veeck: When we started the team, I made 350 speeches a year. If three people were gathered on a street corner, they would be afraid, because I'd stop my car and jump up and make a speech. When I was with the Marlins, for example, the team owner Wayne Huizinga did the big Miami sports writers banquet, but we just sent ticket salesmen to the Kiwanis Club. I think that's entirely out of order. You make the decision based on what would be great for the fans, not for ownership or the front office, and the rest falls into place.
Levin: You have the freedom to do in the minor leagues that your father had in the Majors. Is that accurate?
Veeck: Yes. And then some. If Bill Murray decides that he wants to coach first base for half an inning for the Cubs, or he decides he wants to sit in the dugout during the game in a limited access area, that's fine. There is no distinction between Major League humor and minor league humor. I've seen Bill run the bases backwards, throw out the first pitch, and slide on tarps at the big league level, so the point is if you have a good enough gag, it works, and it delights the fans.
That was always my old man’s approach. He said, "I don't make a distinction. If it worked in Milwaukee in the minors, and it’s a funny gag, it'll work at the Major League level." The only things you can't do at the big league level that you can do at the minor league level are the between innings skits and promotions. You know, you can do the video board things, and that's become almost overpowering. One of the things that annoys me is that the fans are smart. You don't have to tell fans when to clap. I love when you go to an arena and they "clap", you know? Like we don't get it. But they really can do an awful lot more at the major league level than they do now.
Levin: If they have more freedom, why don't they take advantage of it?
Veeck: They’re doing some fun things, and they're trying to reach out to fans, but that did not stop some of the peer group from saying about me, "What's that idiot doing down there?”
Levin: But you’re filling seats night after night.
Veeck: Yes. How many times do you think I heard, when I got to Tampa or Detroit, “Oh, here comes the minor league guy"? And I would get a little uppity once in a while and say, "Yes, and we've done over 90% occupancy in St. Paul for 25 years based on just being nice to people.” It’s not really such an earth-shattering concept.
Levin: What's the biggest lesson that you've learned from your father?
Veeck: Just what we've been talking about, that the fans really do understand. Today, they have focus groups, and they talk about the “end user.” My old man didn’t need any of that. He was very much a man of his times. He understood that during the war, you gave away nylons, and after the Indians blew their opportunity in the independent race for 49, he bought a casket, and he buried the pennant. So always listen to the fans. And always respect the game.
Those were the two things that were paramount, and it got him into the Hall of Fame. But do you think these other owners were sitting around going, "My god Bill, what a great guy!" I mean when he died, no one representing Baseball came to his funeral.
Levin: What makes the Saints work is the personal touch.
Veeck: That’s exactly right. If Bill Murray signs an autograph or one of our players hands a kid a baseball, I’ve got a fan for life.