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Politics, Baseball Intersect in St. Paul

Four years ago, St. Paul, Minn., residents gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a narrow victory over President Bush — a margin of 18 bobblehead dolls, to be precise.

The “Bobblelection” was a pre-election promotion by the St. Paul Saints, an independent professional baseball team partially owned by actor Bill Murray. The promotion invited fans to vote by choosing the figurine of their candidate of choice. Last month, Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s bobbling likeness prevailed over Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain 1,250-906 among Saints fans.

“We rarely repeat [promotions], but the first one was so successful,” Saints co-owner Mike Veeck said in an interview Wednesday.

Veeck, which rhymes with “wreck,” is part of one of baseball’s most famous front office families, known for its unique promotions — and for bucking the baseball establishment.

His father, Bill Veeck, owned the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians. He was the first to put players’ names on the backs of uniforms and planted the ivy on the outfield wall of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The elder Veeck was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1991.

“If I hadn’t planned Disco Night, they probably would have put my dad in the Hall of Fame while he was still alive and could enjoy it,” Veeck said in the book “Slouching Toward Fargo,” which chronicled the Saints teams of the late 1990s.

In 1979, when his father owned the White Sox, Mike Veeck had the idea to grant fans 98-cent admission in exchange for their unwanted disco records. The records were then destroyed on the field between games of the doubleheader. But thousands of fans poured onto the field, riot police were called in, and the White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game because the playing field was unusable. It is one of the only forfeits in Major League Baseball history.

The Saints’ season ended last week, and Veeck has mixed feelings about the fact that his team’s schedule didn’t overlap with the Republican National Convention.

“I’m happy it didn’t overlap,” Veeck said, “We finished the season so strong.”

Even though the Saints finished in last place in the American Association’s Northern League, they averaged 6,500 fans in a stadium that comfortably fits 5,500. “I’m happy we finished when we did.”

On the other hand, Veeck realizes that the convention would have provided some natural opportunities for unique promotions. “I couldn’t be more sorry the season is over,” he said.

Veeck is a motivational speaker, author of the book “Fun is Good,” and has his hand in a total of six baseball teams as part of the Goldklang Group.

Even though Veeck has invited Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to throw out the first pitch at a game for seven years running (unsuccessfully), he believes in some separation between baseball and state.

“Baseball should be apolitical,” Veeck explained. “It’s one place you should be all things to all people.”

“We’ve taken a strong stance on causes rather than people,” he continued.

In 1997, the Saints signed Ila Borders, the first female professional player in integrated men’s baseball. Borders began her collegiate career at Vanguard University of Southern California and was the first woman granted a scholarship to a men’s baseball team. As owner of the Indians, Veeck’s father signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, in 1947.

The Saints, who are not affiliated with a major league baseball team, are known for giving well-known players second chances — and sometimes, their last chances — including Darryl Strawberry and Steve Howe. Jack Morris, Glenn Davis, and Kevin Millar also played for the team. Boston Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew played for the Saints in 1997 and 1998 while in a contract dispute with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Bush has his own connection to the team. Former Saints manager Marty Scott was the one-time director of the Texas Rangers farm system.

Of course, sometimes the intersection of baseball and politics is unavoidable.

When now-Sen. Norm Coleman (R) was mayor of St. Paul, he and Veeck advocated for a new baseball stadium along the Mississippi River, but the city’s residents were not receptive. “Foolishly I wanted to [build the new stadium] too,” Veeck remembered. “Unfortunately fans had a different idea.”

Veeck subsequently rescinded his support, leaving Coleman alone and unhappy with the baseball owner.

“I just put him on the end of the limb and sawed it off,” Veeck candidly said about the situation.

But Veeck glowed about the job Coleman did in St. Paul. “He was absolutely spectacular to deal with,” Veeck said. “He understood the Saints.”

He also applauded Coleman’s efforts to build the Xcel Energy Center, the hockey-arena-turned-convention-hub in downtown St. Paul.

“Many politicians were asleep at the wheel, but Norm drove that thing,” Veeck said. “No matter what anyone says, that was pure Norm Coleman.”

The Republican Senator has made “bringing hockey back” to the Twin Cities a staple of his re-election campaign. In one television ad, a group of guys at a bowling alley repeat the mantra as part of Coleman’s key accomplishments.The National Hockey League’s Minnesota North Stars left for Texas in 1993, but the expansion Minnesota Wild began play in 2000 during Coleman’s tenure.

When asked about entering politics himself, Veeck demurred. “I have so many skeletons,” he said. “I don’t even bother putting them in the closet.”