Marriage is difficult enough but, when your partner is a larger-than-life figure, that can pose certain problems. But Mary Frances Veeck, who was married for 36 years to that baseball showman and former White Sox owner named Bill Veeck, was not only a companion and mother to six children but a clever collaborator in her husband’s innovations and an unforgettable presence.
She died Sept. 10, nine days after her 102nd birthday.
“She was a lady in the old-fashioned sense, who weathered storms the rest of us never were forced to face. She never gave up her rose-colored glasses, her champagne or her love for so many,” said Tom Weinberg, who coproduced an acclaimed 1985 documentary, “Veeck: A Man for Any Season.” “She also had a well-disguised bite under the beauty of her disposition. For all sorts of reasons, there could never be another like her.”
She was born on Sept. 1, 1920, in Pittsburgh to accountant Raymond and Teresa Jane Ackerman. There she was raised along with three siblings and developed lifelong passions for theater and music, joining the Pittsburgh Playhouse ensemble in her teens and remaining a member while attending Carnegie Tech.
In 1943, she was hired to be the publicist for the Ice Capades. That’s what she was doing six years later, traveling the world and dubbed by sports writers “The World’s Most Beautiful Press Agent,” when she met Veeck in Cleveland, where he was the owner of the Cleveland Indians.
He proposed within a week, having recently divorced a circus performer named Eleanor Raymond, with whom he had three children. They were married in 1950 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Then began a whirlwind, as they moved and lived in Cleveland, Los Angeles, St. Louis and two different ranches in Arizona. By 1959, with the first of what would become their six children, the Veecks settled in Chicago after he and a group of investors purchased the Chicago White Sox.
Those were heady times, as Veeck steered the Sox in 1959 to become the first Chicago team to reach the World Series in 40 years.
Mary Frances recalled for the Tribune the night the team won the pennant, remembering the 25,000 fans who met the team at Midway Airport on Sept. 22, 1959, after they clinched the American League crown. And she told author and filmmaker Dave Hoekstra in his tribute about how she and her husband hit the town that night, saying “We were insanely happy. We danced all around town. We always danced. Our kids always talk about seeing their mother and father dancing in the kitchen.”
Also during the Veecks’ time with the team, he introduced the first-ever exploding scoreboard and made his team the first to display the names of the players on the back of their uniforms.
As Mary Frances would later say in admiration, “Bill introduced Bat Day, Jacket Day, Cap Day, a Music Day and many other things. He was criticized by other owners for innovations such as putting names on uniforms, but they didn’t hesitate to copy the ones that worked.”
In 1961, Bill Veeck sold his interest in the team and the family moved to Easton, Maryland, where he ran a horse racing track. They named their sprawling house “Tranquility” and hosted celebrities, ballplayers, politicians and civil rights activists.
They were back in Chicago in 1976 when Bill again became an owner of the Sox. Over the next years, he continued to innovate, introducing then-Sox announcer Harry Caray’s singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, which was more famously adopted by the Cubs.
Those years also featured Mary Frances designing the blue shorts the White Sox wore for three games in August 1976. She and her husband defended the look saying it had “understated elegance.” Disco Demolition also took place during this time.
The lively Veecks made a media-friendly pair and were interviewed twice on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” program, and co-hosted TV and radio shows in various cities. Here their radio show was “Mary Frances Veeck and Friend.”
After selling the club in 1981, the Veecks remained in Chicago, where Bill died in 1986. He had been besieged by health problems that began when he got in an accident in 1946 while in the Marines, and were exacerbated by heavy smoking (he had an ashtray embedded in his wooden right leg) and drinking, both habits that he stopped in early 1980. In his life, he endured more than 30 operations before dying of emphysema.
Mary Frances remained here, becoming what she called a “professional volunteer,” working for the Chicago Theological Union and the Illinois Masonic Medical Center, as an election judge for more than two decades, and teaching adults to read through a program operated by St. Thomas the Apostle Parish.
In 1991 she went to Cooperstown, New York, to accept the plaque signifying Bill’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She said, among her remarks, “He was such fun to be around. He was a pied piper.”
In 2011, she moved into Montgomery Place, the retirement community with views of Jackson Park, Lake Michigan and the Museum of Science and Industry. She became friends with fellow resident Wyonella Smith, widow of Chicago journalist and civil rights leader Wendell Smith. The two were featured in a charming New York Times story in 2012 that observed that “As they proceed together in the 10th decade of their lives, they remain a charming and enduring symbol of their husbands’ efforts to push the sport forward.”
Mary Frances Veeck was preceded in death by daughter Juliana and son Christopher. She is survived by daughter Marya, an artist who has for decades operated August House studio in Chicago; Mike, owner of the St. Paul Saints baseball team and co-owner of the Charleston RiverDogs baseball team with actor Bill Murray; Gregory, a geography professor at Western Michigan University; and Lisa, who operates Clean Communications. She was a grandmother of seven and a great-grandmother.
A celebration of her life will be held at 11 a.m. on Nov. 12 at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave., followed by a reception at the Catholic Theological Union, 5416 Cornell Ave.