A Conversation with Night Train Veeck
A little after Thanksgiving in 2012, I met up with Night Train Veeck, then a group sales executive with the White Sox, at Miller’s Pub for drinks and conversation.
Baseball fans may recognize that last name: Night Train is the grandson of Bill Veeck Jr., former owner of the Chicago White Sox, and the son of Mike Veeck, the promotions director responsible for the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park in 1979. Night Train began interning with the Sox in 2010, becoming the third generation of Veeck to work with the team, and has been a prominent part of the Chicago sports scene on Twitter, tweeting under the handle @VeeckAsInWreck.
My timing kind of sucked. ChicagoSide Sports had run a profile of Night Train a couple of months earlier, so it wasn’t quite a scoop, and we were heading into the holiday season, so my time to work the interview up into a story for Gapers Block was slim. The mp3 of the conversation sat on my laptop, taunting me. Months went by, then whole seasons, and eventually DNAinfo profiled him, too, while I only had my interview about halfway transcribed. I conceded defeat.
But it was a fun, wide-ranging conversation, and I didn’t want it to be lost forever. So on a chilly evening not too long ago, I plugged my headphones in and went to work finishing the transcription. And now here we are, three baseball seasons later. Night Train Veeck is now manager of fan engagement for the Sox, and we’re just a week away from Spring Training for the 2016 season. Now’s as good a time as ever to publish.
So, Night Train is the name. Did you ever try going by Bill or Will or anything else when you were younger?
You know, a select few have known me as William. It was usually because of school, because teachers would refuse, literally refuse. I mean now it’s changed a little bit, you’ve got kids named Hashtag, but it’s one of those things where it’s like, I don’t know, I’ve been called by my mom, my dad, my grandma, my uncles — my whole family is calling me Night Train. And I hear [the teacher] refusing to call me that, I guess it’s kind of weird. But yeah, other than that, since inception, it’s been Night Train — Train to friends.
My wife’s name is Cinnamon — given first name, not middle name — and she dealt with a lot of teasing when she was a kid. So is that something you faced?
Same kind of thing. I get teased and I’m an adult. My whole thing is, “Oh, people call you Day Bus?” And I’m like, “Well, that’s until 5 o’clock and then it’s Night Train and it really comes out.” Yeah, people have their jokes, and generally it’s all in good fun.
So what was the reception like when you came to the Sox for an internship? They obviously saw the name — Veeck means a lot there. Do you think it hurt you coming in? Did it make them take a second look?
I think it did a bit of both. That’s always been a double-edged sword. For every person who enjoys the name there’s probably a few people who didn’t — or don’t. It’s one of those things that’s definitely opened doors, but it’s also slammed them shut faster than I can think. But I think it was unique and it’s one of those things where they looked at it and said, “This is definitely an interesting candidate.”
But also, I’ve come up against that my entire career, and I’ve done my part in trying to make sure if anybody picked me for any reason, it was because I worked baseball and loved baseball. I came into it with just under a thousand games in Charleston and St. Paul and in Florida at the Miracle where I trained a little bit. So I think that I was pretty equipped to come into it, and I do my best to make sure that’s the case. I don’t want anyone to think that it just happened. And then obviously, with the history, I couldn’t be more proud. I hope that I can contribute in a fun way. But then you have those people who… obviously Disco Demolition was a factor, and before that there were great things and other things that happened and… either way. The last one of us there got fired, and the other one’s dead. Didn’t help me out at all in that department.
Do you think your dad’s reputation would have been a hinderance anywhere other than the Sox, or was it even one there?
I don’t think it was a hindrance. It was definitely unique, and it had to be acknowledged, which it was — and they couldn’t have done any better of a job doing that. But it was kind of fun. This is a chance for me to walk in on my own and kind of pay homage and work for an organization that literally had fed me. My grandfather was there, and dad was there, and now I’m there.
We joke about it all the time. We’re luck enough to have lunch and dinner for game days, and lunch every day. Our chef is named Roy, who’s a mainstay there. The first time I met him, I felt this kind of weird kinship. I mean, he’s been there for so long, and we were joking about it when I was getting some food — he’s fed three generations of my family! Literally, like actually plated food… It’s one of those things that blows my mind.
So it was one of those things where it was a fun tie-in and kind of an opportunity to pay a little of it back. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, I think it’s kind of neat that we can come full circle and maybe make a couple of strong plays for a couple of disco records that blown up a couple years ago.
Roy might be a story on his own.
He’s phenomenal. He is an absolutely wonderful human being, and just a fun guy. I mean, I’ve eaten his lunch every day now for three years.
I imagine there must have been a point where you realized that the Veeck name meant something in baseball. You know, when you’re a kid it doesn’t always sink in right away — children of celebrities are sort of sheltered from that a little bit until they get out into the world a little more.
Celebrities in saloons, maybe. [laughs]
Sure, but nonetheless. That counts.
Yeah, in certain circles.
In certain circles, right. Do you remember that point, where you realized what your name meant in baseball?
Yeah, it kind of built. I started working when I was about 6 years old. At that point I didn’t know A) what money was, or B) what child labor laws were.
What were you doing at 6?
I was working in St. Paul, and I racked up sodas and hot dogs for the vendors. They would come in and I would just hand them a rack of hot dogs or sodas and they’d go out, come back in, rinse and repeat. I did that for about three hours a night, and then get to see a couple innings at the end when we’d close up shop. It just kind of started that way and progressed. And I just knew I was at this fun place where baseball took place and there was a game going on. I was around it all the time. And I was like, oh, this is great, this is a fun time.
And as the years progressed I started doing grounds crew and promotions on game day — you know, running around in inflatables, wearing the mascot outfit, just learning all these different facets of the game — is when I started slowly putting it together. I don’t think I really had any one ah-ha moment, but I did have a couple when I came here, specifically, a few years ago.
You know, it’d always meant something to me beforehand, but it was definitely magnified a bit in Chicago. You know, obviously it’s regional and this is the team. I just remember one day, when I got the call to get the internship, before I got hired full time, I just remember sitting down outside and just kinda smiling a little bit. I thought to myself, we have a Veeck back in the major leagues. And it was a fun feeling. My dad had been in there for a few years with a couple of clubs, and he’s now in the minors. I called him immediately, and I just sat down and thought, this is really cool.
It was kind of stacked up over time. I’d get pieces of it here and there, and I’d look back on it and, wow, we’ve done a couple of things.
Did you get to know your grandfather?
I didn’t. He passed away, I believe it was February of the year I was born, so I never got to meet him. Which I would have really, really loved. I like to think he’s up there somewhere smiling down and seeing that the two of us, my dad and I, are in baseball and having fun and really liking what we’re doing.
So tell me a little bit about what you’re doing at the Sox. You’re in group sales, right? What does that entail?
So, 20 or more tickets, our patio, the fan deck, the party room, the suites, terrace suites — so any party area and anything with a larger group of fans… I’ve got a Boy Scout night and some other things that draw in a thousand people — so more event focused. And then building relationships with some of those companies and organizations so that they know that if they want to bring a group out to the ballpark, I’m their guy.
Do you get any opportunity to do any sort of crazy events, or is it pretty straightforward sales?
It’s a little bit of both. What I love is that my bosses and everybody have a great team atmosphere, and we get a lot of room for creativity. We have a lot of room for fun ideas — and coming from the minor leagues, they’ve had to rein me back a little bit.
Yeah, I was going to say, some of the ideas you see at these little parks…
It’s a different climate, a different fan, a different ideal. But the universal quality about all of those is fun. And everybody wants to have fun, whether it’s major, minor, single, family, bachelor party, whatever it might be, you wanna have fun at the ballbpark. That’s what, at least for me, it’s centered around. So I’ve been able to incorporate in in little ways. For instance, we had the first birthday party for Southpaw last year. I got to work on that with one of our mascot coordinators, Carrie Norwood. We were talking one day, and it was always something she liked and wanted to see happen, and I came in and said, “You ever thought about doing a birthday party?” and she was like, “Yeah, I think it’d be fun.” [Management] decided to let it happen and we sold almost 700 tickets. So people came out and got to celebrate Southpaw’s birthday, they got to make signs, they got to go be in a parade around the field. It felt like one of those things that is necessary, it should happen everywhere — the mascot should have a birthday, no-brainer — but it just needed somebody to talk to [Norwood] and kind of put it into motion. It was a lot of fun, and that’s been kinda the way there.
We got to bring in the “retro racers” last year — that was fun, live races are always great. It gets the crowd involved and you get some good highlights. So you get to put [the fun] in there in different ways than you would [in the minors]. It’s just two different leagues.
Do you think there’s room in the majors anymore for some of the more outrageous stunts that your dad pulled?
No, there definitely is — you’re asking a biased audience, though.
Would it fall on deaf ears if you brought up something a little more out there?
I don’t think it’d fall on deaf ears. I think, given the track record, the history, this is kinda where the name comes into play. The good thing is, like I said, people have always listened. I’m completely aware that one out of the five things that come out of my mouth might get you arrested. But the other four are fun and they’re good times. But all jokes aside, I think there is room for that, and that it’s just all about execution. You know, I think had the stars aligned and everybody really knew what was going to happen that night, it might not have been that much of an issue. Given all the different factors — security, weather, blah blah blah — but at the end of the day, had they been cognizant of what that night was gonna entail, it might’ve had a pretty good chance. So I think it’s going to be about executing those and finding the right way to spin it and also combining in the fact that that won’t happen [today].
You’ll be more prepared with security the next time around.
Yeah. There’s room, there’s room, we just gotta figure out how to execute.
The last year of old Comiskey, they gave away premiums — the specials days were insane. I ended up with a real baseball mitt and a 28-inch Louisville Slugger that year. They had a bat day at the park.
You walked away with a bat? That’s a steal!
It was two different days, but I can’t even fathom the idea that they handed, I dunno, 10,000 bats out at a stadium, and then also served beer.
Oh yeah, it was nothing short of a textbook sports business class nightmare. I mean, they literally opened up the gates and said, here, here’s a bat, here’s some beers…
It’s lucky we didn’t have any serious– I mean, they should be talking about that event more than Disco Demolition.
Out of that was born exit giveaways! [chuckles] So it’s worked out well! Everybody learned their lesson and we can still give out bats! So it’s been good, it’s been good. And I think people have learned to love those kinds of things, too.
Which team would you most want to own?
Wow! That’s a great question, and definitely not a soft one. In the majors or minors?
In the majors — though if there’s a minor league team that you’d want…
You know, the minors were a lot of fun, I think at some point I’d like to be involved again. The creativity and the freedom there is just a great thing. So at some point, I’m not sure when it would be. But I guess I haven’t thought about major league ownership. I would love to be involved with the Sox — that would be a lot of fun, and would definitely put a new spin on everything. But I guess I haven’t thought that far — quite simply because I’ve just been enjoying so much of what’s going on around me that it really hasn’t hit me until now.
That would be fun, but I’m also a big fan of going in and trying to… I guess revamp, on the minor league side, teams that have been wounded. I’ve been a part of a lot of that in the past, and it’s been with my dad, and it’s been a great time. He’ll come in and talk to a team that hasn’t had it or a team that needs some help.
What do you think of the Sox farm system?
I think it’s great. I mean, I think it depends on what side you’re looking at — obviously players versus personnel side, that’s a little bit different, and then obviously looking at the business side, that’s two different animals. I mean, characteristically, people are thinking that they’re struggling. From what I’ve seen and the moves that we’ve made, it’s been phenomenal. I couldn’t be more excited to have [Vice President/General Manager Rick] Hahn involved now; he’s just a world class guy, and he really is an intelligent guy who knows his stuff. I think that’s gonna be a lot of fun. As far as the lower level teams’ day-to-day operations, I don’t really have much of a hand. Personally, I’ve been to the Barons and the Knights, and they have great operations. It was a lot of fun, they’re both good parks, good facilities — Charlotte especially. We’d go out to games and it was a good time. I really enjoyed them.
So speaking of the minor league teams, your dad is running a bunch. Has your your involvement with the White Sox thawed any relationship between your father and the organization? I don’t know how the relationship was before that, after he was fired.
That’s a good question. It’s kind of funny, because there was no real bad blood, so to speak. It was more, um, a guy caused an infamous game in history. It was one of those where, wow! And he was let go under my grandfather’s tenure, so that was a whole different ballgame in itself. But I wouldn’t say there was any bad blood. It’s obviously to the point now where everybody looks back and either gasps or laughs — I mean, good reaction either way. You know, it was one of those things that was kind of a magic moment, and it’s been addressed and talked about, and it’s kind of neat to have somebody else involved that, I guess internally the way I think about it, I’d like to make good on that and kind of make sure that everything’s fine, but yeah, there was never any bad relationship or anything like that.
Has he been up to the park since you’ve been on staff?
Yeah, and it’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun. That’s actually been one of the cooler moments I’ve had — in my life, really. You know, for all these years, my dad had been taking me to ballparks, and taking me to games — home games and out of town games and All Star games. I just grew up around it. All this time, I sat in the stands because of him, and he came up one day from Charleston, and came in, and I finally got to take him to a ball game. That was a big moment, that was just a magical moment to be able to sit there, with my dad, and have it all come full circle. For the first time, he didn’t have to lift a finger in a ball park; he was in our territory now. It was a really neat thing and a sweet moment. He came and we got to watch the game together and it was a great time. He’s definitely been up, he loves it, loves the organization, and he’s met a couple people who I work with, and that’s great.
What was the game, do you remember?
Yeah! We sat on the 300 level — I can’t recall the exact section. I should, I should know it.
You should have held onto the program.
I do have it! It was down the third baseline on the 300 level — day game, a Sunday game. Can’t recall the exact opponent, but it was just a great moment. Finally got to repay him for all those games he took me to.
I read the two of you went to a Cubs game.
We did. And that was on par with the same type of magic. That was, I believe, only the second time he had ever been in Wrigley.
That’s what he said. Had you been more often than that?
Yeah, I’ve been a few times. Usually I make a couple games a year. Everybody at the Cubs is real cool, and their front office is really nice. I’ve gotten to know a couple of them via Twitter and industry and that kind of thing, and they’ve just been great.
That was a fun day, too. It’s been a real nice thing coming up here and having him come and see what’s going on now.
Speaking of Twitter, you use the Twitter handle @VeeckasinWreck.
For one thing, I assume you’ve read the book. What did you think of it, and when did you first read it?
Absolutely loved it. Obviously you’re talking to a biased audience again.
Nothing short of loved it. I’ve read it several times. Probably the first time… definitely in high school. I can’t recall the age — maybe 15 or 16 years old.
Did you learn anything about your dad that you didn’t know before reading it?
About my dad? Not quite as much as my grandfather. I learned, actually, almost everything aside from stories that the family has and my dad has told me, which have been phenomenal. You know, I kind of learned his methods, and what makes him tick, and how he had fun and how he brought fun to the ballpark. I like to think that that definitely shaped me. And kind of vicariously through stories from my family and that story, combined. I have to say, I do wish I had met him, but if there had to be a scenario in which I didn’t, that was the best way. It was a good way to get a look inside his psyche. My grandmother gave me the copy, and that was neat.
So I wanted to kind of pay homage to that with the Twitter handle. I remember the first day that I was trying to come up with the name I would use, and I’ve never really come up against a problem with an alias or my handle because of Night Train. People are on there and they come up with their name and put a number at the end, and I’ve kind of always had one built in. I wanted to make it unique and pay homage to something that wasn’t going to be around in the digital world. So I thought I’d bring it to a new medium, and it worked out.
I noticed that in the last couple of months @BillVeeck has popped up.
He has, yeah.
Is that you?
I’ve been sworn to secrecy as to who it is.
That implies that it’s not you.
You’re exactly right.
Is it your dad?
I can tell you it’s not me and it’s not my dad, and it’s not anybody in my family. It is unaffiliated. I think that the person who runs it does a great job. I’ve talked to him before, and he does a great job at it. I think it’s kind of funny. It was a very weird moment having his… I mean his face, but also having words coming from an account, and reading it for the first time. I remember the first time that it came up, literally with zero followers and zero tweets. I was like, that’s odd. I sent him a message and was like, Oh, I’ve always wanted to know what my dead grandfather thought, so… And the guy was like, well, I hope that this is some fun, and I want it to be a good account. I guess try to live in his best memory. He’s done a good job with it. It’s been neat to see. And that was the weirdest thing. It took awhile to tweet at them. It took awhile because it was a weird feeling. But I remember the first day we went back and forth and played off of it. It’s been a good time.
Has he offered you advice as your grandfather?
Uh, you know, I’ll probably– one of these days when I’m really digging that, I’ll definitely throw a tweet out there and see what he has to say.
So have you found Twitter has been useful for your job?
Immensely. Immensely. I really like it in so many different ways. We wouldn’t even be doing this interview if Twitter hadn’t existed. But a lot of these moments have come up. It’s been a way to connect with season ticket holders. I still remember to this day, Jenny Zelle, my first full-season ticket holder when I went to the Sox. I met her via Twitter. She came out one day to a clubhouse sale that we had. She bought a couple things and we were talking for 45 minutes. She just mentioned, “Well, I come out to a lot of games and love the White Sox, and we want to go, but we really haven’t thought about a plan and that song and dance.” And I mean, I looked and she went to an immense amount of games, I couldn’t believe it. I said at this point it’s a crime, you know, you’re losing money! So, come on down to the park and let’s find some seats for you. She came out and we got her some seats and it was just a great summer. So I got to know her on a personal level, and I like that.
I like having that connection and being able to talk to people. But so many other ways — group leaders, now that I work with groups it’s been a way to connect with them. And to connect with people who come out. You know, the trouble-shooting aspect of it as well. You know, I like to make sure people understand that there’s a real person on the other end, and I care immensely what people think and do at the ballpark. So if something happens that I can help, I’m there. People can always get on and ask questions, and I by no means know everything, but if there’s anything that I can do, I like to reach out or I like to at least make sure they’re pointed in the right direction.
Do you get a lot of requests?
Yeah, I mean anything from, “Does my ticket work on the 300 level? Does it work on the 500 level?” Where’s the best place to buy a ticket? Is there a special promotion going on? I’ve given away a couple of fun prizes — just hats and stuff like that — for a couple of little contests that we’ve done. It’s one of those things where it’s just grown into this fun little community. And I’ve been able to talk to everybody at once and I can stop by and see people at the ballpark. It’s almost like roaming the digital stands, you know? People go there — and they’re not all season ticket holders. Sometimes people come in for one game, and hey, I’m here. So if you want to come out, here’s where you can go, here’s what’s fun or here’s what food is good. I’m just here to make suggestions and to help. So it’s been a great way to connect with fans.
Do you have any involvement with the White Sox official account?
I don’t have any involvement, and it’s just our staff. There’s a person in charge. They do a fantastic job, and I think it’s improving vastly over the past couple of years, just with content and pictures and connecting with people and being able to talk to fans. It’s been a lot of fun. That’s served almost as an inspiration in trying to emulate that.
Have you coordinated at all with them, or have they asked you to help out?
Not really specifically. I think that their world’s better at it than I am. They were obviously pegged for the job, so that’s kind of their wheelhouse. Just what I like about it is being able to look at their replies and look at the people who reach out to them and say, hey, I know that person. That’s been fun.
It’s cool to see how it evolved from inside the Sox, to this official team one that, five years ago, you never would have had that. It’s neat.
What do you think the future of promotions is?
In what respect?
I guess in any respect. How can you turn fans online into fans in seats?
Well, couple of different schools of thought. That’s actually a wonderful question and one that we’re working on now, especially because you get your 60-inch TVs, you get your six-pack at home, you get your hot dogs on the grill and you’ve got a good experience. But I think the key to that is the escapism that the ballpark offers. And the moments. Obviously the moments are going to be created by the people who come — and I’m gonna make damn sure they have fun no matter what. But you’re not always going to get that perfect game, you’re not always going to see those wins.
But the big thing for me is the escapism. You can’t get that at home. You can’t get that sitting on your couch and having a beer or two with your son or daughter or wife or whoever you choose to watch the game with. And I think that, being there and being accessible and being able to offer some touchpoint or some amount of contact so that they say, it’s Saturday, it’s a day game, I don’t have anything else going on, I’m going to pick up some tickets for $70 and go out to the ballpark. That’s three hours, four hours, six hours — the beauty of it is there’s no clock — you’re sitting there and you’re not thinking about anything else but catching a foul ball or hanging out having a beer with your buddies, or however it might be.
So I think that, the future in it lies in embracing the fact that there’s going to be that out of stadium interaction, and interacting with them as much as possible — delivering to them content, pictures, game feeds and fun contests, things like that. But also, when the time is right, showing them that no matter how digital this world gets, no matter how much it evolves into the internet and Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and any social networking site you can think of, there’s nothing that’s going to substitute for sitting in a couple of seats down the right field line with your wife, your husband, your friend, whoever it might be, and watching a baseball game for three and a half hours. I think that’s where the future lies, and if we can pepper in some contests and fun interactions between the team and the fans, that’s where it’s at.
Any last thoughts? Anything you want to share?
I think it’s a neat thing that we’re sitting here and having a beer and talking about the game and the White Sox, and that all came from a tweet. A tweet led to a direct message led to an email, into a conversation and here it is.