She was destined to be the most famous baseball Veeck. That was clear two decades ago when a barefoot little girl with a contagious grin took a family friend by the hand. Bill Murray was led on a delightfully detailed tour of Shoeless Joe’s Hill at Riley Park before a Charleston RiverDogs game.
It's certain still, even though Rebecca Veeck died on Monday at 27 after a long battle with a disease unbelievably worse than the original diagnosis.
She was a creative genius like her father, former RiverDogs CEO and co-owner Mike Veeck, which is a mouthful. Mike is the master marketer who revolutionized pro and college sports promotions from a Charleston minor league baseball stage. That included Silent Night (no cheering allowed) and Nobody Night (purposely empty ballpark), and 200 speeches a year all over the country.
Rebecca connected with people just like her famously personable grandfather. Former Major League Baseball owner Bill Veeck won the 1948 World Series with the Cleveland Indians, signed the American League’s first black player (South Carolina’s Larry Doby), used 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel as a pinch-hitter and was — as his Hall of Fame plaque says — “a champion of the little guy.”
Rebecca understood the family’s “Fun is good” motto as much as her older brother, multi-sport front office staffer Night Train Veeck.
She was as inspirational as her mother, Libby.
This would have been obvious to everyone had Rebecca not had to spend so much of her life in the trenches dug in against some of the saddest things you can imagine for a child. Or a sweet young woman.
It started with what Mike Veeck thought was a joke, Rebecca insisting she couldn’t read the giant “E” on the eye chart at a doctor’s office in St. Petersburg, Fla.
She was 6 years old that day in 1998. Mike had just left the RiverDogs to take a promotions job with the Tampa Bay Rays; that a Veeck was back in the big leagues was national news.
The Veecks returned to Charleston for more eye tests. They were sent to Emory University in Atlanta.
“Retinitis pigmentosa,” Mike Veeck said a few months later. “Rebecca is going blind. It's just a matter of time.”
As the disease progressed, Libby and Mike poured themselves into research and charity.
The RiverDogs’ annual Kindness for Blindness auction raised gobs of cash for the Medical University of South Carolina's Storm Eye Institute.
The RiverDogs added a braille page to their game programs.
For a few seasons, they had a blind radio analyst, the remarkable Don Wardlow.
But how do you tell a second-grader — or a middle-schooler still in denial, or a frustrated high school kid — that there won't be any more beach views? No more new faces.
As Rebecca was losing her sight, the Veecks and Murray, the actor and fellow RiverDogs co-owner, made a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In Cooperstown, N.Y., it was “Uncle Billy” leading the way.
Worse than blindness
Rebecca grew up.
She became a talented artist. As a bubbly dancer, she turned recitals into parties.
She was a center of attention who always had the compassion to invite others into that center.
Rebecca could do a lot of things those with 20/20 vision couldn't do, even while struggling significantly more than other people with vision loss.
Because blindness was never the real tragedy. Years into a nightmare, Rebecca was diagnosed with Batten disease, a rare, inherited monster that attacks the brain, central nervous system and retina.
Named for British neurologist Frederick Batten, who described symptoms in the early 1900s, it can mask itself as vision loss.
It’s gradually punishing, and fatal. It can bring seizures and dementia.
Let’s find a cure
The Veecks traveled the country looking for answers and relief, just as they did for retinitis pigmentosa. Mike stepped away from day-to-day RiverDogs duties but still maintained an executive advisor to the chairman title.
“We were such good blind parents,” Mike Veeck said. “We knew what we were dealing with. We had come to terms with it. There was the possibility of progress. Now this.”
That was three years ago, already deeply into the family’s Batten disease coping.
Through it all, the Veecks leaned hard on friends. Friends leaned harder on the ridiculously strong Veecks.
Friendship is the co-star of this story, one not nearly complete.
We can play better defense against Batten disease. We can pull out all the stops, apply baseball shift analytics.
Ideally, we can raise awareness and money and find smart people who can find a vaccination shot heard ‘round the world.
Until we get there, let's remember a giggly girl holding Bill Murray’s hand.
With a little help from her friends, Rebecca is still on that path to become the most famous baseball Veeck.