Mike Veeck was working the crowd, speaking about his St. Paul Saints baseball team and the new ballpark going up near downtown St. Paul.
He threw out references to prestigious West Bloomington and his “close friends” Sid Hartman and Pat Reusse in the Star Tribune sports department. And when he heard there were two guys in the audience from Houston, Minn., he joked: “If you’re here, who’s left in Houston?”
It was like he was speaking to a Rotary Club, which, as owner of a minor-league sports team is part of his job description.
I stopped in on a recent trip to Florida to check out the group. It’s s long-standing tradition — 50 years and counting — for snowbirds and former Minnesotans who flee the frozen tundra for the warm sun, mangroves, palm trees and sandy beaches of southwest Florida. (Some of the six-months-and-a-day crowd also might be fleeing Minnesota taxes, too.)
For $19 cash at the door — to pay for the breakfast buffet and room rental — anyone can attend. There are occasional guests from other states, and a few Wisconsinites who get “Cheesehead” taunts when introduced.
Recently, the group was running low on funds so they passed a hat one morning and raised $1,197 to top-off the treasury for the breakfast bills.
Over the years, the group has hosted many political figures; Tim Pawlenty was a regular draw during his eight years as Minnesota governor. (They even moved Pawlenty’s speech to a bigger room at a nearby church, so friends and spouses could attend.)
It’s considered a monied, conservative crowd, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar was there earlier this year and was politely received.
Klobuchar’s report on the group:
This is a group of Minnesotans with a lot of combined business experience and we had a very good discussion about the American economy. I did tell them they have been missing a record-setting winter in Minnesota but they seemed to want to stay put for a few more months.
Organizers said Gov. Mark Dayton has declined an invitation to speak.
No stipends are paid to speakers, nor are expenses covered. But plenty of business, political and sports leaders are happy to make the trek in midwinter to speak to this tony crowd.
Lining up for the eggs, sausage, fruit and muffins last week was Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment. He was networking and scouting potential donors for his think tank, described as “a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, public policy and educational institution which brings conservative and free market ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation.”
Sports figures and business execs are popular speakers. Sports figures, in particular. Gopher football Coach Jerry Kill was this year’s big draw so far. They had 270 crammed into the room, and had to close the doors on dozens of others who weren’t allowed in because of the fire code.
Last week, Julie Sullivan, the new president of the University of St. Thomas, was scheduled to appear. MinnPost Publisher Joel Kramer spoke to them in 2009.
Other speakers this year:
- David MacLennan, Cargill CEO
- Lou Nanne of the North Stars
- John Stumpf, Wells Fargo CEO
- Richard Davis, US Bank CEO
- Dave St. Peter, Twins President
- Matt Birk, former Viking and Raven
- Dave Mona of WCCO Radio
- Reinhold Schmieding, Arthrex founder
The gatherings started in 1964, with a few friends, led by the late Al Leonard, meeting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. After three years, they moved to the current Naples Beach Hotel.
The group grew by word of mouth, although because of the political speakers there have been media stories over the years. And they’ve got a website now.
Gene Frey, former Waldorf Corp. head, has been president of the club since 2002. “I’m in the twelfth year of a two-year term,” he said.
For Frey and many others, the draw of the Friday morning get-togethers is as much about the camaraderie, as it is about the speakers.
“It’s about seeing friends from Minnesota,” said Frey, who has been has been very supportive of the University of St. Thomas made the invitation to UST President Julie Sullivan.
“You can ask her why tuition is so high for your grandchildren,” Frey told the group after Veeck’s March 14 talk.
Al McQuinn, of Edina and Naples, says it’s the friendship factor that matters at the breakfasts. He founded Ag-Chem Equipment Co. and sold it in 2003 and stays busy in the warm climes with investments and businesses, and serves as treasurer of the club.
McQuinn said the hotel’s fine spread and the chance to see friends from home make the breakfast a must-do part of his Friday schedule.
“We all look forward to Gene’s jokes every week; they’re incomparable,” he said. “And the speakers Gene gets are, by and large, very informative or entertaining, or a combination thereof.”
Veeck fit the entertaining bill most excellently.
No pointed questions from this crowd about his publicly funded stadium going up in Lowertown, across from the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, but he did talk about working for his dad, Bill Veeck, who owned many sports teams, some more successful than others.
When his parents owned the St. Louis Browns minor league ballclub, someone called wanting the best seats in the place. His mother replied: “How about second base, we haven’t been using that much lately.”
And he apologized, in jest, for some of his over-the-top promotions, like the time in 1979 when he organized a disco-record burning at a White Sox game. He was fired by his dad and the team brass the next day, when fans stormed the field and the team had to forfeit the second game of a double-header.
Giving away a vasectomy on Father’s Day got a lot of attention in St. Louis, too, he said. It was canceled after a firestorm of publicity, just 80 minutes after it was announced, but it drew headlines around the country, including the Anchorage paper which had a front page story with the headline: “Promotion snipped.”
“And I apologize for having instant replay with mimes. And the Michael Vick doggy chew toy give-away,” he said. He told of the time he released four gophers at home plate during a Saints game, to honor the home-town University teams. One of the gophers ran into the dugout and bit a relief pitcher, he said.
The lines kept coming.
Looking at the tanned, white, older gentlemen in the room, he joked: “We’d play a double-header for a crowd this size.”
And he said he’d called his mom to say he was speaking to the Minnesota Breakfast Club, which has a lot of important speakers. “So, she asked me: ‘Why are you there?'”
Veeck did get serious with the crowd, saying that getting the new ballpark through the political hoops at city hall and the state Capitol have made his dreams come true.
And he got almost misty when one of the questions at the end of his speech was about his daughter, Rebecca, who lost her sight to the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa. She’s in her early 20s now, and doing fine, he said.
“That’s the No. 1 thing that Minnesotans always ask me,” he said. “And I really appreciate it.”