This article was written by Eric Robinson
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
Hall of Fame baseball owner Bill Veeck is remembered for many things, including winning American League pennants as owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and the Chicago White Sox in 1959; suffering injuries as a Marine in WWII that required him to use a wooden leg the rest of his life; signing Larry Doby as the first openly African American player in the American League; and bringing Satchel Paige to the Cleveland Indians as a 42-year-old rookie.
To the many people that refer to Veeck as the “Barnum of Baseball,” however, his legacy is associated with a single plate appearance that he orchestrated as a publicity stunt while owner of the lowly St. Louis Browns in 1951.[fn]Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, New York: Walker & Company, 2012.[/fn]
The man who took that plate appearance was Chicago native Eddie Gaedel, who at 3’7” and 65 pounds is the smallest man ever to play Major League Baseball.
Gaedel was born on June 8, 1925, to parents of “normal” physical stature. His two siblings were of normal height as well.[fn]Brian McKenna, “Eddie Gaedel,” SABR BioProject: accessed December 11, 2014, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fa5574c8.[/fn] Despite being sensitive to his height and suffering ridicule and mistreatment due to it, Gaedel took advantage of the opportunities afforded a little person (or “midget” in the language of the time), accepting promotional jobs for circuses, rodeos, and stores.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
After stints owning the Cleveland Indians and the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, Bill Veeck led a group that purchased the perennial cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns on July 3, 1951. At that point in the season they were averaging some 3,700 fans a game, 9,700 fewer than the Cardinals were drawing at the same locale, Sportsman’s Park.[fn]Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn]
As part of his flurry of promotional activities, Veeck decided to do something special during a doubleheader scheduled against the Detroit Tigers on August 19, 1951. The day was meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American League and the club’s chief sponsor, Falstaff Beer. Veeck contacted booking agent Marty Caine and with complete secrecy had Caine search for a midget who was “somewhat athletic and game for anything.”[fn]Bill Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.[/fn] The agent sent him Eddie Gaedel.
Gaedel was initially apprehensive due to the potential danger of being hit by an errant fastball, but soon grew excited at the idea of being a cup-of-coffee big leaguer and the attention that would come with it.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The only hint Veeck gave to the 18,000 fans in attendance for the August 19 doubleheader was on the day’s scorecard. There, in black and white, was an entry for a new player, Gaedel, who had the rather curious number of “1?8” printed beside his name. When a local reporter asked about this, the text was simply shrugged off as a printing mistake.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Following the first game of the twin bill, which the Tigers won 5–2, Veeck turned Sportsman’s Park into a carnival, featuring acrobats, baseball clown Max Patkin, a band playing at home plate that featured Satchel Paige on drums, and free Falstaff beer for the adults in the crowd. The highlight of the fun was a large cake wheeled to the infield. From inside the cake emerged Eddie Gaedel, wearing a Browns uniform, pointy shoes, and a pointy hat.
Falstaff executives, unfortunately, were vocally displeased at being promised a large promotional event and ending up with “only” a little person in a costume jumping from a cake.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Veeck could hardly contain himself as he waited for the real surprise.
Duane Pillette of the Browns retired the Tigers in the first inning of Game Two. When Frank Saucier, the first batter for Browns, was about to step to the plate in the last of the first, St. Louis manager Zack Taylor signaled for a pinch hitter. The crowd was shocked to see a 3’7″ tall batter start limbering up with three toy bats.
The umpires quickly tried to stop the at-bat, but Veeck made sure Taylor was prepared. The manager presented the official copy of Gaedel’s valid contract as submitted to the American League office. After 15 minutes of deliberation, and probably a phone call to league headquarters in Chicago, home plate umpire Ed Hurley returned and summoned Gaedel to the batter’s box.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Detroit catcher Bob Swift ran to the mound to have a quick strategy conference with pitcher Bob Cain. The 26-year-old southpaw proceeded to throw four straight balls well over the head of Gaedel, laughing as hard as anyone in the park during the final two.[fn]Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn] Gaedel took his time as he trotted to first base, playing to the crowd. After being pulled for pinch runner Jim Delsing, Gaedel slapped his substitute on the rump then took even longer to run across the field to the Browns’ dugout, tipping his hat and bowing to cheers multiple times.[fn]Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck.[/fn]
Within two days, the American League office had voided Gaedel’s contract, but could not erase his one appearance for the Browns. On September 6 of the same year, Gaedel had an at-bat for an amateur team in Sycamore, Illinois. This one ended with him leaving the game after getting into an argument with the umpire.[fn]McKenna, “Eddie Gaedel,” SABR BioProject.[/fn]
Several weeks later, a police officer in Cincinnati stopped Gaedel for being drunk and argumentative and carted him to jail. Gaedel tried to convince the arresting officer that he was a professional baseball player.[fn]Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn]
In 1959, when Bill Veeck owned the Chicago White Sox, he hired Gaedel and three other little people for another memorable appearance. Dressed in Martian clothing, they were lowered by helicopter into Comiskey Park, where near second base they “abducted” the diminutive double play combo of Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio and made them honorary Martians.[fn]Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck.[/fn]
Veeck later employed Gaedel as an usher at Comiskey Park, but in typical Veeck style—after he had been receiving complaints about tall ushers blocking fans’ views in the box-seat section.[fn]McKenna, “Eddie Gaedel,” SABR BioProject.[/fn]
On June 18, 1961, Eddie Gaedel was found dead following a drunken incident at a bowling alley that left him battered, bleeding, and suffering internal injuries. He was only 36.[fn]“Eddie Gaedel Obituary – New York Times,” accessed December 11, 2014, www.baseball-almanac.com/deaths/eddie_gaedel_obituary.shtml.[/fn] With Bill Veeck at the Mayo Clinic due to health issues, the only person affiliated with baseball to attend his funeral was Bob Cain, the Detroit pitcher of that infamous plate appearance ten years prior. Cain drove 300 miles to attend.
Until his own death in 1997, Cain honored Gaedel each year with a personalized Christmas card which featured a picture of Gaedel in his batting stance and the inside caption reading, “Hope your target in the future is better than mine in 1951.”[fn]Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.[/fn]
ERIC ROBINSON, a graduate of the University of North Texas, works in education and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He focuses his research on Central Texas blackball history, pre-MLB Texas baseball history, and baseball in pop culture. Eric has discovered that his grandmother’s neighbor played for the 1933 Brooklyn Dodgers. His website is www.lyndonbaseballjohnson.com.