About five weeks ago, Andrew L, one of the managers in our RCL League (The ECFBL), was perusing the names of some of the players chosen in the recent MLB draft. Dominating the headlines were Trevor Gretzky, the son of Wayne Gretzky, arguable the greatest player in the history of hockey, as well as Pudge Jr, However, the San Diego Padres drafted an outfielder from Valparaiso University, named Kyle Gaedele, in the sixth round. Kyle happens to be a great-nephew to Eddie Gaedel, who was, of course, Bill Veeck’s midget, who would achieved baseball immortality.
At the end of the 20th Century, the editors of The Sporting News listed the pinch-hit at bat by Eddie Gaedel as baseball’s “Most unusual and unforgettable moment.” It not only allowed Gaedel his proverbial “15 minutes of fame” but became the act of showmanship most associated with Bill Veeck Jr., the greatest showman in the history of baseball.
The story of Eddie Gaedel begins with the legendary John McGraw. In the early days of baseball, many teams had mascots, who they felt were a source of good luck. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics employed a hunchback named Louis Van Zelst; the players would rub his head before they came to bat. McGraw hired a rather eccentric backwoods piney named Charlie Faust who stated that he had both magical and mystical abilities which could be employed in a pernicious manner against the opposition. McGraw was highly superstitious, and, in fact, the team went on a tear after he hired Faust, winning the pennant. As a type of reward, McGraw allowed him to play in two meaningless games, where he allowed one run and scored twice. (Faust apparently had a delusional disorder and later died in an insane asylum.) McGraw used to have conversations with his friend William Veeck Sr., owner of the Chicago Cubs, concerning this episode, as well as his musings concerning sending up a midget to bat. William’s son Bill Veeck Jr. overheard this conversation when he was a kid, keeping it in the back of his mind for years. Some historians believe that Veeck came up with the idea from James Thurber’s short story, “You can look it up,” in which a midget was sent up to bat to take a walk, although Veeck always denied this as his inspiration.
Veeck Jr. was owner of a number of teams during his lifetime, but none were as pathetic as the St. Louis Browns circa 1950’s; many consider this franchise the most woeful in major league history. At the time, Veeck was going bankrupt, the stadium was falling apart, and there were rumors of the imminent relocation of the team to Baltimore (which actually occurred several years later). Veeck, undoubtedly the greatest showman in baseball’s history, decided to put on an extravaganza to boost attendance. 1951 was the 50th anniversary of the American League, and, coincidentally, the birthday of the Browns’ radio sponsor, Falstaff Brewery. Veeck promised to give away tiny bottles of Falstaff beer, a piece of birthday cake, and ice cream for all attendees. The promotion attracted 18,000 fans, the highest attendance of the season. And, both the fans and the Falstaff agents knew that with Veeck, there would be other surprises in the offing, as they breathlessly awaited the end of the first game of the doubleheader, a doubleheader of no consequence between the 7th and 8th place teams. The celebration offered hand-balancing and trampoline acts, as well as a show by Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball. To top off the festivities, a midget, Eddie Gaedal, jumped out of a 7’ birthday cake. Then the second game of the doubleheader commenced.
Falstaff’s patrons, and some fans, were mildly disappointed. Veeck had done similar acts on many prior occasions, including having elephants traipse the ball field and a midget buggy race. Little did they know what surprise Veeck had in mind.
Several weeks before the game, Veeck had hired Eddie Gaedal; he was familiar with Gaedal from the circus acts that he occasionally used for his pre-game festivities. He signed him to a contract, sending it to the league office for approval. He then surreptitiously coached Gaedel (who measured out to 3’7” and weighed 65 pounds) as to what he wished him to do. When asked by Veeck what he knew about baseball, he said, “I know that you are supposed to hit the white ball with the bat. And, then you run somewhere.” Veeck proceeded to show him how to take a deep stance; his strike zone was 1 ½ inches. He was then instructed to take four straight pitches, not removing the bat from his shoulders. However, as Eddie began to accept the idea of going up to bat, he started to have grandiose dreams of glory, and he started practicing his swing. This alarmed Mr. Veeck, who stated that he had taken out a one million dollar insurance policy on him and then threatened to take a shotgun into the stands and shoot him at the first indication that Eddie was going to take a lick at the ball.
The ball game began. In the batter’s box stood Frank Saucier. All of a sudden, the loudspeaker announced that Eddie Gaedel, number 1/8, was going to bat for Saucier. As Gaedal stepped into the batter’s box, the home plate umpire Ed Hurley stated, “This can’t be!” and summoned Veeck, who promptly showed him the paperwork verifying that Gaedal was a legitimate member of the squad. The umpire then called for play to commence. Gaedel then squeaked, “Throw it in there, fat, and I’ll moider it.” The catcher, Bob Swift, got down on his knees in order to give the pitcher a target. Bobby Cain, the pitcher, could barely keep a straight face at the mound. Any thoughts that Eddie had of hitting were disabused by Cain, who threw fastballs, none of them getting close to the miniscule strike zone. Gaedel walked to first, and the fans erupted with an ovation for Eddie, who played to the crowd all the way to the dugout. When Saucier told him he was a real ham, Gaedel replied, “I felt like Babe Ruth out there.”
The fallout was considerable, and predictable. The press took it well, and some opined that it was the funniest thing that ever happened in baseball. The moguls of the game had a different point of view; some of the words used to describe the incident were “tawdry,” “mockery,” and “cheap travesty.” In attacking the event, they unwittingly played right into Veeck’s hands: “I was counting on the deacons to turn Gaedel into a full week’s story by attacking me spitting on their cathedral.” League President Will Harridge even attempted to have the walk stricken from the sacred archives but was persuaded to leave it as is, for how then could one account for the runner on base, as well as the four pitches by Cain? All of this brouhaha resulted in attendance skyrocketing for the following week. At any rate Veeck had promised Gaedel immortality, and he delivered on his promise. He argued that there were no criteria in the rule book concerning size requirements. What exactly would be the height limits? Would Wee Willie Keeler or Phil Rizzuto qualify? Gaedel later became somewhat filled with himself, accusing the Commissioner of discrimination against midgets, and wishing to sue League President Will Harridge “for ruining my baseball career.”
Gaedal’s one plate appearance turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He became an instant media celebrity and was able to capitalize on this appearance for the remainder of his life, getting speaking engagements, frequent interviews, and lucrative financial opportunities. Veeck later hired Eddie once again, as he and several fellow wee people floated down onto the grounds of Comiskey Park, in the midst of a game, dressed in Martian regalia, telling shortstop Luis Aparicio and second sacker Nellie Fox TO “Take me to your leader”; that they had come down to earth to assist them in their battle against the Giant Earthlings.
In September of 1951 Eddie was arrested in Cincinnati for screaming obscenities. He attempted to convince the policeman that he was a big league player, with no apparent success.
Eddie died a tragic death in 1963, passing away from a heart attack after a mugging. When he died, he got a front page obituary in the NY Times. The jersey he wore is enshrined at Cooperstown. The athletic supporter, which was retrieved from the shower room floor at Sportsman’s Park, was donated to the Baseball Reliquary by the Veeck family.
Moss Lipow, writing in the Baseball-Reference, summarized Gaedel’s career:
“His OBP will never be exceeded. Strange to think he died in a barroom brawl, a badass stud athlete who died with his boots on.”