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· The St. Louis Browns and Eddie Gaedel ·
Herb Potter, my uncle who died last year, used to tell me about a major league baseball (MLB) game he attended in St. Louis when he was almost 14 years old.
It was a double-header home game for the St. Louis Browns vs the Detroit Tigers. I searched for the date. It was August 19, 1951.
Herb was in baseball heaven from the moment he entered Sportsman Park with my dad, his oldest brother. “They had a band playing inside,” recalled Herb, “and we got a free ice cream bar and cake at the gate.”
In speaking to Herb, he explained how franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck was constantly staging publicity stunts since the ball team wasn’t very good. When Herb told me the Browns never won a game, I knew he was exaggerating so I checked the team record. Indeed, their 1951 season was a disaster. They finished last place in the American League, 46 games out of first!
What made the second game of the double-header so memorable was the stunt pulled by Veeck. Between games a person with dwarfism popped out of a papier-mache cake during a celebration of the American League’s 50th anniversary. The performer wore a Brown’s uniform borrowed from the team’s 9 year-old batboy.
The fans were amused but disappointed since Veeck had promised them a “festival of surprises”. Little did they know what was about to occur during the second game.
In the first inning the fans learned that the regular lead-off hitter was being replaced by pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel. This unknown player was the same person who had popped out of the cake earlier. Gaedel was 26 years old, 3’ 7” tall, and weighed 65 pounds when he emerged from the dugout wearing Brown’s uniform number “1/8”.
The umpire immediately called for the manager. Veeck had expected a protest so he made sure the manager had a copy of the contract and the active roster. Once it was determined that the papers were in order, Gaedel was permitted to bat.
Veeck had carefully trained Gaedel how to crouch at the plate to make the strike zone even more impossible for the pitcher to locate. But Veeck was surprised and concerned when Gaedel, instead of crouching down as directed, assumed a batting stance comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s.
Detroit pitcher Bob Cain was on the mound laughing at the absurdity of pitching to Gaedel. Catcher Bob Swift was on his knees. It only took four pitches, all balls, for Gaedel to be walked. As he trotted to first base, Gaedel stopped twice and bowed to the crowd. At first base he was replaced by a pinch-runner.
The Brown’s lost the game but Gaedel’s name lives on in major league baseball history. He remains the shortest player and his on-base percentage is a perfect 1,000%.
The American league president and most of the other team owners were upset with Veeck for making a mockery of the game. In today’s world the stunt wouldn’t be permitted because of fears of it being seen as exploitation of a marginalized group, in this case “little people” (LP). But there’s no doubt, if there was a job announcement tomorrow seeking an actor with dwarfism to give a baseball performance at home plate, the response would be overwhelming because the entertainment industry is the biggest employer of little people.
Gaedel, the actor, sure didn’t complain about his unusual day of work in 1951. He was paid $100 for his plate appearance, and because of his baseball fame he earned over $17,000 by appearing on several TV shows.
During World War II Gaedel had worked as a riveter due to his size. He was able to crawl inside the wings of airplanes. After the war he became a professional performer, joining the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Unfortunately, Eddie Gaedel died at age 36. In 1961 he was beaten up and suffered a heart attack near his home in Chicago, Illinois. Bob Cain, who had pitched to Gaedel, was the only major league player to attend the funeral.
Because of my Uncle Herb, I learned about a ball game and a ball player who would have remained buried in history.
But my last surprise was when I discovered that Gaedel’s autograph, due to its scarcity, sells today for more than Babe Ruth’s.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!