By Glen Sparks
Eddie Gaedel, all 43 inches of him, stepped into the batter’s box on Aug. 19, 1951, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He wore uniform No. “1/8” for the Browns, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.
Gaedel, 26 years old, weighed all of 65 pounds, or as much as Ted Kluszewski’s left forearm. He did his best to strike a pose reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio and batted from the right side, as if that mattered. Detroit Tigers pitcher Bob Cain couldn’t help but laugh. “Keep it low,” Detroit catcher Bob Swift instructed.
Browns owner Bill Veeck had to be busting a gut. He came up with the prank. Later, he wrote, “(Gaedel) was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball. He was also the only one.”
Supposedly, a short story written in 1941 by humorist James Thurber, about a tiny baseball player, inspired Veeck. Always a showman, Veeck hired his p.r. guy to find just the right diminutive man. He added, make sure he looks good in a baseball uniform.
Gaedel, born June 8, 1925, in Chicago, fit the description. He was a performer, a card-carrying member of the American Guild of Variety Artists and did promotional work for Mercury Records.
The Browns’ traveling secretary, Bill Durney, went to Chicago and picked up Gaedel. Durney wrapped the “prospect” in blankets and smuggled him into the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Gaedel put on a uniform belonging to Browns batboy Bill DeWitt Jr., whose dad was a team executive. (DeWitt went on to bigger and better things. He now owns the St. Louis Cardinals.) First, though, Veeck had DeWitt’s No. 6 switched to No. 1/8, just to make things even funnier.
Veeck gave Gaedel a contract worth $15,400, or $100 per day. Then, he told Gaedel to follow the plan. Don’t swing at anything, he said. Don’t think about even lifting that bat off your shoulder, he ordered. And, stand in the box with a deep crouch. (Veeck figured that Gaedel in a crouch had a strike zone of about an inch and a half.)
The Browns didn’t waste any time milking the joke. Manager Zack Taylor brought Gaedel into the game in the bottom of the first inning as a pinch hitter for outfielder Frank Saucier. (The PA announcer: “For the Browns, Number One/Eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier.”Umpire Ed Hurley couldn’t believe it. What the heck was going on?! “A stunned crowd (20,299 paid, 18,369 in the house) came alive with laughter at the sight of the economy-sized leadoff batter,” Broeg wrote in the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hurley ordered Taylor to home plate. Taylor ran out, Gaedel’s big-league contract in hand. (Veeck had filed the contract with major league baseball on late Friday. He knew that no one would look at it until Monday morning. The doubleheader was on Sunday.)
An official big leaguer, Gaedel opened his stance DiMaggio-like and looked like he might swing. Pitcher Cain, though, couldn’t get anything close to Gaedel’s still-tiny strike zone. “Get outta that hole,” players on the Tigers bench shouted. Cain walked the batter on four pitches. Taylor immediately ordered Jim Delsing to pinch-run for Gaedel, who left the field to a standing ovation. “As the fans roared, he (Gaedel) bowed and doffed his cap repeatedly,” Broeg wrote. The smallest player in the big leagues boasted, “For a minute, I felt like Babe Ruth.”
Veeck’s stunt didn’t amuse American League president Will Harridge, who called the little affair a mockery of the game and voided Gaedel’s contract. Baseball even kept Gaedel’s official appearance out of the record books for a time. (Not that it really matters, but the Browns—predictably—lost both games of the doubleheader, 5-2 and 6-2, en route to a 52-102 campaign. The Browns lost a lot.)
Fans loved Eddie Gaedel. The former ballplayer went on to make about $17,000 in personal appearance fees. He even worked awhile in the Ringling Brothers circus. Hollywood directors beckoned, but Eddie refused to go.
Ultimately, Gaedel settled back in Chicago. He got a job at a bar and drank too much of the merchandise. That led to plenty of fights and arguments. Gaedel was a spicy drunk.
He got liquored up for a final time on June 18, 1961. Some rough guys followed him home from a bowling alley and beat him up bad. Gaedel’s mom found her son lying in bed, bruised and dead. Eddie Gaedel was just 36 years old. Bob Cain–yes, the pitcher from what is known now and forever as “the Gaedel game”–attended the funeral service, the lone representative from baseball.
Various Eddie Gaedel societies celebrate the memory of the famous pinch-hitter and the shortest player of all-time. The Los Angles chapter, for instance, offers a toast to Eddie every Aug. 19.
Gaedel’s Browns uniform is on display at the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, located across the street from Busch Stadium.