By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
EDDIE GAEDEL AND HIS CHAMPION
Sixty-seven years ago, on Sunday, August 19, 1951, in the second game of a
doubleheader, the St. Louis Browns – now the Baltimore Orioles – pulled a surprise
switch on their opponents, the Detroit Tigers. In the bottom of the first inning they sent
up a pinch hitter for the lead-off batter. Eddie Gaedel, a twenty-six year old right-handed
batter who was making his major league debut, was sent up to hit for Frank Saucier. Oh,
one other thing: Gaedel was three feet seven inches tall and weighed sixty-five pounds.
Eddie Gaedel was a midget.
When he popped his head out of the dugout swinging a toy bat, the crowd of 18,000, the
largest the hapless Browns had drawn in four years, let out a mighty roar, or, to be more
accurate, a surprised guffaw. He wore a Browns uniform, which was a bit too large for
him, that had been borrowed from the nine year-old son of a Browns’ executive. It had
the number 1/8 stitched on the back. The public address announcer solemnly intoned,
“Now pinch-hitting for the Browns, Eddie Gaedel, number one-eighth.”
As Gaedel strode up to home plate, bat in hand, albeit a toy one, the crowd was in an
uproar and on the mound Detroit pitcher Bob Cain was practically doubled over in
laughter. Home plate umpire Bill Hurley called a halt to the proceedings. He wasn’t about
to let an ineligible interloper, midget or not, disrupt the game. But Bill Veek, the Browns’
flamboyant owner and promoter extraordinare, had done his homework; he sent manager
Zack Taylor to the plate with a copy of an official American League contract, properly
signed by Gaedel and the Browns, making him a member of the team. The wily Veek,
knowing the league offices would be closed for the weekend, had waited until the Post
Office was closed before executing and mailing the contract to the league office, thus
ensuring that it couldn’t be voided until after after the stunt had been pulled off.
Having no other choice, Hurley signaled for the game to resume and Gaedel stepped into
the batter’s box and assumed his stance, a crouch which left little more that an inch or so
between his knees and the letters of his uniform, the smallest strike zone in baseball
history. He looked at four pitches from Cain – still giggling on the mound – all of them
high for balls (Surprise!) and pranced triumphantly down to first base where he was
immediately replaced by pinch-runner Jim Delsing.
As he returned to the dugout, his abbreviated baseball career at an end, he was accorded a
standing ovation. The stunt had been a resounding success; from a public relations point
of view, every newspaper in America published a picture with accompanying story of
Gaedel’s at-bat in Monday’s editions. Eddie Gaedel was suddenly, for a while at least, a
very famous little guy. As a baseball tactic having him pinch hit also worked; Gaedel had
reached base successfully, which is what lead-off batters are supposed to do.
It was all the brainchild of Bill Veek, baseball’s master promoter.
Or was it?
It so happened that, ten years before, the April 5, 1941 edition of The Saturday Evening
Post featured a short story by the great humorist James Thurber in which a midget is sent
up to hit in a tie ballgame with two outs and the bases loaded. The story was prominently
displayed with accompanying illustrations by none other than the iconic Norman
Rockwell. As they say, you could look it up, which happens also to be the title of
Thurber’s short story.
In Thurber’s fictional version, the batter, after working the count to 3 and 0, cannot resist
the temptation to swing at the next pitch. He hits a weak ground ball that gets boxed
around by just about everyone in the infield but he ends up being thrown out at first
anyhow. In Bill Veek’s real life version, Gaedel was reportedly warned that a
sharpshooter with a high powered rifle was sitting in the stands with orders to shoot if he
swung at a pitch (that part probably is fiction since Veek was a zealous gun control
advocate). Be that as it may, he never took that toy bat off his shoulder.
The idea of a midget being sent up to bat might have been born in James Thurber’s fertile
imagination but it was Bill Veek who made it come to life.
In a troubled world the Eddie Gaedel story brought a smile to everyone’s face, except,
that is, for his fellow baseball owners. They resented Veek’s showmanship and, just as he
knew would happen, Gaedel’s contract was immediately voided on the Monday morning
following his appearance. God forbid that anyone should be entertained while attending a
His fellow owners did not like Veek’s irreverent attitude. They didn’t like that fact that he
watched games sitting in the bleachers among the fans rather than in the splendid
isolation of the owners box. They tried their best to force him out of the game, and they
succeeded; but he kept coming back.
As for Eddie Gaedel, he did not live happily ever after. For a while he capitalized on his
new-found fame by making public appearances, but he had an aversion to travel and he
turned down many offers including at least one from Hollywood. He developed an
affection for Old Demon Rum, and when he drank he had a tendency to become
belligerent, often getting involved in barroom brawls in his native Chicago. A barroom
brawl is not a good idea if you happen to be a midget. One night in June of 1961 he was
either in another fight in a bar or was mugged on his way home – it’s not clear which –
and was bady beaten up. He somehow made it home, severely bruised, but shortly later
died of a heart attack brought on by the beating.
Veek was in the hospital and unable to attend Gaedel’s funeral. The only baseball person
there was someone who had never met him but whose life was nonetheless intertwined
with his; he was Bob Cain, who had pitched against him on that Sunday afternoon in
Bill Veek was posthumously enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. The last
line on his plaque reads, “A champion of the little guy.”
He was that.