How one of those outrageously strange and thoroughly memorable baseball anniversaries managed to pass me by is, perhaps, another indication that advanced age is creeping up on me. Recollections of the odd happenings of August 19, 1951 required a bit of internet jogging and I'm indebted to some of the usual providers including Wikipedia--not always the most reliable of sources.
Mention the name Eddie Gaedel to just about anyone other than a baseball fan of reasonably good memory and you'll get the groggiest of groggy looks. Here are some hints: he was vertically challenged, played in one major league game, wore an unusual number on his back, and achieved immortality in a couple of minutes.
Gaedel knew a Chicago booking agent who had done business with Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians from 1946-49. Having "advanced" to ownership of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck contacted the agent with an idea for a gag to be consummated on a major league diamond. The agent put Veeck in touch with Gaedel and the initial plans were kicked off for a midget to become a celebrity by walking in a major league game.
Veeck, sometimes called The Barnum of Baseball, was one of two wild men never understood by their fellow owners whose approach to the game and relations with their employees bore distinct similarity to plantation owners of pre-Civil War days.
The other crazy was Charles O. Finley whose insanity tended toward personal involvement such as: riding a mule around the Kansas City A's infield (later in Oakland); the hiring of a beautiful Chicago TV weather girl who, as a color commentator, knew as much about baseball as Finley did robot surgery; and the Machiavellian creation of a pennant porch built by a college of carpenters and designed to result in more A's (and opponents) home runs. To Finley's credit, it was he who suggested that World Series games be played at night. This development came 36 years after the Cincinnati Reds hosted the first night game in 1935. Baseball is often slow to recognize, then seize upon good ideas.
The inspiration for Veeck's canard is a bit murky. Frequently accused of stealing the idea from a James Thurber short, You Could Look It Up, Veeck denied the charge in his charming autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck, telling readers he stole the idea from John J. McGraw.
McGraw, an enormously successful manager of the New York Giants, was a pal of Veeck's father, then president of the Chicago Cubs when the younger Veeck became aware of a hunchback McGraw kept around his team as a good-luck charm. Further, Veeck more than once heard McGraw, having had a drink or 10, proclaim his desire to send his gnome up to bat.
The year of the midget pinch-hitter also was the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American League, an event the cheapskate organization did little about other than provide special emblems for players' uniforms. Anniversaries to Veeck suggested parties and he soon involved the Falstaff Brewery in celebratory cake and beer, a culinary combination totally foreign these days to Martha Stewart. Consumption would be during a double-header between the Browns and the Detroit Tigers. Neither team was going anywhere. The Tigers would finish in fifth place and the Browns last as usual.
It's hard to believe, but the Browns would encounter such financial problems two years later that the team implored fans to return foul balls. Batting and fielding practice was skipped on the season's last game and umpires allowed balls to remain in play that should have been discarded. That game, the Browns' 100th loss of the season, not only was the last of the year but the last ever in St. Louis for the team that moved next year to Baltimore.
It was agent Marty Caine who introduced Gaedel to Veeck. Caine knew Veeck from the days when he owned the Indians while employing all manner of box office attractions including Max Patkin, most often referenced as the Clown Prince of Baseball. In addition to Patkin, described in his New York Timesobituary as having "a toothless face capable of contortions rivaling a knuckleball's," Veeck's attendance enhancements included exploding scoreboards and a movable fence whose flexibility of 15 feet changed from series to series depending upon home run capabilities.
Editorial accuracy demands that Veeck also be acknowledged as a solid baseball man whose appreciation of talent (and fairness) led to his 1947 signing of Larry Doby, the first black player to play in the American League, and Satchel Paige, the oldest rookie ever (42) the following year.
Gaedel, who stood 3' 7" with his socks on, was a bit dubious when Veeck approached him about his major league debut. Veeck asked how much he knew about baseball and the answer suggested he was reasonably well-schooled in the game's basics: "Well, he said. "I know you're supposed to hit the white ball with the bat. And then you run somewhere." Who could ask for anything more under the circumstances?
As Veeck worked on the little fellow's batting stance, the Browns' owner became fascinated by the nuances of pitching to a midget. At one point, Veeck grabbed a ruler and determined Gaedel's strike zone measured 1 1/2 inches, a severe challenge to the Tiger pitcher who, when game day rolled around, turned out to be Bob Cain.
The contest's scorecard that day reflected the rarity of the moment. Offering further proof of his unique resourcefulness, Veeck, the man who first placed names on the backs of players, put the number 1/8 on Gaedel's uniform, borrowed from the bat boy. The wily Veeck, not wishing to tip his hand, identified the new player in the scorecard as #18.
Veeck had taken care not to magnify his deceit by offering it as a lone piece of derangement certain to offend baseball's power structure. A between games celebration included classic cars circling the field and a band featuring Paige on the drums. Further, Veeck's circus (he once tried to buy Ringling Bros.) included festivities at all the bases including a hand-balancing act at first base, a trampoline exhibition at second and a team of jugglers at third. Even Patkin was there. He pulled a woman out of the grandstand and jitterbugged with her on the pitcher's mound. Gaedel first got into the act when, suited up, he jumped out of a birthday cake. The crowd of 18,000 quickly put him out of mind--but not for long.
As a pinch hitter, Gaedel had to bat for somebody who turned out to be Frank Saucier who had defended his center field position in the top of the first. During the rest of Veeck's life, he felt badly about Saucier's involvement. A minor league phenom labled "can't miss," Saucier was a favorite of Veeck's.
The Browns came to bat with the ballpark announcer intoning: "For the Browns, number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier." The crowd buzzed and confusion reigned. Gaedel began warming up by swinging three toy bats. Chief Umpire Ed Hurley took a look at Gaedel, blanched, then headed toward the Browns bench.
"Hey," he shouted to manager Zach Taylor, "what's going on here?"
Taylor responded bringing to the plate papers that included Gaedel's contract. The active player list was produced proving that there was room to add a player. Cain and his catcher, Bob Swift, huddled at the mound to discuss the imponderables of pitching to a midget. Swift, acknowledging the significance of the moment, dropped to both knees giving his pitcher the best target possible. Meanwhile, Gaedel had abandoned the rehearsed crouch Veeck had come up with and was aping Joe DiMaggio's classic feet spread style. Would he attempt to hit one of Cain's pitches?
Gaedel followed Veeck'sscript and Cain failed to find the strike zone, such as it was, while laughing between attempts to find the tiny strike zone. Gaedel walked on four pitches. The last pitch was at least three feet over his head. Jim Delsing then ran for the midget hitter who patted his replacement on the butt, waved to the crowd, shook hands with the first base coach and took a lot of time crossing the infield to the third base Browns dugout. He loved his considerably less than 15 minutes later confessing he "felt like Babe Ruth." During all of the next season, Delsing wore #18.
Veeck had a lot of fun with league president Will Harridge and others in baseball's hierarchy so offended by his hi-jinks. Leaping upon the phrase "little people," Veeck called for further clarification about minimum heights and what the height of a player should be. References were made to New York Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzutto ("not much over five feet tall") with the inimitable Veeck suggesting Rizzuto was either a large midget or a short major league player. Harridge decreed Gaedel's name would be stricken from all official records, a decision of chagrin for Veeck who had promised Gaedel immortality. Veeck countered by suggesting that if Gaedel hadn't batted, then Bob Cain would not have thrown the pitches and that Swift hadn't caught them. Moving right along, it also meant that Delsing had come in to run for no one, meaning Saucier had been deprived of a time at bat. Veeck's case boiled down to the integrity of the sport's records having been compromised. Records, of course, are the holy grail of baseball.
The Saucier aspect of the midget who pinch hit story is both complex and sad. Born in 1926, he served 38 months in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then began a spectacular minor league career in 1947 hitting .348 at Belleville in the Illinois State League before being promoted the next year to Wichita Falls where he hit an amazing .446, the best in all of baseball. His .343 average during 1950 for the San Antonio Missions in the Texas League won the batting title and he was named Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. At the threshold of success, Saucier was pulled into the Korean War, suffered an injury and attempted to resume his career after Veeck signed him while adding a substantial bonus. That was in July, 1951. He played mostly hurt (severe bursitis) in but 18 games getting one hit in 14 at bats for a .071 batting average. He never returned to the majors and eventually became a successful businessman. A graduate (with degrees in math and physics earned at Westminster College (Fulton, Missouri), he is proud of an athletic field there named after him. The college may be recalled as the site of Sir Winston Churchill's "iron curtain" speech in 1946.
Gaedel gained re-entry into the record books and you could look it up. He earned 100 bucks for having the shortest career in the history of major league baseball. When he died in 1963 of a heart attack following a mugging, Gaedel got a front-page obituary in The New York Times. The honor normally is reserved for statesmen, generals and Nobel Prize winners. The lone baseball person to attend services was Bob Cain, the only major leaguer to pitch to a midget.
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