Bill Veeck and Eddie Gaedel
This painting of Eddie Gaedel squatting in the batter’s box, by artist Andy Jurinko and recently posted at Baseball Art reminded me of Bill Veeck, the mastermind of this infamous baseball moment and his wonderful autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck . Veeck’s take on the game of baseball, his disdain for the stuffed shirts that ran the game, and the back story surrounding the publicity stunt make for a wild ride.
The Story — Gaedel gained immortality in the second game of a St. Louis Browns doubleheader on Sunday, August 19, 1951. Weighing 65 pounds, and standing 3 feet 7 inches tall, he became the shortest player in the history of the major leagues. He made a single plate appearance and was walked with four consecutive balls before being replaced by a pinch-runner at first base. His jersey, bearing the uniform number “⅛”, is displayed in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Gaedel was wheeled up to the plate in a giant cake, out of which he stepped before taking his crouched stance in the batter’s box. Veeck realized that Gaedel, relishing his role may want to swing. He threatened to kill him. Gaedel didn’t swing and walked on four straight balls. When he stepped on first a pinch runner was brought in and Gaedel’s career was over. He earned $100. As a promotion, St. Louis’ own Falstaff Brewery distributed midget bottles of beer at the stadium.
Believing that Veeck was making a mockery of the game the League was furious. Rules were changed. The League president would have to approve all contracts before players stepped on the field, for Veeck wired in Gaedel’s contract Saturday night for a Sunday game, hoping that it would be received Monday, and gave strict instructions to his secretary: do not answer the phone. Veeck was mock outraged by the de facto discrimination of little people everywhere: “Why? We’re paying a lot of guys on the Browns’ roster good money to get on base and even though they don’t do it, nobody sympathizes with us. But when a little guy goes up to the plate and draws a walk on his only time at bat, they call it ‘conduct detrimental to baseball.’”And, finally, taking aim at the hated Yankees, Veeck made references to the stature of Phil Rizzuto: he wanted an official ruling on whether he was a short ballplayer or a tall midget.
The Book – Co-written in 1961 with Ed Linn, Veeck has been hailed as one of the best and most entertaining autobiographies on baseball. The opening words of the book position the reader for what is to come:
In 1951, in a moment of madness, I became owner and operator of a collection of old rags and tags known to baseball historians as the St. Louis Browns.
Readers have given the book high praise as well (Amazon 4.76 starts, GoodReads 4.35 stars)
In his own words, Bill Veeck describes the Gaedel publicity stunt.
Eddie came to us in a moment of desperation. Not his desperation, ours. After a month or so in St. Louis, we were looking around desperately for a way to draw a few people into the ball park, it being perfectly clear by that time that the ball club wasn’t going to do it unaided. The best bet seemed to be to call upon the resources of our radio sponsors, Falstaff Brewery. For although Falstaff only broadcast our games locally, they had distributors and dealers all over the state.
It happened that 1951 was the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American League, an event the league was exploiting with its usual burst of inspiration by sewing special emblems on the uniforms of all the players. It seemed to me that a birthday party was clearly called for. It seemed to me, further, that if I could throw a party to celebrate the birthdays of both the American League and Falstaff Brewery, the sponsors would be getting a nice little tie-in and we would have their distributors and dealers hustling tickets for us all over the state. Nobody at Falstaff’s seemed to know exactly when their birthday was, but that was no great problem. If we couldn’t prove it fell on the day we chose, neither could anyone prove that it didn’t. The day we chose was a Sunday doubleheader against the last-place Detroit Tigers, a struggle which did not threaten to set the pulses of the city beating madly. Rudie Schaffer, the Browns’ business manager, and I met with the Falstaff people—Mr. Griesedieck Sr., the head of the company, Bud and Joe Griesedieck and their various department heads—to romance our project. “In addition to the regular party, the acts and so on,” I told Bud, “I’ll do something for you that I have never done before. Something so original and spectacular that it will get you national publicity.”
Naturally, they pressed me for details. Naturally, I had to tell them that much as I hated to hold out on them, my idea was so explosive I could not afford to take the slightest chance of a leak.
The Falstaff people, romantics all, went for it. They were so anxious to find out what I was going to do that they could hardly bear to wait out the two weeks. I was rather anxious to find out what I was going to do, too. The real reason I had not been willing to let them in on my top-secret plan was that I didn’t have any plan.
What can I do, I asked myself, that is so spectacular that no one will be able to say he had seen it before? The answer was perfectly obvious. I would send a midget up to bat.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 11-23 of Veeck—As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1962 by Mary Frances Veeck and Edward Linn. All rights reserved
Gaedel’s Legacy — Gaedel’s major league career lasted just the one plate appearance, but Veeck continued to employ Gaedel in non-playing promotions over the years: in 1959, Gaedel and three other dwarves dressed as spacemen were seen presenting “ray guns” to White Sox players Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio at Comiskey Park. (Gaedel reportedly said, “I don’t want to be taken to your leader. I’ve already met him.”) In 1961, Veeck hired several dwarves and midgets, including Gaedel, as vendors, so as not to “block the fans’ view” of the game.
Combative in his private life, he later became a heavy drinker and died of a heart attack after being mugged in Chicago in 1961. The only baseball figure to attend the funeral was Bob Cain, the pitcher who had walked him. Said Cain: “I never even met him, but I felt obligated to go.”
Gaedel is one of only five major-league players who drew a walk in their only plate appearance and never played the field. The first three all played in the 1910s: Dutch Schirick (September 17, 1914 with the Browns), Bill Batsch (September 9, 1916 with Pittsburgh) and Joe Cobb (April 25, 1918 with Detroit; Cobb was born Joseph Serafin and was unrelated to Tigers’ star Ty Cobb.) On June 24, 2007, Kevin Melillo of the Milwaukee Brewers, then with the Oakland Athletics, became the first player in over half a century to do so, against the New York Mets. Melillo is still active in the minor leagues and thus has a chance to get a major league at-bat.
Gaedel’s one-day career has been the subject of programs on ESPN and the Baseball Network. He was mentioned by name in the lyrics of Terry Cashman’s homage to 1950’s baseball, “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey, and the Duke)”. His at-bat was the #1 choice on a 1999 list of “Unusual and Unforgettable Moments” in baseball history published by the Sporting News.
Due to scarcity, Gaedel’s autograph now sells for more than Babe Ruth’s. In his autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck,” Bill Veeck commemorated Gaedel as “the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball.”
Gaedel’s great-nephew Kyle Gaedele is also a ballplayer, drafted in the 32nd round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 right out of high school. The 6-foot-4 Gaedele chose instead to attend Valparaiso University and will play for the Madison Mallards of the summer collegiate Northwoods League in 2010. (see video below)
- Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Gaedel)
- ESPN (http://espn.go.com/classic/veeckbill000816.html)
- University of Chicago (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/852180.html)
- Trivia Library http://www.trivia-library.com/a/little-person-baseball-player-eddie-gaedel-part-3.htm)