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Veeck's Biggest Stunt : Eddie Gaedel, All 3-feet-7 of Him, Was a Major Leaguer 40 Years Ago Today

August 19, 1991|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty years ago today, Eddie Gaedel broke into the big leagues.

And if he were alive, a boisterous, fun-loving man named Bill Veeck would still be laughing today at the sight--a 3-foot-7 midget, in a trim-fitting St. Louis Browns uniform with " 1/8" on the back, striding resolutely, 17-inch bat in hand, to home plate.

It remains baseball's Hall of Fame practical joke, and just may be the sport's single funniest moment. And it had to be Veeck who pulled it off. Veeck owned the Browns at the time, and like everyone else who had anything to do with the Browns, he needed a laugh.

Years later, in retelling the tale countless times, Veeck told friends he had long wanted to suit up a midget and send him up to bat in a major league game. In 1951, he did it. That year, the Browns were awful--on their way to finishing 46 games out of first place.

Yes, 1951 was perfect.

Secretly that season, Veeck hired a Chicago theatrical agent and told him to find "the handsomest, best-looking, best-dressed midget in America."

Several tiny men were brought to St. Louis for interviews with Veeck, but all were rejected for being, in Veeck's eyes, too tall, not handsome enough or not being color-coordinated.

Then one day, Eddie Gaedel stepped into his office . . . and into baseball history.

Edward Carl Gaedel was 43 inches tall, dressed like a fashion model and evoked a feisty, bold air. He lived with his mother, Helene Gaedel, in Chicago, where he was a specialist welder at an aircraft assembly plant. He was assigned to crawl into tight places where normal-size people couldn't go.

Veeck explained his plan. For $100, he wanted Gaedel to suit up in a Brown uniform, go up to bat in a game to be named later, draw a walk and come out of the game for a pinch-runner. It was to be a secret--Gaedel was to tell no one.

Veeck selected Sunday afternoon, Aug. 19, 1951. He didn't want to risk having his practical joke affect the major league standings. His Browns, he figured, were going nowhere. Nor were the Detroit Tigers, 19 games out of first place.

Between games of a doubleheader that day, the Browns were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American League, and Veeck had a role for Gaedel for that, too.

Arriving in St. Louis the night before the doubleheader, the little rookie, 26, met with Veeck. Everything was spelled out.

"I was a marksman in the Marine Corps in the war, Eddie," Veeck said. "I'm going to be up in the press Box with a high-powered rifle. If you even look like you're going to swing at a pitch, so help me God I'll shoot you right between the eyes."

Next, Brown Manager Zack Taylor coached Gaedel into making the smallest strike zone in baseball history. He instructed Gaedel to spread his legs far apart, like Joe DiMaggio, and to bend over, into a crouch. The result was a strike zone about the height of a flashlight battery.

Gaedel was issued a uniform, loaned by Bill DeWitt, Jr., whose father had sold the team to Veeck. The elder DeWitt had had a uniform made for his son when he was 9 years old. Veeck had the "6" (the number of Bobby Dillinger, young DeWitt's favorite player) taken off and replaced with " 1/8".

Gaedel was also issued a 17-inch, 23-ounce bat . . . but warned repeatedly not to swing it.

On the day Gaedel became a big leaguer, the paid crowd at Sportsman's Park was 18,369. It was the Browns' biggest turnout in four years.

After the first game of the doubleheader, Veeck's 50th birthday party for the American League began. Max Patkin did his clown routine, a four-piece band of Brown player/musicians (including Satchel Paige) performed, and there were hand-balancers, trampoline acts, a juggler, aerial bombs and a parade of old cars around the field.

Then a 7-foot, papier-mache birthday cake was wheeled into the infield . . . and out popped Eddie Gaedel, in uniform, waving to the crowd as he trotted off the field.

The crowd cheered. But of course it hadn't seen anything yet, because Gaedel was on his way to the bat rack.

In the Browns' clubhouse, meanwhile, Veeck's very nervous public relations man, Bob Fishel, was pacing. He was one of a handful of people who knew what was about to happen.

"Other than Don Larsen's perfect game (in the 1956 World Series, when Fishel worked for the New York Yankees), it was the most nervous I've ever been at a ballpark," Fishel told Newsday writer Joe Gergen in 1988, the year Fishel died.

And there was plenty to be nervous about. What would happen if Gaedel became excited and started swinging at pitches? And what about Bob Cain, the Tiger pitcher--what if he became angry and hit Gaedel with a fastball? What if the umpire, Ed Hurley, refused to let Gaedel bat?

So, a half-dozen men were sweaty-palmed when the Browns batted in their half of the first inning of the second game.

Public address announcer Bernie Ebert: \o7 "Your attention, please. . . . For the Browns, batting for Frank Saucier, Number one-eighth, Eddie . . . Gaedel."

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