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Eddie Gaedel and his champion

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His fellow owners did not like Veeck'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.

Dick
Flavin

67 years ago, on Aug. 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 65 pounds.

Eddie Gaedel was a dwarf.

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, dwarf or not, disrupt the game. But Bill Veeck, the Browns' flamboyant owner and promoter extraordinaire, 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 Veeck, 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 Veeck, 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 dwarf 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 Veeck'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 Veeck was a zealous gun control advocate). Be that as it may, he never took that toy bat off his shoulder.

The idea of a dwarf being sent up to bat might have been born in James Thurber's fertile imagination but it was Bill Veeck 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 Veeck'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 baseball game.

His fellow owners did not like Veeck'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 dwarf. 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 badly beaten up. He somehow made it home, severely bruised, but shortly later died of a heart attack brought on by the beating.

Veeck 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 1951.

Bill Veeck 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.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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