Sorry, Mr. Gaedel, but Baltimore had first pinch-hitting midget

John Steadman

October 24, 1990|By John Steadman

PERMITTING A midget to pinch hit almost defies imagination, except it happened -- not once but twice. A baseball historian writes, in a belated yet intriguing revelation, that Baltimore was the "stage" for this precedent-setting interlude almost a century ago.

Eddie Gaedel, wearing No. 1/8 on his back, went to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. The midget walked on four pitches and, soon thereafter, American League president Will Harridge, obviously prejudiced against little people, ruled him ineligible.

But the scenario of a midget going to bat in professional competition initially unfolded when the Baltimore Orioles played the Buffalo Bison on Sept. 18, 1905 -- 46 years before Browns owner Bill Veeck introduced Gaedel against the Detroit Tigers.

The midget involved in the Baltimore unveiling was Jerry D. Sullivan, who was inserted in the Buffalo lineup by manager George Stallings, later the leader of the 1914 miracle Boston Braves. Stallings' Buffalo club had a poor season and was eliminated early from the pennant race in the then Eastern League (forerunner to the International League). Meanwhile, a show, "Simple Simon Simple," was opening here at the Academy of Music. It had Sullivan, a midget, co-starring in the role of Mose. The Buffalo team was staying in the same Baltimore hotel as the cast, and it was there, presumably, that Stallings met Sullivan and invited him to serve as an honorary mascot. But it evolved into much more.

Sullivan took pre-game practice and was in the coaching box for two innings. With the Bison behind 10-2 in the ninth inning, Sullivan then batted for pitcher Stan Yerkes, who had been battered for 17 hits by the Orioles.

Buffalo's Frank McManus singled. Then came the grand entrance of the midget before an audience of 1,853 astounded spectators. Orioles manager Hughey Jennings didn't complain and, obviously, enjoyed the caper.

Here's the way The Sun described the hilarity of the occasion: "The umpire with due gravity announced 'Sullivan would bat for Yerkes.' Pitcher Fred Burchell looked at the little man, poised and tried to get one over the plate and yet not low enough to be called a ball. The first one went fully 2 feet above the plate and was promptly called a ball.

"The next one was going about 6 inches above the plate and the mighty little Sullivan's bat met it and it sailed safely over [third baseman] Charley Loudenslager's head and Sullivan reached first safely."

Pick-off attempts were made by pitcher Burchell and catcher Bill Byers but, as The Sun reported, first baseman Tim Jordan, taking the throws, "couldn't find him."

Sullivan eventually made his way around the bases and scored -- only to return to his acting career. The Sun also pointed out that Sullivan finished with a record of 1-for-1 and thereby led the "entire Eastern League with a batting and fielding average of 1.000."

How the long-lost account of midget Sullivan was brought back into focus must be credited to the alertness and diligence of Joe Overfield, who lives in Tonawanda, N.Y. He said he got his first clue while reading a scrapbook given to him by the son of Bob Stedler, a former Buffalo sports editor.

"There was a story from a long defunct newspaper, the Buffalo Enquirer, that mentioned [Sullivan]," he explained. "It was something I never read or heard about. I asked my friend, Bob Davids, founder of the Society of American Baseball Research, to help with verification of the facts and he located it in the Sunpapers' library of microfilm."

This provided all the substantiation needed. The fun-filled theme of a midget playing professional baseball was fictionalized in a 1941 work by author James Thurber and then repeated, in actuality, 10 years later when the Browns signed the 43-inch Gaedel.

After the frivolity of the midget, the end of the 1905 season became a disappointment for the Orioles. They lost the pennant on the final day, when they weren't scheduled while the Providence Clam Diggers, then managed by Jack Dunn, played and won.

Final standings: Providence 83-47; Baltimore 82-47, a difference of two percentage points. The midget Sullivan was a short story, certainly not a tall tale, that became a hilarious highlight, or lowlight, in the stimulating adventure that is Baltimore baseball.

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