Gaedel made a big mark in his own small way Veeck's tallest tale is a walk in the park

August 18, 1991|By Don Markus

The photograph is one of baseball's Rockwells, its characters etched into memory: the umpire, Ed Hurley, squatting to get a better look at a very small strike zone. Detroit Tigers catcher Bob Swift, on his knees behind home plate, perhaps a smile cracking through his mask. And Eddie Gaedel, crouching at bat for the St. Louis Browns, his serious expression belying perhaps the most hysterical moment in major-league history.

It happened 40 years ago tomorrow.

"It transcended baseball. Even people who didn't know anything about the game heard about it," Mary-Frances Veeck, the widow of Bill Veeck, who owned the Browns at the time, said last week from her home in Chicago. "Bill was cremated when he died [in 1986], but he once told me, 'If I had a tombstone, it would probably say, "He sent a midget up to bat." ' "

Though then-American League president Will Harridge tried unsuccessfully to erase the appearance of the 3-foot-7, 65-pound Gaedel from the record books -- it did not show up in the 1951 statistics, but was reinstated shortly thereafter -- you can look it up. In "The Baseball Encyclopedia," Gaedel is listed right above Gary Gaetti.

It happened in the second game of an Aug. 19 doubleheader between the last-place Browns and fifth-place Tigers at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. After popping out of a cake between games, Gaedel led off the home first. He pinch hit for Frank Saucier, lugging three miniature bats over his shoulder as he emerged from the dugout. He was walked on four pitches by Bob Cain, who threw the last two underhand.

The cameo by Gaedel, a 26-year-old circus performer who told people that he was a Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz," became part of the game's lore, as well as Veeck's legacy. When the iconoclastic owner of three major-league teams was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month, Gaedel's pint-sized uniform became part of the exhibit.

"Of all the things my father did, he will probably be remembered by most people for Eddie Gaedel," said Veeck's son, Mike, president of the Miami Miracle, a Class A team with no major-league affiliation.

While the younger Veeck was an infant at the time and only has heard about this much-celebrated event, those who were there recall it with obvious glee. It was one of several promotions, gimmicks and brainstorms for which the elder Veeck became famous during a 50-year baseball career that included stints as owner of the Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox twice.

Mrs. Veeck said that Gaedel's appearance was part of a promotion for the Falstaff Brewing Co., sponsor of the Browns' radio broadcasts. At a meeting two weeks before with Falstaff officials, Veeck was suffering from laryngitis and Mary-Frances spoke up for husband. She told the Falstaff people that they had a number of giveaways and acts planned to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary.

"We told them we were going to hand out miniature orchids to all the women and some acrobats and about having a cake, and all these sponsors were kind of yawning," recalled Mrs. Veeck. "We had to throw [in] everything but the kitchen sink. So I told them that we were going to do something special, but we couldn't tell them what. At the time, we didn't have anything planned. I knew we'd come up with something. As soon as Bill told us about the midget, we just about fell on the floor."

Mrs. Veeck said that her husband, who had bought the Browns two months earlier, got the idea from a conversation he recalled having years before with his father, Bill Sr., about the legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw. The senior Veeck had owned the Chicago Cubs when they won three pennants between 1917 and 1933.

"Over dinner one night, they were talking about strike zones, and his father told him that McGraw once said, 'I'd like to have a midget and let them find the strike zone,' " Mrs. Veeck said.

Veeck found Gaedel through Marty Caine, a talent agent Veeck knew in Cleveland. He brought Gaedel from Chicago to St. Louis a few days before the game and told a select few about his plans, which included Gaedel's popping out of a papier-mache cake between games of the doubleheader and then coming up to bat. He signed Gaedel to a standard player's contract, but postponed sending in the paperwork.

When he saw Gaedel practicing his swing in the hotel one day, Veeck warned him.

"I'm going to have a sniper in the stands, and, if you swing, he's going to shoot you," Veeck said.

Bill DeWitt Jr., whose father had sold the team to Veeck, recalls that Gaedel's name and uniform number -- 1/8 -- were listed in the program for several days before his appearance. "Nobody ever picked up on it," said DeWitt, who was 9 years old and gave Gaedel one of the uniforms he had received during his father's tenure as owner of the hapless Browns. "One of Bill Veeck's theories was that he didn't announce promotions, because he wanted fans to come and see what happens."

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