- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006

“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.”

Bill Veeck,

“Veeck As In Wreck”

Bill Veeck always believed baseball should be fun, but there wasn’t much of it attached to his St. Louis Browns in 1951.

These perennial patsies finished a very dead last with a 52-102 record and attracted just 293,790 spectators to old Sportsman’s Park, not including rats and flies. Three years later, the franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

On the afternoon of Aug. 19, though, the Browns were a hot ticket. Veeck had promised a big surprise that day, and 18,369 paying customers, knowing his zest for zaniness, turned up for a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers to learn what it was.

The first game came and went. Nothing.

Between games, there was a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of both the American League and the Falstaff Brewing Co., the Browns’ radio-TV sponsor. A huge cake was wheeled out to home plate, and a midget in a Browns uniform hopped out. In the stands, people applauded politely, and a few chuckled.

In the Falstaff box, there was stunned silence. A brewery official turned to Veeck and said angrily, “This is what your big surprise is? A little midget jumps out of a cake, and he’s wearing a baseball uniform and he’s a bat boy or something?”

Veeck smiled. “Don’t you understand? He’s a real Brownie.”

And so, momentarily, 3-foot-7, 65-pound Eddie Gaedel was.

The second game began, and in the bottom of the first inning, Gaedel came out of the dugout ceremoniously waving three little bats. Umpire Ed Hurley took one look and headed toward the dugout, “Hey!” he bellowed toward Browns manager Zack Taylor. “What’s going on here?”

Taylor showed the ump Gaedel’s contract, duly processed with a time stamp. Hurley had no choice. He motioned Gaedel toward the plate, pulled his mask over his face and cried, “Play ball!”

In the stands, amazed fans were giggling. On the mound, Tigers pitcher Bob Cain was laughing so hard he could barely look in for the sign — as if one were needed. Behind the plate, catcher Bob Swift got down on both knees and tried to offer Cain a target. At the plate, Gaedel crouched with a grimly determined look on his puckish mug. His strike zone measured 1 inches. On the back of his uniform, borrowed from the 7-year-old son of a club official, was the number 1/8.

Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. Ball four.

“For a minute,” Gaedel would say later in his nasal, Southside Chicago accent, “I felt like Babe Root up there.”

After Cain’s four pitches, none near the tiny strike zone, Gaedel trotted to first base and waved to the crowd. Pinch runner Jim Delsing, the Browns’ regular center fielder, took his place. The next day, the American League passed a rule banning midgets, and Eddie’s baseball career was over. But the grand stunt is still remembered 55 years later, well beyond the deaths of Gaedel in 1961 (of a heart attack at age 36) and Veeck in 1986.

In his justly renowned autobiography, Veeck denied stealing the idea from a short story titled “You Could Look It Up” by James Thurber. Instead, Veeck wrote, he had gotten it from John McGraw, the famed New York Giants manager from 1902 to 1932. When Veeck’s father, William, was president of the Chicago Cubs, McGraw told him that one day he would send the Giants’ hunchback batboy to the plate. It never happened, but the memory stayed with Bill Veeck.

Long before he bought the Browns in 1951, Veeck was known as an uninhibited and highly successful promoter with the minor league Milwaukee Brewers and later the Cleveland Indians. For instance, when the 1948 World Series champion Indians were eliminated from the race in 1949, he staged a mock burial of the pennant at home plate, complete with an undertaker. With the Browns, he once allowed fans to make managerial decisions by holding up printed cards reading “steal,” “walk” “leave him in,” “take him out” and so on. Later, while running the White Sox, he introduced the scoreboard erupting with fireworks when a Chicago player hit a home run.

Veeck obtained Gaedel from a circus booking agent and swore the agent to secrecy. Only five people knew of the impending gag: Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances; manager Taylor; and Browns executives Rudy Schaffer, Bob Fishel and Bill Durney. In their first meeting, super salesman Veeck told Gaedel, “You’ll be famous, Eddie — you’ll be immortal.”

Veeck asked the midget how much he knew about baseball. “Well, Gaedel replied, “I know you’re supposed to hit the white ball with the bat and then you run somewhere.”

Then Veeck remembered that in Thurber’s short story, the fictitious midget hit the 3-0 pitch and was thrown out at first base because it took him an hour and a half to run down the baseline.

“Eddie,” Veeck told him. “I’m going to be up on the roof with a high-powered rifle. If you so much as look as if you’re going to swing, I’m going to shoot you dead.”

When the big day arrived, Gaedel got a bad case of stage fright and refused to get into the big, hollow cake. So Durney, the Browns’ traveling secretary, got tough with him, saying, “Eddie, there are 18,000 people in the park, and there’s one I know I can lick. Dead or alive, you’re going in there.”

And so baseball history was made. And true to Bill Veeck’s word, little Eddie Gaedel did indeed become sort of immortal.

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