Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Eddie Gaedel: The Little Guy Who Won't Go Away

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Eddie Gaedel, all three feet and seven inches of him.
  • Eddie Gaedel, all three feet and seven inches of him.

By the time you reach the age of thirteen, you ought to be responsible for what you do. Be that as it may, I went to about 40 home games of the hapless St. Louis Browns in 1951. I never mentioned it to the priest during confession, but maybe I should have.

You could go to your local police station, sign up to become a member of the Browns Knot Hole Club, and get a card for the season that got you in free for all 77 of the games. Scorecards were a dime, and so were peanuts and sodas (except root beer that was fifteen cents). Ice cream and hot dogs were fifteen cents apiece.

The hoity-toity Cardinals shared Sportsman's Park with the Browns (actually, the Browns owned the joint), but members of their knothole club could only get into seven games free. So the kids I knew either rooted for the Browns and cried themselves to sleep, or followed the more fashionable Cardinals and budgeted allowances so they could afford a few more games.

For me, blind loyalty paid off on August 19, 1951. The Browns played a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, and in the first inning of the second game, Bill Veeck, the Browns' ingenious owner, sent Eddie Gaedel, a three-foot-seven, 65-pound midget, to the plate with an eighteen-inch bat in his hand. Top to bottom, Gaedel's strike zone was as short as a Manx cat's tail, and he walked on four pitches. At once, Gaedel became famous and infamous without swinging, and I had witnessed one of the most bizarre sports happenings of all time.

Gaedel (pronounced guh-DELL) never stepped into a major-league batter's box again. Reportedly the victim of a mugging, he died in 1961 at age 36. He's buried in a cemetery in Evergreen Park, Illinois, not far from Brian Piccolo, the cancer-stricken Chicago Bears star whose tragic story inspired the film Brian's Song.

All but one of the principals in that surreal Gaedel tableau -- Veeck; Detroit pitcher Bobby "Sugar" Cain; Cain's catcher, Bob Swift; Jim Delsing, who pinch-ran for Gaedel after he blithely jogged to first base; Ed Hurley, the flabbergasted umpire -- are also with the dust. The only chief participant still breathing is Frank Saucier, the scheduled batter when Gaedel was sent to the plate.

Yet there remains a fascination, even a borderline obsession, with what Bill Veeck wrought. Sixty-four years after Gaedel's lone Major League Baseball at-bat, and 54 years after his death, Gaedel-a-mania has reached a zenith. The little guy is seemingly everywhere, his fifteen minutes of fame stretched to encompass decades.

Consider:

The Eddie Gaedel Society in Spokane, Washington, will hold its fifth annual meeting-cum-celebration on August 19. There are also chapters in Elburn, Illinois; Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland.

Also on August 19, the Baseball Reliquary, an educational organization devoted to the history of the sport, is planning a Gaedel celebration in South Pasadena, California.

A bar in Elburn, near Chicago, is called the Eddie Gaedel Pub and Grill. Closer to home, a mural of Gaedel decorates the Tiny Bar, a newly opened establishment on Locust Street downtown.

Memorabilia is everywhere, if you know where to look. Gaedel's toothpick of a bat sold at auction for more than $44,000. His original uniform, which was loaned to him by Bill DeWitt Jr. when DeWitt was a nine-year-old Browns' batboy (he's now the Cardinals' principal owner) resides in Ballpark Village.

When a library in Pasadena, California, presented a Gaedel exhibit last month, one of the items was Gaedel's jockstrap. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Browns Fan Club, which has 340 members, sells a Gaedel montage for $50. And for $155.99, an online company will sell you a replica of the Gaedel uniform jersey (in another stroke of genius, Veeck put the fraction 1/8 on the midget's back).

Bill McCurdy, a Browns diehard in Houston, has written the words for "The Ballad of Eddie Gaedel," sung to the tune of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." In 2009, Bob Costas hosted a TV special about Gaedel for the Major League Baseball Network, and the Gaedel game is included in Jon Leonoudakis' 2012 documentary, Not Exactly Cooperstown.

Finally, a member of a national club that still plays the old Cadaco Baseball All-Star spinner game created a Gaedel disc that has only one number instead of the usual fourteen: the number nine, for a base on balls. Fittingly, any time you hit the spinner using the Gaedel disc, you get an automatic walk.

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