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

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Dr. Charles Brondos, a retired neurologist who grew up in West Frankfort, Illinois, attended the game with his parents and brother even though he had undergone surgery for polio in an East St. Louis hospital only a month before. Brondos' father had written the Browns' owner, and as Veeck's guests, Brondos and his family had choice seats, downstairs in Section P, Row 6.

Some of the questions I asked Brondos about the Gaedel game went unanswered. Brazenly, rudely, I chided the good doctor.

"I was only nine," he finally said, good-naturedly. "If I knew then that you were going to call me 64 years later, I would have paid more attention."

Brondos now lives in Spokane, Washington. It wasn't until last year that he discovered the Eddie Gaedel Society, which was founded at Spokane's O'Doherty's Irish Grille and Pub in 2011.

The fact that the Eddie Gaedel Society is based in Washington is pure coincidence. The group is the brainchild of 67-year-old Tom Keefe, a one-time trial lawyer and county chairman for the local Democratic party. Keefe read Veeck's autobiography, Veeck -- As in Wreck, when his father gave him the book for his fourteenth birthday.

Years later, in 2011, he and a few friends were playing a noontime baseball trivia game at O'Doherty's bar. After Keefe asked a question about Gaedel, somebody blurted, "Who the hell is Eddie Gaedel?"

Keefe had a eureka moment. He decided to answer the question by organizing the Gaedel Society.

The society currently has more than 100 members, including a few luminaries from outside Spokane -- among them Mike Veeck (son of Bill) and Bill DeWitt. Since then it has become popular enough that its founder has granted chapter charters in other cities.

Appropriately, tiny Elburn, Illinois, joined the fray because Gaedel played in an exhibition game there three weeks after he pinch-hit for the Browns.

"The society was a chance to merge my love of baseball with my advocacy for the underdog and the little guy," Keefe says. "I'm helping Gaedel achieve the immortality he was promised by Veeck. He showed a lot of courage that day. Without wearing a helmet, he went up there against a pitcher who was six feet tall, in front of a big crowd, and let him throw four pitches at him. Look at that photo of Eddie batting. Check that stance! That look in his eyes! I rest my case."

Atop the bar at O'Doherty's is a fifteen-inch copper-and-brass statuette, featuring Gaedel in his diabolical home-plate crouch. (It was made by Paula Turnbull, a 92-year-old nun who lives in Spokane.) And on August 19, the bar will unveil Take Four, Eddie!, a 30-by-60-foot acrylic mural that Keefe commissioned from Jennifer Ettinger, an artist in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In Elburn, the Gaedel Pub opened in 2013. Richard Theobald and his wife, Annette, co-own the place.

"[Richard] was making breakfast for us, flipping pancakes, when the name came to him," Annette says. "He had remembered Eddie Gaedel. We wanted something that was sports-related, but meant small, since we have room for only 42 people. We wanted something that wouldn't discourage women from coming, but would also appeal to the true sports fan. Eddie Gaedel, with his Elburn connection, was a perfect fit."

On September 5, 1951, shortly after he batted in St. Louis, Gaedel came to Sycamore, Illinois, one of Elburn's neighboring towns, for an appearance fee. Two amateur teams were playing. Playing for the Sycamore Sons, a team that was formed in 1925, Gaedel struck out in his only time at bat. Unlike when he faced Sugar Cain of the Detroit Tigers, this time rival pitcher Gene Davis had managed to pitch with a low arc.

Gaedel disagreed with two of the three called strikes.

"You're nuts," he said to the umpire after strike one. After the third strike, he said, "You're the worst umpire I ever want to see."

Morrie McPherson was a ten-year-old batboy at the game.

"I think the byplay with the umpire was part of an act," McPherson said. "I think [Gaedel] just wanted to get it done and get out of there. He acted like he was happy it was over with."

McPherson, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, still has the autograph that Gaedel gave him in the dugout. He began collecting autographs when he was eight, and says that his collection has reached 15,000. "I hardly ever sell any," he says. "I'm just a collector."

Two days after batting in Sycamore, Gaedel was supposed to be the grand marshal for the Elburn Days parade, the kickoff for the town's annual festival, but he arrived too late to participate. Afterward, there was a game between two teams of teenaged players, sponsored by the American Legion. Gaedel didn't play in the field -- there's no record that he ever owned a glove -- but he was allowed to bat three times. He notched two strikeouts and a walk. He never scored, though: Kenny Johnson, the opposing pitcher, picked Gaedel off first base after he took too long of a lead.

After Veeck sold the near-bankrupt Browns to Baltimore interests after the 1953 season, he ran the Chicago White Sox. He used Gaedel for a few promotions in the midget's hometown. Gaedel also appeared on Ed Sullivan's and Bing Crosby's TV shows, did some commercial work for Buster Brown shoes, worked for the Ringling Bros. circus and appeared in rodeos. But he never batted in another professional game and was a hard-drinking, embittered figure in the final years of his short life.

He was living with his widowed mother when he was found dead in his bed, possibly from a street beating.

"It got to be," Veeck later said in an interview, "that the only time Eddie was happy was when he was bombed. When he got a few drinks in him, he thought he was six-foot-nine." News accounts of Gaedel's death, in Chicago on June 18, 1961, were sketchy, a reflection of a cursory police investigation which produced few details. The coroner said that he died after suffering a heart attack. Paul Dickson, who published a biography of Veeck, wrote that Gaedel had lost $11 in the yoking.

Bill McCurdy, the songwriter in Houston, wrote about Gaedel's death almost a half-century later on his personal website, the Pecan Park Eagle. "Someone got away with murder," McCurdy concluded.

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