Friday, August 19, 2011

60 years since Eddie Gaedel took a walk

Eddie Gaedel stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter 60 years ago on Aug. 19, 1951. Detroit catcher Bob Swift kneels to catch the high pitch from Tigers' left-hander Bob (Sugar) Cain. Umpire Ed Hurley squints to locate the batter's strike zone.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Detroit Free Press
August 14, 2001

Eddie Gaedel was a chubby-cheeked vaudevillian who worked burlesque houses in the Midwest. He weighed just 65 pounds and stood no taller than an asterisk.

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 19, 1951, Gaedel stepped to the plate in a game against the Tigers. He drew a base on balls and walked into baseball lore.

"I thought it was a big joke," said George Kell, a future Hall of Famer who played third base for the Tigers that day. "The fans sure got a kick out of it."

St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck had signed the 3-foot-7 Gaedel to a contract the day before. He sent him to the plate at Sportsman's Park wearing a child's baseball uniform with the fraction 1/8 on the back.

One of the most famous moments in baseball history -- and certainly the zaniest -- will be re-enacted this weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Mike Veeck, a baseball consultant known for his own wacky promotions, will portray his father, while his 8-year-old daughter, Rebecca, will take Gaedel's place.

The strangest incident in Tigers history never will be forgotten by Kell, who saw his share of oddities in six decades as a player and broadcaster.

"I'm glad to have been a part of it," said Kell, who will turn 79 on Aug. 23. "We Tigers laughed it off, because we figured we were going to win."

Timing was right for Browns

The sad-sack Browns trailed the New York Yankees by 36 games with a month left in the season. A doubleheader against the Tigers, struggling unsuccessfully to stay at .500, promised to be a box-office dud.

Eddie Gaedel tips his cap.
Veeck was a baseball Barnum. He signed African-American players such as Satchel Paige when other owners refused to do so. Veeck invented the exploding scoreboard. He planted ivy along the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. And, for one day in the summer of 1951, he hired a player not much taller than a bat.

Veeck decided to mark the 50th anniversary of the American League, and coincidentally that of Falstaff Brewery, his club's radio sponsor, between games of the doubleheader.

The promise of a party lured 18,369 fans to Sportsman's Park, the largest Browns home crowd in four seasons. Fans were given a free can of beer, a slice of birthday cake and a box of ice cream. They were also handed salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of miniature beer cans, an inside joke because only a handful of people knew what Veeck's fertile imagination had brewed.

The Tigers won the first game. Then the festivities began. A juggling act was at third base, trampolinists at second base, an acrobat at first base. Paige led a quartet of Browns at home plate, Ol' Satch banging the drums while pitcher Al Widmar plucked at a stand-up bass.

"I spent 60 years in baseball. Never saw anything like it," said Widmar, who recently retired to Tulsa, Okla., after a long service with the Toronto Blue Jays.

While the crowd roared its approval, an actor of Falstaffian girth dressed in an Elizabethan costume wheeled onto the grass a three-tier, seven-foot papier-mache cake.

"Ladies and gentlemen," announcer Bernie Ebert said, "as a special birthday present to manager Zack Taylor, the management is presenting him with a brand-new Brownie."

And out popped Gaedel in his uniform, wearing curly-toed brownie slippers.

Manager Rolfe protested

He pranced a bit before taking a seat in the dugout. He quietly changed into baseball shoes as the second game began.

The Tigers were surprised to see rookie Frank Saucier in centerfield. He had just undergone an operation for bursitis in his shoulder and couldn't throw from the mound to the plate, never mind from the outfield.

The Tigers were retired and Saucier was listed to lead off the home half of the first. But Gaedel popped out of the dugout waving three toy bats. "For the Browns," Ebert announced, "number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier."

Red Rolfe bolted from the Tigers' dugout. The manager objected that the Browns were making a farce of the game. But Taylor showed umpire Ed Hurley a valid player's contract for Gaedel, which Veeck had fortuitously mailed to the league office the day before, when the office was closed.

Hurley examined the paper and signaled for Gaedel to step to the plate.

Veeck was worried that his newest player would get it into his head to swing for glory. He told Gaedel that he had taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy on him and had placed a sniper on the roof to shoot him if he swung.

Tigers starter Bob (Sugar) Cain, a fine left-hander, called catcher Bob Swift to the mound for a conference.

"I didn't know whether to throw the ball underhanded or overhanded to Gaedel," Cain later told writer Danny Peary. "I just wanted to be careful not to hit him. Dizzy Trout told me later that if he'd been the pitcher, he'd have thrown the ball right between his eyes."

Gaedel, batting right-handed, stood deep in the batter's box, taking a wide stance and crouching so low that his strike zone appeared no more than a few inches deep.

Swift wanted to rest flat on his belly for the pitch, but that was too much for umpire Hurley, who ordered Swift to his knees.

At third base, Kell came halfway down the line in case of a bunt.

"I played in real close," Kell said from his hometown of Swifton, Ark. "I would have tried to throw him out. I was not going to make a farce out of it."

Cain's first pitch was a perfect fastball about four feet above the plate. A strike to every major-leaguer but one. Ball one.

The second pitch was just as good. Ball two.

Cain was laughing now. He lobbed one in. Ball three.

Later, he would say he would've given his right arm to throw just one strike. He lobbed another one toward the plate. Ball four.

Gaedel's bat never left his shoulder.

"They were trying to throw strikes," Kell recalled. "Of course, there wasn't any way he could throw strikes to a fellow that small."

Gaedel trotted down to first base, tipping his cap to the fans along the way.

"He did a good job," Widmar said of his temporary teammate. "He didn't swing."

Jim Delsing was sent out as a pinch-runner. Gaedel slapped his replacement hard on the rump, and milked applause as he crossed the infield grass to the dugout behind third base. He opened his arms wide and bowed. The sad-eyed Gaedel was a professional showman, and this was the largest audience he'd ever see.

"For a minute," Gaedel said after the game, "I felt like Babe Ruth."

Despite Veeck's legerdemain, Delsing got only as far as third base and the Tigers won, 6-2.

Delsing, a journeyman outfielder who posted a solid .255 batting average over 10 major league seasons, has spent the past half-century as the answer to a trivia question.

"It doesn't upset me," he said from his home in Chesterfield, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. "Some of the things you accomplished on the ball field are forgotten, but you wouldn't be calling me about my fielding average."

Delsing will be in Cooperstown this weekend for the re-enactment. He will play himself.

No hard feelings

The butt of the prank was Saucier, who became the only player ever to be pinch-hit for by a little person. "This is the only part of the gag I ever felt bad about," Veeck noted in his 1962 memoir, Veeck —As in Wreck.

Saucier, who is 75 and owns a financial services business in Amarillo, Texas, says he has long been incorrectly portrayed as being miffed. He ended his career with only 14 at-bats, but he carries no grudge.

"Three thoughts went through my mind that day," he said. "One, this is more like a carnival or a circus than a professional baseball game. Two, this is the greatest bit of showmanship I've ever seen. Three, this is the easiest money I'll ever make."

American League president Will Harridge, infuriated by a stunt he thought held the game up to ridicule, banned Gaedel from baseball two days later. Harridge also tried to expunge Gaedel's name from the record book, but Veeck successfully argued that if Gaedel was a phantom, so was the walk issued by Cain, the benching of Saucier and the pinch-running by Delsing.

The president's ruling ended Gaedel's playing days, making his career as short as he was.

Gaedel died at age 36 of a heart attack after being mugged in his hometown of Chicago in 1961. Cain attended his funeral.

Cain died four years ago, while batterymate Swift, a fellow Kansan, died in 1966.

Gaedel was paid $100 for his plate appearance. He also earned a small slice of baseball immortality in the record book. He recorded a perfect 1.000 on-base percentage. You could look it up.

Hard to believe 10 years has passed since I wrote about the 50th anniversary of my favourite moment in baseball history. Some of the principals in the drama were already gone and we have lost several more in the decade since. Al Widmar died in 2005; Jim Delsing died in 2006; and, George Kell died in 2009. Frank Saucier, the butt of the stunt, still lives in Amarillo, Texas. He turned 85 in May.

A rare postcard of Eddie Gaedel was placed for auction earlier this year. He was billed as "Little Eddie the Mercury Man." Five years later, he walked into baseball lore.

Versions of this article also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the National Post of Toronto.

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