WHO IN THE HELL WAS EDDIE GAEDEL?
The question hung like a lazy pop fly to the infield over the bar at O’Doherty’s Irish Grille and Pub on Spokane Falls Boulevard, where a team of regulars were spending an early afternoon in May discussing baseball history and the new season, between bites of their corned beef sandwiches and sips from chosen draft beers. In the middle innings of a give and take over various tidbits of quaint and curious factoids and forgotten baseball lore, one regular, threw a curve and asked, “Who was the player who had a perfect on-base percentage for his entire major league career, and his autograph is now worth more than Babe Ruth’s?”
A series of wild guesses and strike-outs eventually tapped the memory banks of the entire baffled multitude, and the revelation of the name “Eddie Gaedel” provoked the pointed inquiry listed above. Thus, on a crisp May afternoon in 2011, in Spokane, WA, was planted the idea of the noble campaign to rescue from the dustbin of history the name and legend of baseball’s first designated walker. On the sixtieth anniversary of his walk to first base and into the record books and immortality, the Eddie Gaedel Society, Spokane Chapter #1 was born!
Eddie Gaedel himself was born in Chicago on June 8, 1925 and died there on June 18, 1961 after being mugged on his way home. His final resting place is the St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum in Cook County, IL. Between the bookends that mark his short life, there is a much bigger story. During World War II, Eddie worked as a riveter, crawling into plane engines, wings and other locales where bigger people couldn’t fit. He worked for the Buster Brown Shoe Company, Mercury Records, and Barnum & Bailey. At 3’7” and weighing 65 lbs., Eddie Gaedel had to take work where he could find it. Thanks to America’s national pastime, and one of its most brilliant team owners, there would come a day when Eddie’s size – or lack thereof – would work to his advantage and earn him a place in baseball’s sacred record books.
On Sunday, August 19, 1951, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the American League took place at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, featuring a double-header matching a home team described by owner, Bill Veeck, as “a collection of old rags and tags known to baseball historians as the St. Louis Browns” and a hapless, last place visiting team, the Detroit Tigers. The promise of free Falstaff beer, cake and ice cream drew 18,369 hungry, thirsty and curious fans through the turnstiles – the largest Browns home crowd in four years. But more than just a party and a day of mediocre baseball awaited the faithful: baseball history was about to be made!
In a display of festivities between the first and second game, the Browns home band featured baseball great, pitcher Satchel Paige on the drums, mesmerizing the crowd with his musical talent, after which a diminutive figure in a Browns uniform jumped out of a seven foot birthday cake, to the delight of one and all, waved to the crowd, and disappeared into the Browns dugout. “Who in the hell was that little fellow?” fans asked. “I think it’s the batboy,” suggested one.
As the Browns returned to their dugout for the bottom of the first inning of that historic second game these words echoed forth in Sportsman’s Park: “For the Browns,” said Bernie Ebert over the loudspeaker system, “number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel batting for Saucier.”
Days earlier, in the quiet inner sanctum of team owner Bill Veeck’s office Eddie Gaedel listened in awe to an opportunity that every boy who ever donned a baseball uniform or took a swing at a pitch dreamed about: a chance to play in the big leagues! Veeck later recalled promising, “You’ll be appearing before thousands of people. Your name will go into the record books for all time. You’ll be famous, Eddie,” I said. I said “Eddie, you’ll be immortal.”
As Eddie strode to the plate, a brief haggle occurred between Browns manager Zack Taylor and home plate umpire Ed Hurley. A valid American League contract was shown, Hurley studied it, shrugged, and ruled the game proceeds. Tiger’s catcher Bob Swift sized up Eddie and advised pitcher Bob “Sugar” Cain, “Keep it low.” No such luck. Four pitches later, little Eddie took his walk to first base and into baseball history. The sport’s first designated walker was quickly replaced by a pinch runner, Jim Desling. Eddie patted Desling on the butt, wished him luck, and trotted back across the field.
Leaving his field of dreams, Eddie stopped several times to doff his cap to the cheering crowd before disappearing back into the dugout. Despite Veeck’s long-term goal of later sending Eddie up to the plate in a game with runners on all bases, Eddie’s short career came to its end that very day. The following Monday, league president Will Harridge voided Eddie’s contract, even though Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler was said to have found the entire matter amusing.
Harridge decreed that Eddie’s appearance at bat be stricken from the record books provoking a spirited response from Veeck, who was determined to make good on his promise of baseball immortality for Eddie Gaedel. Veeck argued that if Eddie Gaedel had not batted, then Bob Cain had not thrown four pitches that Bob Swift had not caught, Jim Desling had come in to run for no one, and Frank Saucier had been deprived of a time at bat. In short, the sacred fifty-year continuity of American League baseball records, and their integrity, would be compromised forever. The Baseballs Gods would not be pleased! Veeck’s argument prevailed and Eddie’s place in baseball history was preserved for eternity!
Eddie’s final appearance on a major league field came in 1959, when Veeck, then owner of the Chicago White Sox, had Eddie and three other little people, dressed as Martians, airlifted onto the Comisky Park infield in a helicopter to arrest Sox infielders Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio and make them honorary Martians. Thinking of his friend Bill Veeck, Eddie famously proclaimed, “I don’t want to be taken to your leader. I’ve already met him.”
News of Eddie Gaedel’s death on June 18, 1961 earned a front-page obituary in the New York Times. The only figure associated with the game of baseball to attend his funeral was retired Detroit Tiger pitcher Bob Cain. With his own baseball legacy forever associated with the four pitches he threw to Eddie Gaedel, Cain said, “I never even met him but I felt obliged to go. It kind of threw me for a loop that no other baseball people were there.” Eddie Gaedel’s trip to the plate was the No. 1 choice on the 1999 list of “Unusual and Unforgettable Moments” in baseball history published by the Sporting News. Eddie Gaedel’s St. Louis Browns jersey numbered 1/8 is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.