There Once was a Little Person Who Played in Major League Baseball
Today I found out there once was a little person who played in Major League Baseball.
This man was 26 year old, 3 feet, 7 inch tall Eddie Gaedel. Gaedel was signed by Bill Veeck to a Major League contract of $15,400 ($100 per game), which was the set minimum one could pay a little person performance act, per event. Gaedel was an evenly proportioned dwarf (the term for such a person at the time was “midget”, with dwarfs who were disproportionate in some way being called just dwarfs).
When Veeck began scheming ideas to bolster attendance for his newly acquired, struggling team, the St. Louis Browns, he specifically requested a midget as it was more socially acceptable in that era where dwarfs were unfortunately often relegated only to the “back stage” or freak shows. Further, Veeck felt a midget would look more athletic in the uniform over other dwarfs.
After reviewing several candidates, he settled on Eddie Gaedel, who already was something of a showman, appearing in circuses, rodeos, and the like, and was a member of the American Guild of Variety Artists. He also held more common jobs like being an errand boy for a newspaper and during WWII he worked as a riveter. His small size particularly suited him for this job as he was able to crawl into places on the planes that most workers couldn’t fit into.
Veeck anticipated that Major League Baseball would be against this signing, so submitted the contract for review late on a Friday, which would result in it getting approved without anyone looking at it too thoroughly.
On Sunday August 19, 1951 before the second game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers, Veeck had Eddie Gaedel pop out of a papier-mâché cake and announce to the crowd of 18,369 that he was the newest member of the St. Louis Browns. Initially people thought Gaedel being a member of the team was a joke and that he would not actually be playing.
When he stepped up to the plate to lead off in the second game of the double header that day, to pinch hit for Frank Saucier, at first the umpire, Eddie Hurley, wasn’t going to allow him to bat. However, Veeck showed the umpire Gaedel’s signed contract and the official roster for the team and he was allowed to lead off.
Veeck had given Gaedel specific orders that he was not to swing. Further, he was to crouch low in his batting stance to minimize the size of the strike zone (in this crouch, the strike zone was estimated to be just a few inches). Gaedel did not do the practiced crouch in the actual game. Rather, he stood up a bit more, so the zone was a little larger than it would have been, but still quite small.
Veeck’s plan worked and Gaedel managed an easy walk. With the first two pitches, the opposing pitcher, Bob Cain, did try to throw a strike, but finding this too difficult, he just lobbed the ball for the next two pitches. Gaedel then took his base, stopping to take a bow twice on his way, and was lifted for a pinch runner, Jim Delsing. As he walked off the field, Gaedel was given a boisterous standing ovation.
Two days later, American League President Will Harridge voided Gaedel’s contract and he was out of a job. Further, Harridge officially banned midgets from being able to play in the American League and removed Gaedel’s walk from the official records (it was put back in a year later). After this was announced, Gaedel complained in the media that Harridge had just robbed him of what would have been a lucrative baseball career.
Veeck responded to the banning of midgets from the American League with, “Fine. Let’s establish what a midget is in fact. Is it 3 feet 6 inches? Eddie’s height? Is it 4 feet 6 inches? If it’s 5 feet 6 inches, that’s great. We can get rid of [MVP] Rizzuto.” Veeck even threatened to request MLB officially rule on whether Phil Rizzuto qualified as a midget or not. (Future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto was officially listed at 5 ft, 6 inches, but that’s “baseball inches” which aren’t always too accurate, especially with shorter players whose height numbers tend to get padded.)
Despite the public show, Gaedel hadn’t expected to get to serve out the whole contract and he even waved his normal right to 30 days of severance pay, which would have been about $3000 ($25,000 today). This had always been more of just a one day gig for Gaedel. However, had Major League Baseball by some miracle approved the contract, Veeck had planned to have Gaedel used regularly in such situations as when the bases were loaded and a walk would force in a run.
Gaedel ultimately did get a lot more than just $100 out of this performance. He cashed in on his new-found fame, booking a variety of appearances including TV and radio spots and even playing in an amateur game (striking out in that appearance). All total, it’s estimated he earned over $17,000 ($140,000 today) in the few weeks following his Major League at bat alone. However, it wasn’t all sunshine lollipops for him after this. Due to the extreme discrimination against little people at the time and that his fame tended to result in a lot more attention (often negative) than he otherwise might have received, he understandably developed something of a temper with people who made fun of him for his stature. He also began to drink heavily, which compounded the problem, where he’d become combative even when no offense was intended.
This all came to a head on June 18, 1961. Gaedel got drunk at a bowling alley and apparently got in verbal confrontations with several people before leaving. Whether as a result of this or that he simply got mugged, at some point between the bowling alley and arriving home, he was beaten up on his way home. His mother found him the next morning in bed, dead. He had been having heart problems and the beating he took exacerbated the issue, resulting in a fatal heart attack. He was just 36 years old.
- While always something of a slang term, rather than an official medical designation, the term “midget” was once hotly contested within the dwarf community as to who could call themselves a midget or not. This changed with the formation of the “Midgets of America” where as many little people who were not proportionate as were showed up for the meetings. Thus, it was later renamed “Midgets and Dwarfs of America” and then “Little People of America” after “midget” became used more often than not as an insulting term, rather than distinguish between dwarfs who had proportionate body parts and those who didn’t. Thus, dwarfs have understandably grown to hate the term and have since almost completely disowned it, though some dwarfs have more recently contested that they should take it back as a non-offensive term. Most, however, consider it to be just as offensive as such a word as “nigger”, so the likelihood of “midget” once again becoming a non-derogatory term for a certain type of little person seems slim, at least in the immediate future.
- Gaedel has a grand nephew, Kyle Gaedele, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2011 in the sixth round. So far in his one season in the minors he has a .203 batting average with a .333 OBP and a .623 OPS.
- Veeck was known for implementing other audacious stunts throughout his time running various Major League franchises. One of the more interesting ones was hiring Max Patkin as a coach; Patkin was a clown and functioned as the “Clown Prince of Baseball”. Veeck also held a “Grandstand Manager’s Day” where fans were given placards and would vote on what they thought the manager should do in various situations during the game. The fans apparently did a great job as the Browns snapped a four game losing streak that day, winning 5-3.
- Gaedel is one of just five people in the history of Major League Baseball to have only one plate appearance and draw a walk in that appearance. The others were Dutch Schirick on September 17, 1914, with the Browns; Bill Batsch on September 9, 1916, with Pitsburg; Joe Cobb on April 25, 1918, with Detroit; and finally Kevin Melillo on June 24, 2007, playing for the Oakland A’s. Melillo still plays in the minor leagues, so it’s possible he may get another at bat in the Majors and cease to be the first person in 61 years to accomplish this feat.
- The Tigers ended up winning the game Gaedel appeared in 6-2. Gaedel’s walk did not factor into the decision as Delsing was stranded at third.
- The Detroit Tiger that had pitched to Gaedel, Bob Cain, attended his funeral, the only person from Major League Baseball to do so.
- Veeck claimed he took out a $1 million insurance policy on Gaedel, on the off chance he was killed in his at bat, perhaps taking a ball to the head, as had happened to shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920.
- Gaedel’s uniform had the number 1/8 on the back, though his official registered number was 18. The uniform he used belonged to club president Bill Dewitt Jr.’s nine year old son. It now sits in the MLB Hall of Fame
- The following spring after Gaedel made his auspicious Major League debut, seven midgets came to the St. Louis Browns spring training camp wanting to try out for the team, but were turned away by manager Rogers Hornsby.
- In 1959, Gaedel once again worked for Bill Veeck, landing at Comiskey Park in a helicopter, dressed as a Martian. He then hopped out of the helicopter with a few other little people and “captured” Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio with ray guns. He also took a job in 1961, shortly before his death, as a vendor in the box seats. Veeck hired several little people for this because their stature reduced the chance that a vendor would block the view of the game from paying fans.
- Gaedel also worked as the “Mercury man”, of Mercury Records. Their early logo even included a caricature of him.
- Gaedel stated after the game “For a minute, I felt like Babe Ruth.” Because only one known autograph of Gaedel’s exists, it was recently auctioned off for more than a lot of Babe Ruth autographed memorabilia has gone for.
- After losing his leg in WWII, Bill Veeck had a series of wooden legs. In these wooden legs, he’d often drill little half holes to use as ashtrays.
- As the owner of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck signed Larry Doby, the first black player to play in the American League. He also signed Satchel Paige a few months later.
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