On August 19, 1951, Eddie Gaedel strode to home plate in a St. Louis Browns uniform adorned with the fraction 1/8 rather than a whole number, signifying his physical stature similar to that of the folks who set Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.
Gaedel’s cup of coffee in the major leagues consisted of a single at-bat, when he faced Bob Cain of the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman’s Park. In 2002, Fred Bucholz, the Browns’ batboy, recalled the game for St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Tom Wheatley. “The fans were laughing, but no one said nothing in our dugout,” said Bucholz. “They were just shocked. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Usually the guys would yell for someone to get a hit. Here, nothing.”
A publicity stunt conceived by Browns owner Bill Veeck, Gaedel had a signed contract, giving him the legitimacy required to play in a Major League Baseball game. Veeck embraced wackiness, seeing it as an added value for the fans. In his second tenure as owner of the White Sox from 1976 to 1981, Veeck installed a shower in the centerfield bleachers so fans could cool off on hot Chicago days, instructed Harry Caray to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch, and commanded the White Sox to wear shorts in a gimmick that proved to last about as long as the notion of somebody defeating Richard J. Daley in a Chicago mayoral election between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.
In his 2000 book The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, Peter Golenbock cited Browns manager Zack Taylor as a source for the Gaedel idea. Taylor said, “When I was with the Giants, we used to sit around the hotel lobby nights listening to the boss. John McGraw never forgot a pitch of any game the Giants ever played under him. And he always was scheming up new ways to win. One time he came up with the idea that it might not be bad to carry a little fellow around and send him up to bat to get a base on balls if the score was tied in the ninth.
“Of course, nobody ever did it. But I never forgot what McGraw said. So when Veeck suggested hiring a little fellow, I told him what McGraw had said years before. Veeck got on the phone to Chicago right away and checked up to find there wasn’t any rule against it.”
Veeck had only taken control of the Browns in July 1951, but acted swiftly to differentiate the Browns from their crosstown rivals, the Cardinals. Promotion was, in Veeck’s view, the key to getting fans in the stands.
Gaedel was just one part of the entertainment designed by Veeck on August 19th. In the Sporting News article “Day Veeck Outdid Himself; Midget Circus with Browns” marking the 30th anniversary of the event, legendary St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg explained, “Veeck had promised to put on a show, and the master promoter gave the fans a good buildup, which included free cake and ice creams as they entered the park and a lively between-games show.
“There was a juggler at first base, trampolinists at second and hand-balancers pyramided at third. Baseball clown Max Patkin did his routines and Satchel Paige, playing the drums, led a poor man’s Pepper Martin Mudcat Band onto the field.
“Aerial bombs exploded miniature flags that floated onto the field. Then, on signal, popping out of a large papier mache [sic] cake at the pitcher’s mound, came a cute little fellow dressed in a pre-shrunk Browns uniform.”
Sadly, Gaedel died in 1961, a result of a street mugging in Chicago. In an article for the Winter 1987 edition of National Pastime—a Society for American Baseball Research publication—republished in the March 1989 edition of Beckett Monthly, Jim Reiser wrote, “After the mugging, he apparently staggered home and died in his bed of a heart attack. Paramedics were unable to revive him. A coroner’s report said that Gaedel also had bruises on his knees and his face.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 19, 2015.