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Gaedel made a big mark in his own small way Veeck's tallest tale is a walk in the park

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The photograph is one of baseball's Rockwells, its characters etched into memory: the umpire, Ed Hurley, squatting to get a better look at a very small strike zone. Detroit Tigers catcher Bob Swift, on his knees behind home plate, perhaps a smile cracking through his mask. And Eddie Gaedel, crouching at bat for the St. Louis Browns, his serious expression belying perhaps the most hysterical moment in major-league history.

It happened 40 years ago tomorrow.

"It transcended baseball. Even people who didn't know anything about the game heard about it," Mary-Frances Veeck, the widow of Bill Veeck, who owned the Browns at the time, said last week from her home in Chicago. "Bill was cremated when he died [in 1986], but he once told me, 'If I had a tombstone, it would probably say, "He sent a midget up to bat." ' "

Though then-American League president Will Harridge tried unsuccessfully to erase the appearance of the 3-foot-7, 65-pound Gaedel from the record books -- it did not show up in the 1951 statistics, but was reinstated shortly thereafter -- you can look it up. In "The Baseball Encyclopedia," Gaedel is listed right above Gary Gaetti.

It happened in the second game of an Aug. 19 doubleheader between the last-place Browns and fifth-place Tigers at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. After popping out of a cake between games, Gaedel led off the home first. He pinch hit for Frank Saucier, lugging three miniature bats over his shoulder as he emerged from the dugout. He was walked on four pitches by Bob Cain, who threw the last two underhand.

The cameo by Gaedel, a 26-year-old circus performer who told people that he was a Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz," became part of the game's lore, as well as Veeck's legacy. When the iconoclastic owner of three major-league teams was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month, Gaedel's pint-sized uniform became part of the exhibit.

"Of all the things my father did, he will probably be remembered by most people for Eddie Gaedel," said Veeck's son, Mike, president of the Miami Miracle, a Class A team with no major-league affiliation.

While the younger Veeck was an infant at the time and only has heard about this much-celebrated event, those who were there recall it with obvious glee. It was one of several promotions, gimmicks and brainstorms for which the elder Veeck became famous during a 50-year baseball career that included stints as owner of the Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox twice.

Mrs. Veeck said that Gaedel's appearance was part of a promotion for the Falstaff Brewing Co., sponsor of the Browns' radio broadcasts. At a meeting two weeks before with Falstaff officials, Veeck was suffering from laryngitis and Mary-Frances spoke up for husband. She told the Falstaff people that they had a number of giveaways and acts planned to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary.

"We told them we were going to hand out miniature orchids to all the women and some acrobats and about having a cake, and all these sponsors were kind of yawning," recalled Mrs. Veeck. "We had to throw [in] everything but the kitchen sink. So I told them that we were going to do something special, but we couldn't tell them what. At the time, we didn't have anything planned. I knew we'd come up with something. As soon as Bill told us about the midget, we just about fell on the floor."

Mrs. Veeck said that her husband, who had bought the Browns two months earlier, got the idea from a conversation he recalled having years before with his father, Bill Sr., about the legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw. The senior Veeck had owned the Chicago Cubs when they won three pennants between 1917 and 1933.

"Over dinner one night, they were talking about strike zones, and his father told him that McGraw once said, 'I'd like to have a midget and let them find the strike zone,' " Mrs. Veeck said.

Veeck found Gaedel through Marty Caine, a talent agent Veeck knew in Cleveland. He brought Gaedel from Chicago to St. Louis a few days before the game and told a select few about his plans, which included Gaedel's popping out of a papier-mache cake between games of the doubleheader and then coming up to bat. He signed Gaedel to a standard player's contract, but postponed sending in the paperwork.

When he saw Gaedel practicing his swing in the hotel one day, Veeck warned him.

"I'm going to have a sniper in the stands, and, if you swing, he's going to shoot you," Veeck said.

Bill DeWitt Jr., whose father had sold the team to Veeck, recalls that Gaedel's name and uniform number -- 1/8 -- were listed in the program for several days before his appearance. "Nobody ever picked up on it," said DeWitt, who was 9 years old and gave Gaedel one of the uniforms he had received during his father's tenure as owner of the hapless Browns. "One of Bill Veeck's theories was that he didn't announce promotions, because he wanted fans to come and see what happens."

Saucier, a minor-league star who played briefly with the Baltimore Orioles in the International League, had signed with the Browns only weeks before. After hitting .446 with Wichita in 1949 -- the highest batting average in professional baseball that year -- and being named Dixie League Player of the Year with San Antonio in 1950, Saucier had retired to start an oil-and-gas-drilling business in Texas. But he needed money and signed with the Browns at Veeck's urging.

Sidelined with bursitis in his shoulder at the time, Saucier was surprised to find his name on the lineup card when he got to the ballpark on Aug. 19. He was even more puzzled to see that he was leading off and playing right field.

"It was a little unusual since I couldn't swing or throw," Saucier said last week from his home in Amarillo, Texas. "I also thought it was strange, because I only played left field."

After playing the field in the top of the first, Saucier went up to bat. But as he stepped out of the dugout, Browns manager Zack Taylor called him back. Out came Gaedel, and Saucier said the place convulsed in laughter. Veeck, whose team lost, 6-2, later FTC kidded Saucier, "It isn't every day a midget gets to bat for a .446 hitter."

"I thought this was one of the greatest acts of show business I'd ever seen, and still do," said Saucier, whose 18-game major-league career ended when he was called up by the Navy the next year. "But the umpire didn't. He said to Zack Taylor, 'You can't do this.' And Zack said: 'Yes I can. I have a contract right here in my pocket.' "

Though Hurley and Tigers manager Red Rolfe weren't amused, others were. And some, like Cain, were merely shocked. While Cain stood dumbfounded on the mound -- "His jaw dropped and his eyes almost popped out his head," Gaedel would say later -- Swift couldn't control himself. Cain reportedly asked Swift how to pitch Gaedel.

"Swift was laughing so hard, he couldn't answer," Gaedel was quoted as saying after the game. "I pretended that I was mad, and I told them to start playing."

After taking the four pitches, all of which were high, Gaedel was removed for a pinch runner, Jim Delsing. He doffed his cap and bowed to the crowd. He took a seat on the Browns bench next to Saucier.

"It was more like a circus or a carnival than a baseball game," said Saucier. "I said to Eddie, 'That was some show you put on.' He said, 'Man, I felt like Babe Ruth.' It was the high point in his life."

Within hours, Veeck heard from Harridge. A no-nonsense and obviously humorless Chicagoan who had been friends with Veeck's father, Harridge ruled that midgets weren't allowed to play in the major leagues. Veeck, who had estimated Gaedel's strike zone at 1 1/2 inches, wrote back: "Let's establish what a midget is. Is it 3 feet 6? Is it 4 feet 6? Is it 5 feet 6? If it's 5-6, that's great. We can get rid of [the New York Yankees' Phil] Rizzuto."

Those who knew him say that Gaedel couldn't handle his short-lived brush with fame. With the combination of a bad temper and a reported drinking problem, Gaedel found himself on the wrong end of fights. Two weeks after his appearance in St. Louis, he was arrested in Cincinnati for disorderly conduct and fined $25. He apparently had spewed obscenities after failing to convince a police officer that he was a major-league ballplayer.

"He [Gaedel] became quite a hero, so to speak, in his own mind," said Rudie Schaffer, Veeck's close friend. "He got to drinking, and his ego took over."

"Eddie just got full of himself," said Mary-Frances Veeck.

Saucier saw Gaedel once more, a year later, when Saucier was stationed with the Navy in Pensacola, Fla. He heard that Gaedel had taken a job as a clown with Ringling Bros. circus, and one night went with his wife to find his former teammate. He saw Gaedel tumbling from a barrel, and later sought him out.

"I asked him how he was getting along, and he said, 'It ain't baseball,' " Saucier recalled.

After making a few national television appearances shortly after his famous at-bat, including on "The Ed Sullivan Show," things deteriorated for Gaedel. He periodically would call Veeck, looking for work or money. There were to be other, less-celebrated moments for Gaedel, when Veeck hired him for a couple of one-day stunts in Chicago.

In May 1959, Gaedel came out of a helicopter with a group of midgets, dressed as aliens looking for the White Sox double-play combination of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox. Two years later, Gaedel was one of eight midgets Veeck used as box-seat vendors on Opening Day. It was to be Gaedel's curtain call in the big time. Two months later, he was badly beaten on a Southside Chicago street and went to his mother's house, where he died of a heart attack. Gaedel was 36.

His funeral attracted about 50 people. The only former ballplayer was Bob Cain.

"I never even met him, but I felt obligated to go," Cain said in a 1989 interview. "It kind of threw me for a loop that no other baseball people were there."

Until his uniform was sent to the Hall of Fame, after a sports columnist in San Jose, Calif., discovered that DeWitt still had it, Gaedel's memory had begun to fade. Nine years ago, two lawyers formed the Honor the Midget Committee, sent letters to the postmaster general and had an artist design a Gaedel stamp. It was rejected.

Though he brought countless innovations and promotions to the game, including the exploding scoreboard at the old Comiskey Park and Grandstand Managers' Day, Veeck forever will be linked with Gaedel and that August afternoon 40 years ago. The only other single-night adventure that brought as much attention came in 1979.

But Disco Demolition Night, when White Sox fans burned disco records in a center-field bonfire between games of a twi-night doubleheader with the Tigers, turned into a near-riot. The White Sox were forced to forfeit the second game, only the fourth forfeiture in major-league history. When the Veecks got home, Mary-Frances added a touch of humor to a night that badly needed it.

"We got to bed that night around 3 a.m., and Bill was still pretty upset," she recalled. "When we turned out the lights, I said to him, 'Honey, I just think you got the midget off your back.' "

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