Detroit Tigers History

Detroit Tigers: A Big Part of A Little Moment In MLB History

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With the Detroit Tigers’ season sinking fast let’s take a break from 2015 eulogies and 2016 projections to an event that took place 64 years ago this week. The Tigers played a walk-on part in one of the greatest stunts by the greatest showman Major League Baseball has ever seen.

In the middle of the 1951 season Bill Veeck bought the St. Louis Browns franchise (they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles in 1954).

He had spent his working working for his father William Veeck, Sr., president of the Chicago Cubs, bought the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association in 1941 and later, in 1946, became majority owner of the Cleveland Indians. They won the 1948 World Series with him as owner then, after the 1949 season, was forced to sell to finance the divorce from his first wife.

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The Browns were perpetual celler-dwellers for most of the history of the American League and had been long surpassed by the Cardinals as the popular baseball team in St. Louis. It wasn’t long after taking over that Veeck and his staff were desperately searching for ways to boost its meager attendance.

One idea Veeck had was, since the American League was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Browns should hold a birthday party. He decided that an August, 19 doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers would be the perfect date for the festivities.

Being the promotional genius that he was, Veeck persuaded the Browns’ radio sponsors, a local brewery company (no, not that one) to tie their anniversary in with his team’s celebration. He sold the promotion to them with a promise to, “…do something for you that I have never done before.” Not an easy promise to make considering Veeck had already run so many promotions of numerous varieties in his career as a baseball executive and team owner.

As he relates in his autobiography “Veeck – As In Wreck: An Autobiography of Bill Veeck” (one of the best inside baseball books ever written) that the idea of sending someone like Gaedel to the plate in a game was planted while listening to stories told by his father and New York Giants manager John McGraw when McGraw would visit for dinner.

The extremely superstitious manager had once met a humpback man and, believing him to be good luck to have around the team, had him sitting on the bench in uniform both at home and on the road. McGraw often mentioned near the end of these evenings that before he retired he wanted to send his hunchback up to bat.

Before getting into the events that made him famous a bit about the man. Eddie Gaedel was born in Chicago, the second of three children. The other two grew up normally but Gaedel stopped at 3 feet, seven inches in height. Like others outside society’s norm, Gaedel was constantly taunted and picked on and had to fight all the way to his high school graduation to survive.

After school he made a living any way he could, mostly by performing in circuses, rodeos and other similar fields. One unique position he held, during World War II, was as a riveter, able to crawl into engine spaces, wings, etc. where others couldn’t reach.

His entertainment work brought Gaedel to the attention of a booking agent who recommended him to Veeck. Browns’ travelling secretary, Bill Durning, picked up Gaedel in Chicago and smuggled him into a St. Louis hotel covered in blankets. It took a lot of convincing but Veeck eventually got Gaedel to agree to the plan.

He was taught to crouch with his front elbow resting on his knee. Veeck measured the resulting strike zone at 1-1/2 inches. Satisfied, they sent Gaedel back to Chicago to wait and began making arrangements.

They took the Browns uniform that belonged to the seven-year old son of team vice president Bill Dewitt, Jr., had it altered and sewed the number 1/8 on its back. When Gaedel returned the day before the game they signed him to a standard Major League contract that pro-rated to $100 for his one day in the big leagues.

Gaedel signed two copies of the contract on the day before the game. One was mailed to the American League office. Since it was closed on weekends Veeck knew no one would see the contract until Monday morning. The other copy was given to manager Zach Taylor in case Gaedel was challenged by the umpires. The morning of the event Veeck sent a telegraph to the league office, officially activating Gaedel to the roster.

The idea of the party and promotion work by the sponsor drew over 18,000 fans to Sportsman Park, the Browns’ biggest crowd in four years. Veeck circulated through the stands as he usually did during a game and later wrote that his biggest surprise was how few paid attention to, 1/8 Gaedel, listed on the scorecard.

After the Tigers won the first game 5-2, various circus acts performed on the field as well as Max Patkin, “The Crown Prince of Baseball,” who pulled a woman out of the stands to do a jitterbug dance on the mound.

At the height of the festivities a seven foot cake was rolled out onto the field. At the announcement that the team was presenting manager Taylor with a new “Brownie”, Gaedel, in full uniform, sprung from the cake and bowed to applause and laughter from the audience, and silence from the company’s executives in attendance, all angry and feeling double-crossed by Veeck.

Frank Saucier, who had no idea he was about to become a footnote in baseball history, as well as popular trivia quiz answer, was listed as the starting center fielder and lead-off man for the Browns in game two. The Tigers were held scoreless in their half of the inning and took the field, Bob Cain took the mound as the starting pitcher with Bob Swift the catcher.

Then Gaedel emerged from the dugout swinging three small bats as it was announced, “For the Browns, number one-eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier.”

The ballpark exploded in disbelief and laughter. Home Plate umpire Ed Hurley turned to the Browns’ dugout and saw Taylor approach him with the official signed contract and a copy of the team’s active list, all officially time-stamped. Cain and Swift stood at the mound waiting for the joke to end while the Tigers’ bench was falling over each other with laughter. As for his radio sponsors, Veeck had turned from villain to hero.

The following events are best described by Veeck himself in his autobiography:

"Bob Swift rose to the occasion like a real trouper. If I had set out to use the opposing catcher to help build up the tension, I could not have improved one whit upon his performance. Bob, bless his heart, did just what I was hoping he would do. He went out to the mound to discuss the intricacies of pitching to a midget with Cain. And when he came back, he did something I had never even dreamed of. To complete the sheer incongruity of the scene—and make the newspaper pictures of the event more memorable—he got down on both knees to offer his pitcher a target."

Gaedel took his stance, forgetting his extreme crouch, but it didn’t matter. Any worries Veeck had about Gaedel trying to take a swing were unfounded. Cain threw his first two pitches somewhat seriously, giving Gaedel no time to swing. By ball three Cain was laughing so hard that there was no chance anything hittable would reach the plate.

Gaedel took ball four and trotted to first base. Jim Delsing, the Browns regular center fielder came in to pinch run. When he reached first Gaedel slapped him on the rear and walked off the field, pausing every few steps to acknowledge the crowd’s applause.

The Tigers won the second game 6-2 but that was anti-climatic. The following day Will Harridge, president of the American League, banned Gaedel from baseball and had a rule passed stating that all player contracts be approved by the league president before becoming official.

None of that affected Veeck, Gaedel had only been signed for one day anyway. What he fought tooth-and-nail was Harridge’s attempt to have Gaedel’s plate appearance stricken from the record books.

Again from Veeck’s autobiography:

"This I wouldn’t stand for. I had promised Eddie that he would live forever in the record books, which are cast in bronze, carved in marble and encased in cement. Immortality I had promised him, and immortality he would have."

Veeck prevailed in his arguments and Gaedel is officially credited with a plate appearance in a Major League game (from Baseball-Reference.com who list Gaedel as Bats: right, Throws: Left).

Gaedel capitalized on his instant celebrity with radio show and personal appearances and continued to make money as years passed but his reluctance to travel far from Chicago limited his opportunities.

Veeck did employ him a few more times, most notably in 1959 when he owned the eventual AL Champion Chicago White Sox. Gaedel and three other little people emerged from a helicopter dressed as martians and holding ray guns. They “captured” shortstop Luis Aparicio and second baseman Nellie Fox and via a handy microphone announced that they were naming the two honorary martians and, “…that they had come down to aid them in their battle against the giant earthlings.”

Gaedel was also quoted in that appearance as saying, “I don’t want to be taken to your leader, I’ve already met him.”

Unfortunately the end of Gaedel’s story doesn’t measure up to the man who lived the event. He often drank heavily and when he did comments about his size would put him in a fighting mood. The drinking was also adversely affecting his health.

On June 18, 1961, at the age of 36, Gaedel spent the night drinking at a local bowling alley and got into an argument with four men. It’s widely suspected that they followed him while he walked home and severely beat him. Gaedel made it to bed where his mother later found him. A coroner’s inquest determined that his death was from a heart attack.

Bill Veeck was unable to attend the funeral but Bob Cain was there after driving 300 miles, the only former big league player to show up. The Veeck, Gaedel and Cain families are still close after being joined by this singular event in baseball history.

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