Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19, 1954: Eddie at the bat

ST. LOUIS - It was a Sunday doubleheader in the dog days of a long, hot summer. The St. Louis Browns weren't going anywhere in 1951, just like almost every other season in their existence. They were 37 games out of first place when play began on August 19 and were going nowhere fast.

The Browns' owner, Bill Veeck, was always looking for ways to draw a crowd, something that was usually difficult for the Browns. He decided to liven things up for this doubleheader, promising his most fantastic stunt yet. It worked, as 18,000 fans showed up, far more than usually went to Sportsman's Park to see the Browns.

Between games of the doubleheader, the stunt began, as a papier-mache cake was rolled out onto the field. A midget jumped out of the cake, wearing a banner celebrating the American League's 50th anniversary. He was also wearing a Browns jersey, with the number 1/8. Everybody got a laugh, then got ready for the second game.

Many fans seemed disappointed. As far as Veeck promotions went, that was very tame. He had done far more scandelous things during his time as owner, and so the midget jumping out of a cake seemed kind of cheap.

Then Eddie Gaedel came to bat.

In the bottom of the first, Browns manager Zack Taylor announced a pinch-hitter for his leadoff hitter. Grabbing a toy bat, and still wearing the number 1/8 jersey he had worn when jumping out of the cake, Gaedel stepped up to the plate. The Tigers and the umpires immediately protested, to which Taylor responded with Gaedel's contract with the Browns and a list of the Browns' active roster, showing there was room for him. Because the stunt happened on the weekend, the commissioner's office hadn't had time to review the contract yet, so Gaedel was, for the moment, a genuine member of the Browns.

The protest failing, the game continued. Detroit pitcher Bob Cain started laughing at the thought of having to pitch to Gaedel, whose 3-foot-7 frame made for a strike zone barely bigger than the baseball. Cain genuinely tried to pitch strikes on his first two pitches, then softly tossed the last two, walking Gaedel on four pitches. Walking to first, Gaedel stopped twice to doff his cap and take a bow, then was removed for a pinch-runner.

The league didn't take too kindly to Veeck's stunt, voiding Gaedel's contract the next day and originally striking him from the record books. Eventually, his name was put back in the books, and it remains, showing his career on-base percentage of 1.000. Gaedel stayed involved with the Browns' promotions department for a few more years, even following Veeck to Chicago and the White Sox. After he died of a heart attack in 1961, the only baseball figure to attend his funeral was Cain, the pitcher who faced him. "I never even met him," Cain said, "but I felt obligated to go."

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