On this day in 1951, little person Eddie Gaedel makes his big league baseball debut with the St. Louis Browns, and is walked on four pitches in his one at-bat. Gaedel was the lead character in the most famous stunt ever devised by legendary owner and showman Bill Veeck.
Bill Veeck was born February 9, 1914, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, William Veeck Sr., was president of the Chicago Cubs, and Bill spent his childhood soaking up the business of big league management. When his father passed away, Veeck dropped out of college and went to work for the Cubs. He planted the ivy that grows on the walls of Wrigley Field before leaving the team and buying the Milwaukee Brewers of the International League. After selling the Brewers for a $275,000 profit, Veeck broke into major league ownership at age 32 when he organized a syndicate to buy the Cleveland Indians. In 1946, his first year as an owner, he put the Indians on the radio, put wandering minstrels into the stands, instituted a babysitting service at the game and imported Hawaiian flowers to give to female fans on Ladies Day. Thanks to these efforts, the Indians drew a major league record 2.6 million fans in 1948, up from an abysmal 400,000 two years earlier.
In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in the major leagues, Veeck signed Larry Doby to be the first African-American player in the American League. In 1948, Veeck signed the ageless Satchel Paige to pitch. The additions, along with player-manager Lou Boudreau, second baseman Joe Gordon and star pitchers Bob Lemon and “Bullet” Bob Feller, helped the Indians to victory in the 1948 World Series. Having taken a losing franchise to the pinnacle of baseball achievement, Veeck became a folk hero in Cleveland.
Veeck was forced to sell the Indians in 1949 to finance a divorce from his first wife. He wasn’t away from baseball for long, however: In 1951 he bought the lackluster St. Louis Browns, and soon after staged his most famous stunt. That August 19, the Browns played a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. In the second game, in the bottom half of the first inning, Ed Gaedel was sent out to pinch hit for Browns outfielder Frank Saucier. Gaedel, 3 feet 7 inches tall, worked as a stuntman in Chicago. The Tigers pitcher, Bob Cain, looked toward the plate, dumbfounded, while umpire Ed Hurley asked to see validation of Gaedel’s eligibility. The Browns produced a contract, and Cain threw four straight pitches over Gaedel’s head. The crowd roared with laughter as Gaedel trotted to first base. It was the only at-bat of Gaedel’s career, though he later claimed Veeck had promised him a longer shot with the club.
In spite of Veeck’s many attempts to energize the Browns fan base, he had a losing team on his hands that struggled to draw a consistent crowd. He attempted to move the team to Baltimore, a city hungry for a major league team, but he was stymied by owners who feared his desire to share television and radio revenues equally among teams, thus eliminating the advantage of the larger and more profitable franchises. The owners blocked the move, but immediately approved Veeck’s sale of the franchise to a group of investors in Baltimore. Veeck later said of the decision, “I got the message.”
Veeck went on to own the Chicago White Sox twice, first from 1959 to 1961, and again from 1975 to 1981, during which time he helped the team break attendance records. He died of lung cancer on January 2, 1976. Veeck, who used a wooden peg as a leg due to a World War II injury, was fond of saying “The only fear I have is of termites.”