Life of baseball’s smallest pinch-hitter came to a tragic end

Pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel, just 43 inches tall, takes a pitch high from Tigers pitcher Bob Cain in 1951. The catcher is Bob Swift and the umpire is Ed Hurley.

Tigers pitcher Bob Cain couldn’t believe his eyes. As he stared into home plate to get the sign from his catcher Bob Swift, the tall right-handed hurler faced a batter unlike any other he had ever seen. Eddie Gaedel was 43 inches tall and waved a toy bat in his hands, but he was a legitimate big league hitter, at least for that one plate appearance.

The date was August 19, 1951, and the Detroit Tigers were playing the St. Louis Browns in the second game of a doubleheader in St. Louis. In between the games, the Browns had put on a show to delight the 18,369 spectators. There were jugglers, trapeze artists, a marching band, and a woman who was sawed in half by a magician. It was, Browns owner Bill Veeck promised, a “Day of Surprises.”

As Cain warmed up for the second game, a large cake was wheeled onto the field. Seconds later, emerging from the cake was a tiny little fellow – a miniature man – who waved his arms to the roaring crowd and trotted from the field, the latest spectacle in the sideshow. That little person was Gaedel.

Gaedel was 26 years old, a dwarf from Chicago who made a living making appearances in shows and circuses. During World War II, Gaedel had worked as a riveter, crawling into the tiny spaces of airplane wings to perform his work. In the late 1940s he was discovered by Veeck, who never met a promotion he didn’t like. His appearance against Cain and the Tigers was Gaedel’s biggest moment.

Wearing a Browns uniform with the number “1/8” stitched onto the back, Gaedel arrived at home plate to lead off the first inning, announced as a pinch-hitter for Frank Saucier. Immediately, umpire Ed Hurley objected. Hurley was a no-nonsense veteran of the big leagues, but when St. Louis manager Zack Taylor, barely concealing a grin, produced a valid MLB contract for Gaedel, Hurley had no choice but to holler “Play ball!”

Cain, Swift, the rest of the Tigers, and practically everyone in the ballpark were roaring with laughter by this time. At first, Swift lay prone on his belly, trying to make as low a target as possible for his pitcher. But Hurley didn’t like that, so Swift crouched on his knees. Cain exchanged glances with the Tiger dugout, where manager Red Rolfe, in his 21st year on professional baseball, shrugged. Cain peered in and saw the 3-foot, 7-inch Gaedel, all of 65 pounds, looking like a young child, crouched at the plate in a batting stance that looked like a tiny version of Joe DiMaggio.

“I told Bob [Swift] that I would try to lob the ball to him,” Cain said.

The first pitch was down the middle of the plate but came in at least a foot above Eddie’s head. Gaedel did not flinch. Though he wanted to swing – he yearned for the opportunity – Gaedel was under strict orders to leave the bat resting on his shoulder.

“I told Gaedel that I had purchased a life insurance policy in the amount of $1 million on him,” Veeck wrote later. “I told him that I would be on the roof of the ballpark with a high-powered rifle, and if he swung at any pitches, I would shoot him.”

Whether he believed the empty threat or not, Gaedel was not going to swing. Cain’s second and third pitches were lower, but still too high to be strikes on the small Gaedel, whose strike zone was probably about 16 inches in height. After the third pitch, Detroit third baseman George Kell covered his face with his glove, concealing his laughter at the scene he was witnessing. Kell inched closer to home plate, standing only a few feet to the right of Cain on the mound.  The Tigers weren’t sure if Gaedel could hit a baseball, but if he could they were confident it wouldn’t travel very far.

Gaedel watched the fourth pitch come in at eye-level and trotted to first base with a walk. Ever the showman, he waved his arms to the crowd, doffed his cap, and even blew a kiss to woman in the stands. The crowd ate it up. He was removed for a pinch-runner and retired from the game with a perfect on-base percentage.

The stunt wasn’t Eddie’s final appearance on a baseball diamond. In 1959, Veeck brought him back in a promotion at Comiskey Park in Chicago. In a pre-game event, in grand fashion and from the fog of special effects, Gaedel and two other little people emerged from a “space ship” that was situated in center field. The midgets, dressed as aliens and carrying “ray guns” proceeded to “kidnap” White Sox double play duo Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox. A few years later, Veeck hired Gaedel and other midgets as vendors because their short height did not obstruct the view of ballpark spectators. The stunt was short-lived because Eddie and the others were not strong enough to carry the heavy vending trays.

Gaedel drank heavily and experienced hard times over the remaining years of his life. He was in and out of hospitals and frequently unemployed. He stayed with relatives until his drunk and violent episodes severed those relationships. He was staying with his mother in Chicago in 1961 when he was beaten by muggers on his way back from a bowling alley. He staggered home but died in his sleep that evening. He was laid to rest in Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum, just a few days after his 36th birthday. Former Tiger Cain attended the funeral with his wife – he was the only person representing Major League Baseball at the service.

In his biography, Veeck as in Wreck, Bill Veeck called Gaedel “the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball.” Gaedel’s jersey with the number “1/8” on the back can be seen in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.