He’s the shortest player in the history of Major League Baseball, put on the field in a stunt by eccentric Browns owner Bill Veeck. But that’s just part of the story
ST. LOUIS — Major League Baseball is no stranger to strange moments. The game of baseball almost seems to invite strange moments. But on Aug. 19, 1951, St. Louis was home to one of the most unique, thanks to Eddie Gaedel, the shortest person to ever play in a Major League game.
Seventy years ago, the Cardinals shared St. Louis with their American League counterparts, the Browns.
While the Browns may have lacked on-field success overall, they excelled in creating interesting moments, and interesting ballplayers.
Baseball icon Bill Veeck owned the Browns in the early 50’s and was known for his legendary stunts. There was no stunt more legendary than the infamous ‘Eddie Gaedel’ game at Sportsman’s Park in 1951.
“Bill Veeck was known as the P.T. Barnum of baseball,” Browns historian Ed Wheatley said. “The Eddie Gaedel incident is just one of many across the resume of Bill Veeck. He was interested in bringing fans to the ballpark.”
“You just never knew what you were gonna see,” Cardinals team historian Brian Finch said. “And that’s precisely what he created when Eddie Gaedel stepped up to the plate.”
Gaedel was in his early 20s and stood at 3-foot-7. He was working as an actor in the Chicago area. Veeck recruited him for a stunt, and snuck him to St. Louis. On Aug. 19, 1951, the Browns were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American League, but Veeck had something else planned.
“Gaedel popped out of an oversized birthday cake between games of a Sunday doubleheader,” Finch said of Gaedel’s arrival on the field.
He hung out in the dugout, wearing a Browns uniform with a “1/8” on the back. But we’ll get to that jersey in a moment.
As the Browns came to bat in the bottom of the first in game two of the doubleheader against the Tigers, the moment played out, to the surprise of the entire stadium.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Not even Frank Saucier, who he pinch hit for knew what was going to happen,” Finch said.
Saucier, a native of Washington, Missouri, has the claim to fame of being replaced by Gaedel, and being the only person who played in the game still alive today. Saucier is 95, living in Texas.
“I started to lead off and the umpire called time and said, ‘There’s gonna be a pinch hitter.’ And then out of the dugout Eddie Gaedel came trotting with a little bat over his shoulder,” Saucier said.
Everyone was perplexed, save for Veeck, Browns manager Zack Taylor and reporter Bob Broeg, who had been tipped off to the stunt.
The Tigers questioned the legality of the move, but were denied, and had to pitch to No. 1/8.
“Eddie Gaedel was 3-foot, 7-inches… His strike zone when he came up to bat was just seven inches,” Wheatley said.
And with a strike zone that small, you could probably guess what happened. He walked on four straight pitches.
“After ball four was called Eddie started to trot down to first base. And halfway down to first base, Eddie stopped, took his hat off and bowed to the crowd on the first base side, and then bowed to the crowd on the third base side,” Saucier remembered. “I said, ‘You kind of hammed it up going down to first base.’ He said, ‘Man… I felt like Babe Ruth’.”
So, how did Saucier feel about being taken out of the game for a stunt?
“I said, ‘Man this is the greatest act of showbusiness I’ve ever seen.’ That was my exact act and quote,” Saucier said. “And I said, ‘I will never forget this’.”
So, why didn’t Gaedel swing the bat in his moment of fame?
“Veeck told Gaedel, ‘All you have to do is just stand there. Don’t swing the bat.’ Bill Veeck was a hardcore marine. And he told him (Eddie), ‘If you swing, there’s snipers up on the roof that are gonna shoot you dead. So you better not swing!’ So when Eddie was questioned after the game they said, ‘Eddie, why not one swing?’ And Eddie said, ‘Mr. Veeck told me if I take a swing there’s a sniper up there that’s gonna shoot me dead’,” Wheatley said.
Of course Veeck was only joking, but it no doubt made for a great soundbite.
As for that jersey Gaedel wore? Well, the Browns’ general manager at the time just happened to be none other than Bill DeWitt Sr. Yes, those DeWitts. And his son, Bill DeWitt Jr. was the team’s bat boy. Yes, the Bill DeWitt Jr. who now owns the St. Louis Cardinals. DeWitt Jr.’s bat boy uniform was the only one that fit Gaedel, so that’s what he used on that famous day.
“Bill DeWitt said, ‘We took it home and put it in the front room closet. And I used it for Halloween. And my sister used it for the next two Halloweens.’ So one of them most iconic pieces of baseball memorabilia became a Halloween costume,” Wheatley said of the uniform.
Now, the artifact is kept in the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, on loan from the DeWitt family.
As for Gaedel, there unfortunately isn’t a happy ending. The actor returned to Chicago, where he carried on his rambunctious ways when it came to drinking and getting into altercations, sometimes when teased about his height. He was beaten to death after an incident in 1961 in Chicago. He was 36 years old.
Today, the legacy of the Eddie Gaedel lives on as one of the most well-known stunts in the history of baseball. But one thing still remains for Gaedel. Nobody will ever be able to top his 1.000 career on-base percentage.
For more on the life of Eddie Gaedel, you can visit is biography on the SABR website.
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