Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Eddie Gaedel: His Meteoric Rise and Tragically Mysterious End

He died too young, passing away at a young age with enormous untapped potential. When he was found in his mother’s house, unresponsive from a beating suffered during a mugging and a subsequent heart attack, he had just turned 36. Despite having had a career in show business, and even a brief stint as a major league baseball player, he never found the comfort or respect most would expect from such opportunities. Insecurity, alcohol and always feeling on the outside all contributed to his lot in life leading up to his final days. As it turned out, Eddie Gaedel wound up being as overlooked in death as he was in his much too brief life.

Edward Carl Gaedel was born on June 8, 1925 in Chicago; the second of Carl and Helen’s three children. Carl Gaedel had emigrated from Lithuania more than two decades earlier, settling in the Windy City. Helen Janicki was born in either New York or New Jersey to immigrant parents. She and Carl married in 1919, and he supported their young family by selling shoes in a department store.

Eddie weighed a robust eight pounds at birth. While his brother and sister both grew normally, his own progress stunted at a young age, topping out at his adult height of 3’7”. His parents spent hard to spare money trying to seek help for him, but there was and is no cure or treatment for dwarfism.

Sadly, Eddie was a frequent target of teasing and bullying—something that occurred from childhood right through the end of his life. His mother recalled in later years that "He'd say, `Mom, it must be your fault I'm small.' And I'd say, `No, it's Almighty God's will.' He was self-conscious. He felt bad he was so small. He was always scared."

Eddie may have been fearful but he was not one to back down, and many times his tormentors were surprised to see him fight back. Kids ganged up on him even after he graduated from high school. There was one incident where he struck a child who had tormented him, and the boy's mother had Eddie arrested, although the matter was later dropped.

During a 2001 episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, titled At Bat- Eddie Gaedel, some of his family recalled the indignities Eddie suffered from those who wouldn’t let him forget that he was different. His sister, Pearl Rosa, described the turmoil day-to-day life caused him. “He cried a lot because the people used to bother him. And he'd come home swearing.”

If Eddie was more vulnerable at home, it seems like he put on a tougher facade to those who weren’t in his inner circle. His niece, Gayle Esposito, remembered how “He was a happy-go-lucky guy on the outside, but I think he was really sort of crying on the inside.”

The teasing and bullying contributed to his ongoing insecurity with his size, and the combative stance he took against those who he believed dared to slight him. Additionally, he developed anxiety about being away from home as he grew older, making him hesitant to travel or be away for any stretch of time. While he forced himself to take some jobs he might not have done otherwise, he also turned down others because of his reluctance to step outside his comfort zone.

As an adult, Eddie took a variety of jobs, including being an office employee for the Drover's Daily Journal, a local newspaper. He also worked in circuses, rodeos and the entertainment circuit, which were (stereo)typical jobs one with dwarfism might expect at the time.

One of Eddie’s most unique positions was working as a riveter during World War II. His size allowed him to crawl inside the wings of planes to do the finish work a full-sized person would not have been able to do. The demand for the rapid production of aircraft was practically non-stop during the war, but died away just as quickly when peacetime came; making it something he was unable to build a career around.

His first big “break” in show business came after the war in 1946 when he was hired by Mercury Records to portray the "Mercury Man," which was the company’s mascot and logo. In full costume, portraying the Greek god Mercury, his likeness adorned advertisements promoting the label which was in its early days but grew into one of the largest and influential in the industry. The gig was enough to land Eddie other bookings in need of a person of his stature, and ultimately led to the role for which he will forever be remembered—that of a professional baseball player.

In 1951 the St. Louis Browns were the worst team in the American League and had a track record as one of the most moribund franchises in the game. They went just 52-102 that year and had averaged just 59 wins per season during the previous five years. Consequently, their attendance was a fraction of most teams. However, hope was percolating due to a new majority owner, who had assumed control of the club earlier in the year. 37-year-old Bill Veeck obtained an 80 percent stake in the franchise. Despite his youthfulness, he was no stranger to a baseball front office. His father Bill Sr. had been a sports writer prior to acting as president of the Chicago Cubs for nearly fifteen years. His vocation rubbed off on his namesake, who held his first ownership stake in a professional team before his thirtieth birthday when he and former Cubs star Charlie Grimm bought the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers in 1941. After claiming three pennants in five years, he sold his share in the team in 1945 for a significant profit, which he used to purchase the Cleveland Indians the following year.

Veeck had success with the Indians, including winning the 1948 World Series. However, a divorce from his first wife complicated his finances to the point that he had to sell. When he got back on his feet, he re-entered baseball via the Browns.

Veeck’s teams were not only frequently successful; they were also fun to watch. He liked to shuffle his roster through trades and also had a significant reputation as a showman, making a trip to the ballpark a full entertainment experience instead of simply watching a game. Promotions were his specialty, as he wanted fans to expect the unexpected and leave the bleachers talking about what they had seen. Although not a novel approach, the word-of-mouth approach was successful, especially when trying to make the turnstiles sing for basement dwellers like the Browns.

Falstaff Brewing Corporation was a St. Louis based brewery that also had a sponsorship with the Browns. An event was planned to celebrate them and the 50th anniversary of the American League. Gaedel was hired by the Browns under great secrecy, to the point he was concealed under blankets when being transported to the ballpark. He was not only going to be a focal point of the celebration, he was also to take the field as an actual player.

Gaedel was dressed in Bill DeWitt Jr.’s (the nine-year-old son of the club's vice president who is now the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals) uniform. The number on the back was changed from 6 to 1/8. He was signed to a contract for $15,400, which gave him a prorated paycheck of $100 for the one day term of August 19, 1952. The Browns had a doubleheader scheduled that day versus the Detroit Tigers. Veeck arranged for his newest acquisition to jump out of a papier-mâché cake during the first game. It was rumored that Falstaff was underwhelmed by the stunt but Veeck kept his lips sealed on what he had planned for the second game.

Very few photographs exist of Gaedel’s game but there was a very good reason for that. In the hubbub of it all, the entire thing was nearly ruined before it even happened as the team neglected to let press photographers know that something special was planned. When Gaedel made his famous plate appearance, only Bob Broeg from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who Veeck had tipped off, was present.

Gaedel got his appearance out of the way quickly, pinch-hitting for Browns’ lead off batter Frank Saucier in the bottom of the first inning. Under explicit orders to not swing his bat (Veeck allegedly told Gaedel that he had a sniper on the roof of the stadium prepared to shoot him if he dared defy him), the right-handed batter took four consecutive pitches from Tigers hurler Bob Cain before trotting down to first base with a walk.

To ensure the walk, Gaedel had been shown a crouched batting stance that would have made it nearly impossible for Cain to catch the strike zone. However, he abandoned that once he reached the plate in deference to doing his best impression of star Joe DiMaggio. Can later said, “My teammate Dizzy Dean told me if he’d been pitching, he would have plunked Gaedel right between the eyes.”

Outfielder Jim Delsing came out to pinch run. He later described what happened when he exchanged places with his temporary teammate. “I trot over there, he gets off the bag, pats me on the derriere, says good luck and walks back to the dugout. That was the last I saw him.” Gaedel’s major league career was over.

The 18,369 fans that clicked the turnstile for the doubleheader comprised the Browns’ largest crowd in four years. However, it became a myth that the Gaedel stunt ultimately boosted attendance. To the contrary, the next eight home games drew just a combined 21,382. Only four of remaining 21 home games drew in 1951 as many as 5,000 fans.

Counting on the league office not immediately checking thoroughly, Veeck had filed Gaedel’s contract late in the week. League President Will Harridge voided it the day after the stunt, telling press that the Browns’ owner was making a mockery of the game. Subsequently, all player contracts must now be approved by the Commissioner of Baseball before they are able to play.

Although he never appeared in another major league game, Gaedel continued to be hired sporadically by Veeck over the years. He also used his baseball fame as a springboard to make thousands of dollars making various in-person appearances and on multiple television shows. He could have probably parlayed his fame into even more opportunities but his reluctance to travel was a strong deterrent.

Just two weeks after drawing his walk, he was in Cincinnati, working a rodeo. After a couple of police officers mistook him for a child and asked why "a little boy" was out so late at night, he berated them to the point that he was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Described by some as having “beer muscles,” Gaedel was quick to anger if he had been drinking and felt slighted. This was particularly problematic because he increasingly turned to drink, and when he was working it was often at bars or other venues that served. His cousin Richard Czub once explained, “I think his size bothered him when he drank. You know, he realized that he's just a little guy in a world of big people, and he don't fit in too well.”

By June 18, 1961 Gaedel was 36, unemployed and living at home with his mother in Chicago. He went to a bowling alley and got into a drunken altercation with someone who is still unknown to this day somewhere between the watering hole and getting home. He suffered a severe beating and his mother found him lying dead in his bed the next day. Bruises ranging from his legs to his face told the story of what his tormentors had done to him. A later autopsy showed he had also suffered a heart attack, which was likely a direct result of the assault.

Gaedel’s sister, Gayle Esposito, recalled, “My mother and I went over to the apartment. I remember my grandmother saying that he had died in their bed. And then she also held up his clothes, and showed us his clothes, and they were all bloody. So it was apparent that he had taken a beating.”

Because of his reputation of being belligerent, the police were at a loss as to how to start the investigation. Bob Cain, who had been long retired from playing, was the only major league representative to attend the funeral. He and Gaedel had struck up a friendship of sorts since their face-off, even exchanging Christmas cards for a number of years. The pitcher drove over 300 miles to pay his respects to his former opponent.

It was believed that Gaedel had been robbed, as his family believed money was missing. The police determined it was most likely he was robbed and beaten before arriving home, collapsing and suffering the heart attack that finished him off. Unfortunately, his reputation and a decided lack of evidence to follow led to the case turning cold quickly; a state in which it still exists to this day.

Cain kept a prayer card that he was given at Gaedel’s mass. Its concluding words still ring appropriate for a tortured soul who became one of the most famous people in baseball history despite having but one plate appearance. ". . . Merciful Savior send Thy angels to conduct Thy departed servant to a place of refreshment, light and peace. Amen."

List of Sources

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