Bill Veeck was one of the most innovative, colorful owners in baseball history, but he’s remembered for sending a midget to bat in a real, official game.
(NOTE: Today, the preferred term is “little person,” but in 1951, everyone, including little people, used the term “midget.” Today, little people consider “midget” degrading.)
In 1951, Veeck (as in wreck) owned the St. Louis Browns, one of the worst teams in baseball history. If that weren’t bad enough, the Browns shared a city with the St. Louis Cardinals, a very good team, and the fans’ first love. Nobody came to see the Browns play.
So on the 50th anniversary of the American League, the Browns held a celebration between games of a doubleheader. A 42-inch little person popped out of the great big birthday cake. No one knew that Veeck had signed the professional entertainer, named Eddie Gaedel, to an official American League player contract. He made sure it arrived in the league office on the weekend, so no one there would invalidate it until Monday.
He dressed Gaedel in a tiny Browns uniform with number 1/8 on the back, gave him one of the miniature bats they sold at the souvenir stand, and sent him to the plate to lead off the second game. Veeck instructed Gaedel to let four pitches go by and take a walk.
Four pitches sailed over his head, and Gaedel trotted to first base. Jim Delsing, the Browns regular lead-off hitter, came in as a pinch runner.
Gaedel made his living performing. This was just another job for him, Veeck told critics who accused him of exploiting a little person,. Appearing for the Browns turned out to be the high point of Gaedel’s career.
Late in life, Veeck predicted correctly that, with all the innovations he brought to baseball, he’d be remembered for Eddie Gaedel.
Veeck, Larry Doby, and the Cleveland Indians
As owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1947, Veeck broke the color line in the American League, hiring Larry Doby, a few weeks after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. In 1948, he hired Satchel Paige, the greatest star of the Negro Leagues, whom many people think is the best pitcher of all time, white or black. Paige, who was 42 at the time, became the oldest Rookie of the Year in baseball history.
Doby and Paige are both in the Hall of Fame.
Those Indians beat the Yankees and Red Sox for the pennant on the last day of the 1948 season. Many of those players were still in Cleveland in 1954, when the Indians won a record 111 games and beat the Yankees again,. In 1959, when Veeck owned the Chicago White Sox, his team beat the Yankees. From 1948 to 1964, those were the only years the Yankees lost the American League pennant.
Veeck and Wrigley Field
Veeck’s father, a sportswriter by trade, operated the Chicago Cubs for chewing gum magnate Phil Wrigley when Veeck was young. Bill started at the bottom, and learned the baseball business from the ground up, working for his father, and .
It was Bill’s idea to plant ivy on the brick outfield walls in Wrigley. While the Cubs were on the road, he stayed up nights with his crew, putting in full-grown ivy, so it would appear as if by magic at the next home game. That ivy is the loveliest, most recognizable, element in what’s commonly called “lovely Wrigley Field.”
Veeck owned a couple of minor league teams before he raised the money to buy the Indians. Back then, a few local businessmen, with an experienced baseball man, could purchase a team as a civic venture. Veeck said in his autobiography Veeck as in Wreck that he never had trouble financing a baseball team.
Veeck, and the Exploding Scoreboard
Veeck installed the first exploding scoreboard, and was the first owner to put the players’ names on their uniforms. Owners said both those innovations made a mockery of the game. (Almost every team does both now,) Veeck said he had this “radical idea that going to a ball game should be fun. Baseball is not church.,” he said in his autobiography.
The owners hated Veeck so much that, when it became obvious his Browns were unsustainable, they did not let him move the team. They wanted a team in Baltimore, but wanted him out of baseball even more. They forced Veeck to sell the Browns to Baltimore people. In 1954, the transplanted Browns opened their first season as the Baltimore Orioles in a new stadium.
Disco Night Fiasco
One Veeck promotion that went completely awry was “disco night” in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, during Veeck’s second stint as owner of the White Sox. The idea was that fans should bring their old disco records to the game, pile them up on the field, and, between games of the doubleheader, a fireworks expert would explode them. They sold thousands of tee-shirts that said “Disco Sucks.”
Instead, fans mobbed the field and set fire to a pile of disco records on the pitcher’s mound. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, a few punches, and a couple of arrests. It took over an hour to get that crowd under control.
The White Sox had to forfeit the second game. The umpires decided the field was unplayable, and fans were still throwing things down from the stands onto the field and opposing team.
Veeck was years ahead of his time, the first owner to recognize that baseball had to compete for the entertainment dollar. History has largely vindicated his vision..
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.