The Only Dwarf To Ever Play In The Big Leagues

“What difference does it make how old I am when I shall never grow any bigger?” —Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald

In A Nutshell

Bill Veeck was the owner of the St. Louis Browns, a pathetic team that needed help attracting fans. In order to fill seats, Veeck used promotional stunts like signing Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf who stood 109 centimeters (3’7″). Thanks to Veeck’s nutty scheme, Gaedel become the first and only dwarf to play in the major leagues.

The Whole Bushel

The St. Louis Browns weren’t exactly the best team in the world. They lost just about every game they ever played, making it hard to get fans to cheer for the home team. Franchise owner Bill Veeck had his work cut out for him, but he was never one to shy away from a challenge. One of the most colorful characters in baseball history, Veeck used weird gimmicks to draw crowds like circus acts and door prizes (bags of coal, live goats, you name it). However, his craziest stunt came in 1951 during the 50th anniversary of the American League.

There wasn’t much suspense going into the doubleheader between the Browns and the Detroit Tigers. Everyone knew St. Louis was going to lose. However, Veeck lured nearly 20,000 fans with promises of free food and beer, but that was nothing compared to what he really had in store. Veeck had secretly signed a new player without the knowledge of his team, the American League president or even his sponsors (Falstaff Brewery). The new guy was a 26-year-old rookie named Eddie Gaedel. Of course, there was one catch: Gaedel was a little person. While he was of typical proportions, Gaedel stood only 109 centimeters (3’7″) and weighed just 29 kilograms (65 lb). But while he knew little about baseball, he didn’t want to pass up an opportunity, however brief, to play in the big leagues.

Hoping to keep things under wraps, Veeck waited until the weekend of the games to finalize Gaedel’s contract. He even swiped a uniform from the seven-year-old son of the club’s vice president, complete with the number 1/8. However, Veeck had bigger concerns than just keeping Eddie a secret. Worried Gaedel might actually try to swing at a pitch, he threatened to shoot the dwarf with a rifle if he even thought about trying to hit the ball. While Veeck was obviously kidding, Gaedel took the hint.

Article Continued Below

On game day, everything was going as expected (translation: The Browns were losing) when suddenly someone wheeled a papier-mache cake onto the field. Much to the crowd’s surprise, Eddie Gaedel burst from the top. While the fans were amused, the sponsors at Falstaff were quite disappointed. This was the big surprise to celebrate the league’s 50th anniversary? However, they hadn’t seen anything yet. In the first inning of the second game, Gaedel marched out to home plate armed only with a toy bat. As the crowd roared with laughter, the umpire objected, but when the team manager whipped out an official contract, there wasn’t much the ump could do other than shout, “Play ball!”

While a lot of pitchers would’ve beaned Gaedel, Detroit Tiger Bob Cain was one of the nicest guys in the sport. He thought the joke was pretty funny. After all, with Gaedel crouched over like Joe DiMaggio, the dwarf only had a 4-centimeter (1.5 in) strike zone. While the catcher sat on his knees, Cain threw a few serious pitches but eventually gave up trying. There was simply no way he could get a strike. He lobbed in a few easy tosses, all balls, and smiled as the little guy triumphantly walked to first base. Once he was there, Gaedel was replaced by a pinch runner and waved to his cheering fans all the way to the dugout. His short but glorious career was over.

After his only MLB game, Gaedel went on promotional tours and even played in an exhibition match. However, he met an unfortunate end in 1961 when he was mugged and suffered a fatal heart attack. Sadly, the only ball player who attended the funeral was his friendly nemesis Bob Cain. However, Gaedel eventually outshone most other big league players. He was included in The Baseball Encyclopedia, his uniform was hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and today his autograph is worth more than Babe Ruth’s. Not bad for just a few minutes of fame.

Show Me The Proof

Moments in the Sun: Baseball’s Briefly Famous, by Mark McGuire, Michael Sean Gormley
The Major League Midget
One Hundred Greatest Moments in St. Louis Sports, by Bob Broeg

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!