Honey, I shrunk the pinch-hitter

If I were commissioner, I would propose that Aug. 19 forevermore be designated Eddie Gaedel Day. On that one day, all players in major league baseball, in honor of Gaedel, would wear his old uniform number, ⅛. August is the one month of the year totally devoid of holidays, and we need something to sustain us until Labor Day.

Of course, the same procedure was followed with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. Robinson was the pioneer, the man who made it possible for players of color to follow in his footsteps. By the same token, if Gaedel had not entered the game on that fateful day in August of 1951, we would never have….let’s see…Craig Grebek…Jose Altuve…anybody seen Freddie Patek lately?

Of course, Gaedel’s unique but brief career had no lasting impact on the game, even though his name lives on in baseball buffoonery. Like Moonlight Graham, Gaedel had his one plate appearance in the big leagues and then was sent packing. It was a no-win situation: Gaedel was too short for the majors and too old for Little League.

Retiring Gaedel’s number would be a snap—it was worn only once, never before or after Aug. 19, 1951. An edict from the commish would be a nice ceremonial touch, but it really isn’t necessary. Would that we could all enjoy perpetual retirement after such an abbreviated period of employment.

In his famed book, Veeck as In Wreck, Bill Veeck asserted that his stunt with the runt was inspired by Eddie Morrow, a hunchback John McGraw employed as a mascot/good luck charm. I don’t quite get the connection, but that’s what Veeck says. At the time, most people assumed his inspiration lay elsewhere, namely in You Can Look It Up, a short story by James Thurber.

First off, the reader might wonder if Casey Stengel adopted his famous catchphrase from the story. It is certainly possible, as quotes from Stengel were not abundant before he took over the Yankees in 1949. The Thurber short story was written in 1940 and published in The Saturday Evening Post at the beginning of the 1941 season—as if Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio weren’t reason enough to commemorate that season!

The Thurber influence is reasonable to infer, given the author’s popularity in his heyday and his long-time association with The New Yorker. Today, his work is not widely read. As a humorist, he seems outdated. In an age that demands edginess, Thurber has only rounded edges to offer. He once defined humor as “emotional chaos rendered in tranquility.” In other words, not exactly Andrew Dice Clay.

Thurber was a baseball fan, but at the time he wrote the story, it’s unlikely he attended games, as his eyesight was failing him. Having lost one eye to a childhood accident (an object lesson as to why parents should never let children play William Tell), his one good eye began to fail. Thurber, however, often listened to games on the radio.

In fact, a year later he published a short story named The Catbird Seat. The story had nothing to do with baseball, but it is debatable whether Thurber picked up the saying from Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber or whether Barber began employing it after Thurber’s story was published. A trivial distinction, perhaps, but many a Ph.D. dissertation in literature has gone down a lane narrower than that.

You Could Look It Up is a first-person narrative in the voice of an old-timer, a trainer reminiscing about events from three decades before. He never specifies the team he’s with or the exact year, but given the cities he mentions, we know he’s in the National League. There are references to various deadball ear stars (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Rube Marquard, Rube Waddell, Jack Chesbro
and Willie Keeler). A more obscure reference is a Pope-Hartford, which was an automobile manufactured from 1903 to 1914.

Since the manager of the old-timer’s unnamed team is called Squawks Megrew, one might assume that Thurber had John McGraw and the Giants in mind, though all the players on the team have fictitious names.

Whatever the team’s name, it is in dire straits, having lost a big lead and fallen into second place at the beginning of September. Megrew is at his wit’s end trying to turn it around. In a hotel bar, he makes the acquaintance of Pearl Du Monville, who is just under three feet tall (and if you’re wondering, Eddie Gaedel was 3-foot-7).

Du Monville accompanies the team on its road trip, and the players are surprised to see him in uniform. When Megrew sends him up as a pinch-hitter for the team’s best hitter, they are shocked. The umpire objects, but Megrew shows him the paperwork, and all is legit. This same situation occurred when Gaedel stepped into the batter’s box.

The St. Louis Browns, of course, were going nowhere, and the Gaedel incident at Sportsman’s Park was just a publicity gimmick. Gaedel led off in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader. Outfielder Frank Saucier had taken the field in the top of the first but was called back so Gaedel could lead off for the Browns. He walked on four pitches and gave way to pinch-runner Jim Delsing, who stayed in the game.

At day’s end, the cosmos was back in kilter. The Browns lost the game by a 6-2 score. In fact, they also had lost the first game (5-2), so as momentous a day as it was in baseball history, the results were typically Brownian.

In Thurber’s story (also set in St. Louis, presumably at Sportsman’s Park), however, Megrew’s team is behind 1-0 with two outs in the top of the ninth when Du Monville comes to bat. A walk, forcing in the tying run, is all but assured. Presumably, a pinch-runner would be sent in for Du Monville, and the team would take it from there.

Like Du Monville, Gaedel had his marching—or rather, walking—orders. Veeck sternly admonished Gaedel not to swing at a pitch. He told Gaedel he would have a sniper on top of the grandstand keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t get any such notions in his head. Veeck, of course, was kidding … I think. But everything went according to plan. Gaedel walked, scampered to first base and into baseball history.

In Thurber’s story, the scenario unfolded in a similar fashion … for the first three pitches, which Du Monville takes. With a 3-0 count, the pitcher manages to get a slow ball over the plate. Du Monville swings at it and hits a ground ball. The infielders fumble the ball while the runners tear around the bases. The tying run comes in with the go-ahead run right behind.

It should have worked out even better than a walk, except for the fact that Du Monville’s legs were too short to carry him to first base before the infielders could corral the ball and shuttle it to first and nip him at first, thus nullifying the tying and go-ahead runs.

It is at this point that Thurber’s prescience becomes truly eerie. Not only did his character of Pearl Du Monville precede Eddie Gaedel by 10 years, but the climax of his story foresees the sport of dwarf-tossing, which didn’t arise till the 1980s!

After Du Monville is out at first and the game is over, manager Megrew is so angry, he picks up Du Monville by the ankles, whirls around like a hammer thrower and hurls him toward center field. The St. Louis center fielder, trotting in at the completion of the game, catches Du Monville on the fly. At that point, I suppose it was even money as to whether dwarf catching would be more popular than dwarf tossing, but the former never caught on.

The incident, however, has a salubrious effect on the team. Though they have lost the game, they have loosened up enough to turn around the rest of the season, and they end up winning the pennant.

If you’re interested in reading Thurber’s short story, it is reprinted in full on the internet on a few sites. At times the story reads like Ring Lardner, as it includes generous helpings of slang, dialect, figures of speech, and malapropisms (e.g., “the bucolic plague” and “all Bethlehem broke out” and “Damon and Phidias”).

To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted to make a movie out of Thurber’s story… but here’s hoping. While “based on a true story” or words to that effect have graced many opening credits of a motion picture, one never sees an event in real life with a sign that says “based on a work of fiction.” Despite Veeck’s protests to the contrary, one can’t help but wonder.

If a movie were made—whether based on Thurber’s short story or the saga of Gaedel and Veeck—the obvious choice for the lead role is Wee Man from the Jackass movies. He’s listed at 4-foot-6, however, so that may disqualify him.

Believe it or not, Wee Man already has a Topps trading card. It’s No. 272 in the 2011 Allen & Ginter series, if you want to look for it the next time you’re browsing in your local sports card shop.

Gaedel or Du Monville … fact or fiction … I think either could be adapted into a feature-length film. Admittedly, when all is said and done, it might work better as a short subject.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    But but but … retiring 1/8 would mean MLB would have to acknowledge that it isn’t a Serious Game. Can’t have people doing fun and funny things mucking it up. The Integrity of the Game is at stake!

    *eye roll*

    Question: Was Veeck as hated by the MLB establishment in his day as Finley was in his?

  2. AaronB said...

    I believe the uniform Gaedel wore belonged to one Bill Dewitt, now the primary owner of the Cards.  His father was heavily involved with the Browns at the time and Dewitt Jr. was always around the team.

  3. Steve Treder said...

    “Question: Was Veeck as hated by the MLB establishment in his day as Finley was in his?”

    Yes, every bit.  The AL owners voted to allow the moribund Browns to be relocated to Baltimore in 1953-54 under one condition:  Veeck sell the franchise.

    A key difference between Veeck and Finley is that while his fellow owners hated him, everyone else loved Veeck:  his employees, his players, and especially the press.  Just about everyone who ever came to know Finley couldn’t stand him.

  4. Fuzzball the Magnificent said...

    From “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber:

    “She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. ‘Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?’

    “It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. ‘She must be a Dodger fan,’ he had said. ‘Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions—picked ‘em up down South.’ Joey had gone on to explain one or two. ‘Tearing up the pea patch’ meant going on a rampage; ‘sitting in the catbird seat’ means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

    No Ph.D. needed!

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