Eddie Gaedel: One baseball record that might never be broken

I have been meaning to write something about those baseball records that I think might never be broken. It’s an always-interesting question because I think most records are ultimately breakable in baseball. There are perhaps a select few, like Cy Young’s 511 wins, Ty Cobb’s .367 career batting average and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 which are well beyond reach and should stand eternally. Other than that, from Babe Ruth’s home run records to Cobb’s career hits total, most every mark that seemed insurmountable in baseball has toppled. But if there’s one feat that could stand as long as any, it’s this one, set by a midget named Eddie Gaedel: Shortest man to ever come to bat in a big league game.

This story has been widely reprinted elsewhere, though I’ll briefly summarize it here for anyone who hasn’t heard it. ¬†In 1951, Bill Veeck, owner of the last place St. Louis Browns, secretly signed the 3’7″ Gaedel and, as a publicity stunt, sent him to bat wearing the uniform number 1/8 in a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers. With orders not to swing, due to his impossibly small strike zone, Gaedel walked on four straight pitches; in fact, Veeck told him there would be a man in the stands with a rifle, in case he got bold at the plate. The Browns went on to lose 102 games that year, and Gaedel never played again in the majors, of course, dying in 1961 at age 36 as the result of a bar fight.

So why do I think the mark Gaedel set with his appearance will stand as long as any other? First and foremost, there was only one Veeck, a one-of-a-kind showman who constantly came up with ways to promote his small market teams, from signing 42-year-old Satchel Paige in 1948 to introducing the exploding scoreboard in Chicago (he was also owner at the time of the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night in 1979, though his son Mike masterminded that promotion, which caused a riot.) Beyond the absence of a Veeck among today’s sedate breed of owners, I believe we also have a more vociferous sports media, who would not let the signing of a Gaedel go unnoticed. And I also think most current teams would worry about embarrassing themselves.

That’s all a shame, because I think a team like the Nationals could do worse than to have a pinch hitter like Gaedel, a sure bet to get on-base pretty much every time up. A Gaedel could also help any team in playoff contention some September, when rosters expand from 25 men to 40.¬†Signing a midget would seem akin to hiring an Olympic sprinter as a designated runner (which Charlie Finley did with the A’s in the ’70s) but I’ll be surprised if either of those things happens again.

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