Bob “Sugar” Cain racked up a lackluster 37-44 record during his six years in the majors, but it was his role in an otherwise forgettable contest between Detroit and the St. Louis Browns that made him a “baseball immortal” of the footnote type. Sixty years ago today, on August 19, 1951, the Tigers southpaw pitched to 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel, the only midget ever to bat in a major-league game.
I once visited Cain at his home in Euclid, Ohio. Cain, a low-key, soft-spoken Kansan, had become a salesman for Kraft Foods after leaving baseball. “A lot of people that I run across, when they hear my name, they say, ‘Oh, are you the one who pitched to the midget?’” he said. “I say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ That’s the only way they can remember me.”
The visiting Tigers were playing a Sunday doubleheader. With the sad-sack Browns headed for yet another last-place finish, owner Bill Veeck attracted the largest crowd to Sportsman’s Park in four years—18,369 people—by promising fans “a festival of surprises,” including a between-games show of jugglers, jitterbug dancers, and ragtime music. “I was warming up to pitch the second game when they wheeled a big cake out to the field,” Cain said. “And out of the cake came Eddie Gaedel.” Cain didn’t think much of it until the bottom of the first, when the 26-year-old, 65-pound midget reappeared—this time as a pinch-hitter for Frank Saucier, who had started the game in center field for the Browns.
“When he came to bat, it was rather embarrassing,” Cain said. “He was wearing number 1/8 on his uniform. Ed Hurley, the home plate umpire, at first thought it was a joke—until they officially announced that Eddie Gaedel was batting for Saucier. You could see that Hurley’s neck was getting redder all the time. He said, ‘Let me see a contract.’ Zack Taylor, who was managing the Browns, pulled a contract out of his hip pocket and showed it to him. So Hurley came back and just yelled, ‘Play ball!’ At that time, Hurley was the big umpire in the American League. What he said, went.
“The crowd thought it was very comical. It got me riled up a little bit, but in a sense it was comical. Our catcher, Bob Swift, and I were laughing at first, until Hurley got a little provoked at us and told us to get down to business.” With the Tigers infield, including third baseman George Kell, standing around laughing, and Detroit manager Red Rolfe looking on in disgruntled silence, Swift visited the mound. “Let’s try to get the ball over to the guy,” he told Cain.
“Swift at first lay down to try and give me a target,” Cain said. “Hurley got after him, so he got up on his knees. Eddie spread his feet and squatted down, making an even smaller target. Swift got down as low as he could, but still my pitches were high. I threw four pitches that would’ve probably been strikes. But on Eddie, of course, they were up around his eyes, and I walked him.”
Jim Delsing came in to pinch-run for Gaedel, who trotted off the field to cheers. Cain admitted that pitching to Gaedel “darn near got me out of the ball game because I turned around and walked another guy, gave up a base hit, and the next thing I knew I was in trouble in the very first inning. But we ended up winning, 6-2.” That evening, American League president Will Harridge issued an edict officially banning midgets. With a straight face, Veeck insisted Harridge make a ruling as to whether New York’s prize shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, was a short ballplayer or a tall midget. “Maybe we can get him out of the league,” he said.
Gaedel cashed in on his brief moment of fame, but nothing near what it would be today. “Television is what would really build it up,” said Cain. “But back then there wasn’t a whole lot of hullabaloo put on about Eddie Gaedel.” Over the next decade, Gaedel, an alcoholic who suffered from high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, and injuries brought on by his constant falls, drifted from job to job, usually in promotions. One June day in 1961, he was beaten and robbed in his hometown of Chicago. He came home, foam coming out of his mouth. A doctor told Gaedel’s worried mother, “Oh, he’s probably just drunk. Let him sleep.” The following morning, she discovered Eddie dead in bed. He’d had a heart attack overnight. He was 36.
“I never saw Eddie after I pitched to him,” Cain said, “but a few years later we heard that he had died. We went to his funeral. My wife and I both thought, well, since I’d pitched to him, it’d be no more than right to go to Chicago. It really surprised me that no one else from baseball went to the funeral.”