History and Tragedy: Roy Riegels and Eddie Gaedel

Riegels Gaedel

In our look back at the bizarre, tragic, odd or simply historical within professional sports, this is where we left off on Wednesday:

Not all sports oddities are tragic, of course. Some are embarrassing, some humorous—but not always for the one involved…

Take the great Jim Marshall, defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. In a game against the San Francisco 49ers on October 25, 1964, Marshall got his hands on a Niners fumble but incredibly began to run the wrong way downfield—66 yards until he reached his OWN endzone, thinking he had a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Naturally, he threw the ball away to celebrate. The ball bounced out of bounds which, by rule, became a safety for San Francisco. Embarrassed?

Vikings’ head coach Norm Van Brocklin then told Marshall following the wrong way run, “Jim, you did the most interesting thing in this game today.” The Vikings still won 27-22, giving Marshall the last laugh, but the great defensive end would receive a letter from a college player who also did the unthinkable on the collegiate level in 1929—and became very famous for it.

Roy Riegels became a legend for all the wrong reasons on January 1, 1929 in the Rose Bowl. That day, his University of California Golden Bears took on the Georgia Tech Bulldogs. Riegels was both an offensive and defensive star who had earned All-American honors. Additionally, he was a team captain that year. As we are discussing the oddities of professional sports, Riegels’ story is worth mentioning because of what happened to Marshall.

On that day, while on defense, Riegels picked up a fumble by Georgia Tech’s Jack “Stumpy” Thomason just 30 yards from the opponent’s end zone. Instead of running it back for a touchdown, Riegels inadvertently got turned around and began a jaunt of 69 yards in the opposite direction.

If not for his teammate Benny Lom, Riegels would have reached his own endzone and scored a safety for Georgia Tech. Regardless, Roy Riegels forever became known as “Wrong Way Riegels.” He would live 84 long years, however, before passing from complications of Parkinson’s Disease in 1993. When Jim Marshall made his infamous gaffe, he received a letter from Riegels that said, “Welcome to the club.”

Now, let’s go back in time once more.

Riegels Gaedel

Most professional athletes have to be athletic to be stars in their respective sports. Size most often plays a part, of course. Naturally, there are exceptions. Ones such as: Monte Towe and Spud Webb in the NBA; Frank Patek in Major League Baseball; and Joe Morris who ran the ball for the New York Giants.

But the smallest player to ever compete in a professional sport? That honor belongs to Edward Carl Gaedel. More commonly known as “Eddie,” Gaedel suffered from dwarfism from the time he was born and grew to a height of only 3’7″. Weighing all of 65 pounds, St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck sought out Gaedel to play the part of a prank where Veeck would use the very tiny Gaedel as a pinch-hitter in an actual MLB game.

His one and only at-bat took place on August 19, 1951 during a doubleheader between the Browns and Detroit Tigers. For trivia’s sake, Gaedel was pinch-hitting for Frank Saucier. St. Louis Browns’ manager Zack Taylor would have to show home plate umpire Ed Hurley the actual contract that Gaedel had signed because he didn’t think he was a legal batter.

The one-time batter was given strict instructions not to do anything but stand there. Not even to move the bat. As he crouched, reports say that Gaedel’s strike zone was just 1.5 inches high. The Detroit pitcher was Bob Cain, who could be seen laughing at the stunt. And on the first two pitches, he tried to find that little strike zone—albeit unsuccessfully.

On the third and fourth pitches, Cain either gave up or gave in to the joke. Ultimately, he barely threw the balls to his catcher. Four pitches later, Gaedel trotted down to first base where he tipped his cap to the standing ovation of 18,369 fans. Taylor then replaced him with a pinch-runner and Eddie Gaedel’s Major League Baseball career was over just as quickly as it began. To make the at-bat even funnier, Gaedel put on a baseball uniform that bore the number ⅛. The actual jersey is on display in the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Tragically, Gaedel died under unfortunate circumstances at the early age of 36. Following a bowling outing in Chicago, someone trailed Gaedel as he ventured home, only to beat him mercifully. He made it home but was found deceased by his mother as he lie in bed. The autopsy also revealed a heart attack along with injuries to his knees and face. At his funeral, Bob Cain was the only Major League Baseball player in attendance.

For more from Harv Aronson, visit his website!

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