Sunday, September 30, 2012

Frank Saucier's promising career derailed by more than Veeck's midget intervention

Frank Saucier once batted an astonishing .446 in 1949 while playing with the Wichita Falls team of the Big State League; a total that to this day stands as one of the highest ever for a single professional season. Yet over 60 years later, Saucier’s claim to fame is not his towering feats at the plate, rather it is the distinction of being the only player in Major League Baseball’s history to be replaced by a midget.

On August 19, 1951, Saucier returned from right field to the bench of the St. Louis Browns at the bottom of the first inning after helping to hold the Detroit Tigers to a scoreless first frame. The events that transpired after Saucier went to grab a bat from the rack to face Tigers’ hurler Bob Cain permanently engrained Saucier’s name in the depths of baseball’s annals.

Before revealing the details of Saucier’s historical moment, let’s go back a few months to the beginning of the 1951 season. He began the season on the suspended list when he held out for a bonus and refused to sign his contract. Saucier turned his attention to managing oil fields in Okmulgee, Okla., content with the money he was making away from baseball. With the season marching along and no attempt from management to make amends on his contract demands, Saucier donning a major league uniform in 1951 seemed almost as absurd as a midget taking the field. The thought of either happening at the time might have been a foregone conclusion, unless your name was Bill Veeck.

Veeck led a group of investors that bought the Browns midway through the 1951 season, and one of the first moves he made was to personally visit Saucier to persuade him to join the club. After an hour of discussions, Saucier penned his name on a major league contract worth $10,000. Veeck hoped that the popular Saucier would energize the fan base and get the turnstiles moving. Slightly over two weeks after he was signed, Saucier made his major league debut on July 22, 1951. Rusty after taking a three month break from playing, Saucier developed bloody blisters on his hands that made it hard for him to swing a bat, and acute bursitis that made it hard for him to throw. The World War II veteran soldiered on for the rest of the season, with most of his appearances coming as a pinch runner. So why was Saucier in the lineup on July 19th?

A week prior to the game, Veeck alerted the newspapers in Saucier's hometown of Washington, Mo., that he would be playing. The news of his appearance brought a few extra thousand people to the game, something the Browns desperately needed. Saucier hoped Cain didn’t have his best stuff that day because he was in no shape to take a hack.

"I go over to the bat rack and pick up my Louisville Slugger, model K44, and I step up to the plate. And I hope (Tigers pitcher) Bob Cain walks me because I sure can't swing the bat," Saucier said to ESPN.com.

He didn’t even get the opportunity to dig his cleats in the batter’s box when his at-bat was interrupted by a stark announcement that boomed across the stadium.

"When the announcer called Eddie, I was thinking this is both the greatest act of show business I've ever seen, plus it's the easiest money I've ever made," Saucier said.

Three-foot-seven-inch midget Eddie Gaedel waddled up to the plate, and true to Saucier’s hopes, Cain couldn’t find the plate. Thoroughly distracted by Gaedel’s miniscule strike zone, he walked him on four pitches. After a few waves to the crowd, Gaedel eventually made it to first base and was replaced by Jim Delsing. Gaedel walked off the field, never to be heard from again by his baseball teammates. He died at 36 in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

As for Saucier, he finished the season with a .073 average (1-14); limited by the nagging injuries that plagued him all season. He was recalled to active duty by the United States Navy in April, 1952 to serve in the Korean War. Four years after starting his baseball career, it was over. He spent two years in the service, receiving his release from active duty in April, 1954. He returned to the oil business, and then became a financial consultant in Amarillo, Texas before his retirement. The baseball fields at his alma mater, Westminster College are named in his honor. At the age of 86, Saucier is living in Amarillo, the last living player from the St. Louis Browns that participated in the July 19th affair. Saucier has embraced his role in baseball history, generously sending out numerous articles about his career after recent correspondence with him via mail (pictured below).

A tip of the cap goes to Bob Lemke's article, Frank Saucier's brief but memorable career now commemorated, which provided valuable background information for this piece.



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