It was Bob Fishel’s 20th yahrzeit. Kaddish was said.
Fishel never married but left hundreds of admirers. At the time of his passing at 74, he was an executive vice president of the American League and one of the most loved and respected people in the game.
He was from Cleveland and working as an advertising executive when Bill Veeck bought the Indians in 1946. Veeck hired Fishel to set up a radio network for the Indians and to handle advertising and promotions.
It was a historic time as Veeck signed Larry Doby and broke the color barrier in the American League only weeks after Jackie Robinson opened the 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1948 Veeck signed Negro League superstar pitcher Satchel Paige and brought in the recently retired Hank Greenberg as an executive to help run the baseball side while Fishel handled the business side.
The Indians set an attendance record that year and went on to win the World Series. Fishel left his beloved hometown and went to St. Louis when Veeck bought the American League Browns franchise. Veeck tried many stunts to hike attendance at Sportsman’s Park as the lowly Browns shared the old ballpark with the more popular National League Cardinals. To help the budget, the Veeck family took up residence in a small apartment under the stands.
By August 1951, the Browns and Tigers were battling it out for last place. Veeck schemed to make an upcoming Sunday doubleheader between the clubs the most memorable in baseball history. Veeck hired Eddie Gaedel, a 3-foot-7 midget – in our politically correct times he would be called a little person or a vertically challenged gentleman — and had a special Browns uniform made with the number 1/8 on the back. Between games Gaedel was to jump out of a large birthday cake marking the American League’s 50th anniversary season.
The big secret, of course, was that Gaedel would pinch hit in the second game. Veeck told no one of the plan except Fishel. Gaedel would find out a few days before, as he would have to be signed to an official American League contract before the league office closed for the week on Friday afternoon.
Fishel, a couple of inches over 5 feet, towered over Gaedel as they met outside Sportsman’s Park. The pair entered Fishel’s old Packard, where Gaedel affixed his signature to the contract. Gaedel was sworn to secrecy, helped by the promise of a couple of extra dollars after he batted.
A proper man, respectful of the game, Fishel really didn’t like the idea of a midget going to bat in a major league game, meaningless or not. But he was loyal to Veeck and the duties of his job.
I encountered Fishel for the last time at LaGuardia airport a few months before his passing. We spent the time waiting for our different flights by swapping baseball bits. He looked as I always saw him: suit, white shirt and tie. His dark hair was almost parted in the middle, the style of decades earlier.
In his monotone, and at my prodding, Fishel related how Gaedel’s contract gained approval by the American League office. “I had to make sure it would arrive just before quitting time,” he said. “That way it wouldn’t be looked at too closely as some employees wanted a head-start on the weekend. One contract was for our office, and one for our manager [Zack Taylor] to show the umpire, if needed.”
It was needed.
A festive atmosphere greeted fans that hot St. Louis Sunday as 18,369 paid their way in. It was the largest crowd to see the Browns at home in four seasons. The Tigers took the opener but fans received a free can of beer, slice of birthday cake and box of ice cream. Between games, jugglers amused the crowd with baseballs at third base. Trampolinists did their thing over second base and an acrobat hurled himself over first base. Four Browns players, led by a drum-banging Satchel Paige, produced off-key music at home plate and things were moving along according to Fishel’s preparations.
Gaedel surprised everyone by popping out of the large cake on the infield. Fishel was smiling as he stood clad in a long-sleeve white shirt and dark pants to the left of the cake as Gaedel exited the top. Fishel alerted the photographers and the photos were carried the next day in many newspapers.
Veeck, Fishel, Gaedel and manager Taylor knew baseball history was just minutes away.
In the bottom of the first inning of the second game, Gaedel was announced as the pinch-hitter for Browns’ leadoff batter, right fielder Frank Saucier. Gaedel came out of the dugout swinging three toy bats above his head while making his way to home plate.
Back in Detroit, I was listening to the game — 1951 was the first season I followed baseball closely. Tigers play-by-play man Van Patrick was laughing as he described the goings-on. I was throwing a rubber ball against the steps outside of the first floor of the two-family house my family lived in at the time. My classmate and best friend (now an internationally known rabbi in the yeshiva world) lived in the upper flat.
I raced upstairs to tell my friend a midget was batting against the Tigers. “Come down and listen,” I yelled as I ran downstairs to the big radio I had on the porch. We listened as Patrick said Taylor was showing umpire Ed Hurley a paper he assumed to be a contract.
Gaedel was allowed to bat and Patrick chuckled as he described the four pitches that were called balls but would have been in the strike zone for any other big leaguer. Gaedel trotted to first base, tipping his cap to the cheering crowd before being replaced by a pinch runner. Gaedel’s big league career was over as the American League ruled him ineligible soon after, and in the future players’ heights as listed on contracts would be closely scrutinized.
I always wondered why there weren’t any newsreels recording Gaedel’s historic at-bat. Only one photograph of Gaedel batting, legs spread apart and crouching to make his strike zone even smaller, exists. Tigers catcher Bob Swift has both knees on the ground to offer a lower target to the pitcher (Bob Cain) while umpire Hurley crouches and leans in as close as he can to Swift.
“There’s only one picture because I messed up,” Fishel admitted. “I did a terrible job because I was so nervous. I forgot to tell the photographers to stay for another surprise in the second game. I was lucky that the photographer from the Associated Press stayed and got the famous photo. I was lucky not to be fired.”
Fellow owners disliked the colorful Veeck and the cash-strapped Browns owner was forced to sell the club before it relocated to Baltimore and became the Orioles in 1954. After a short stint in Baltimore, the Yankees hired Fishel as their public relations director.
Fishel gained the friendship and respect of Yankee stars like Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. He also gained the confidence of Joe DiMaggio and other former players.
Fishel, who liked to help young people as they rose up the front office ladder, hired Marty Appel as an assistant late in the ’67 season. Appel would go on to become a public-relations legend in his own right,.
Leaving the Yankees in 1974, Fishel moved over to the American League’s midtown office and became a special assistant to league president Lee MacPhail. He was rewarded in time and carried the title of executive vice president.
Not one to let something like a respiratory ailment sidetrack him, Fishel worked into the night of Thursday, June 30, 1988. He collapsed and died while exiting a cab not far from his apartment building.
He had the qualities many of us seek – he was hard working, neat, dignified, ethical, friendly, competent, generous, good-humored and a great writer.
What a book Fishel could have written. But he would never do it. He always worried he might hurt someone’s feelings.
Perhaps that sums him up best.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.