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Remembering Wayne Byerhof’s brush with a little MLB legend

Chris Walker
Chris Walker

There was a visitation June 5 at Conley Funeral Home for Wayne Byerhof, 86, the late Elburn Police Chief. He passed away earlier this month.

I can only imagine the number of people and stories that were shared. Seemingly everyone who has been in this area has a great Wayne story or two. I’m going to share a baseball one.

Eddie Gaedel, the shortest player in MLB history, pinch hit for Byerhof in an American Legion baseball game in Elburn in 1951.

Gaedel, who walked on four pitches in his only Major League appearance for the St. Louis Browns on Aug. 19, 1951, also walked for the then 19-year-old Byerhof.

Byerhof recalled his brush with this Bill Veeck-inspired baseball history in 2015 during a 90th birthday celebration at Eddie Gaedel Pub and Grill for the late Gaedel, who passed away in 1961. Coincidentally, Gaedel would’ve turned 94 on June 8.

Surprisingly, Annette and Dick Theobald, owners of the Pub and Grill, didn’t name it because of Gaedel’s Elburn appearance, but because “it’s a small, unique bar,” Dick said. “And he was a small man; ours is a small bar, so the name just fit.”

Byerhof remembered pinch running for Gaedel after he walked in his pinch-hitting appearance on Sept. 8,1951, but the newspaper reported otherwise.

According to the Sept. 13, 1951, edition of the Elburn Herald, “Eddie Gaedel arrived during the ballgame and was immediately put into action. He walked once, was caught off base in an attempted steal, and he also appeared with Maple Park, but was struck out for the second time in his career by Kenny Johnson. His beefs to the umpire were not heeded.”

Gaedel, who stayed at the Hotel Baker in St. Charles during his visit, had been scheduled to appear as grand marshal of the kiddies parade during the Elburn Days Festival, but a transportation mix-up delayed his arrival by four hours.

Once he arrived, it was reported that Gaedel handed out 50 autographed mini baseballs to youngsters. Anyone still have one? His autograph is rarer than Babe Ruth’s. So if you still have one, go and get it appraised or feel free to send it to me so I can sell it and use the cash to get new carpeting and furniture for my wife.

Times were certainly a lot different in 1951. You could get a gallon of gas for 19 cents, a new house for $9K and you could call someone a midget without everyone gasping. 

While the m-word is now considered a derogatory slur, it was commonly used in the 1950s as the Elburn Herald promoted Gaedel’s appearance with the headline, “Famous Midget to Appear at Elburn Festival Games Between Elburn – Maple Park.”

And man was he tiny at 3-foot-7. Think about this: Astros six-time All-Star second baseman José Altuve is nearly two feet taller at 5-foot-6!

Gaedel looking up to Altuve is the same as Altuve looking up at former 7-foot-7 NBA stars Manute Bol and Yao Ming. And for you youngsters who don’t remember those two, consider University of Central Florida’s Tacko Fall, who made a splash during March Madness and is not named after a midnight accident I had at a Taco Bell in Joliet in 1993.

I’m running out of space here, but do yourself a favor and Google Gaedel to learn his whole story. Or better yet, find a copy of Veeck’s autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck (1962).” You won’t be disappointed as there’s an entire chapter dedicated to Gaedel.

I also suggest dropping into the Eddie Gaedel Pub and Grill in Elburn, which is Society Chapter No. 2 of the Eddie Gaedel Society (Chapter No. 3 is in Los Angeles and No. 4 is in St. Louis). Even Tom Keefe, president and founder of the society, flew in from Spokane, Washington, to check it out.

Its menu isn’t anywhere near as tiny as Gaedel was with daily specials, apps, salads, burgers and sandwiches to fill even the biggest of appetites. Just don’t leave a tiny tip.

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