Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Eddie Gaedel and the ADA
This past Sunday marked the 56-year anniversary of the debut of professional baseball's shortest player, 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel. As part of a publicity stunt, on the preceding Friday, St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck secretly signed Gaedel, a midget, to a big-league contact -- knowing full well that the commissioner's office would not review Gaedel's contract until the following Monday morning.
That Sunday afternoon, before Commissioner Happy Chandler reviewed Gaedel's contract, Veeck suited-up his newest player for the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, giving Gaedel a jersey with the number 1/8. Gaedel was sent into the game as a pinch hitter and, as expected, he walked on four pitches. Gaedel was then lifted for a pinch runner.
The following Monday, Major League Baseball voided Gaedel's contract and changed its its rules, requiring that all contracts needed to be ratified by the commissioner before any player could appear in a big-league game. Implied in this rule change was a ban of midgets and other players uniquely suited to draw walks.
Although certain aspects of the Gaedel's appearance were socially insensitive (for example, Veeck had Gaedel enter the game by jumping out of a cake), from a strategic perspective, many baseball teams have game-related reasons for wanting to hire a player based on his small strike zone. When big-league rosters expand from 25 to 40 players on September 1, the legitimacy of signing a "walking specialist" becomes even greater.
That begs an interesting question -- in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), may a baseball commissioner legally refuse to ratify the contract of a prospective player merely because that player is a midget (or otherwise short)? Indeed, allowing a player of Gaedel's size would not require any special accommodations on the part of Major League Baseball.
Also, could baseball change its definition of "strike zone" to include a minimum size to the zone, removing any advantage of shortness beyond that of certain height (and arguably replacing it with a disadvantage)? Would this situation be viewed any differently if a public league (for example, a high-school baseball league) or a league involving children (for example Little League) sought to impose a minimum height requirement?
Finally, on the day after Major League Baseball voided Gaedel's contract, Veeck, in jest, asked the commissioner to also void the contract of the late Yankees shortstop, Phil Rizzuto, who at 5-foot-6 was one of the game's next shortest players. While Veeck's request was not serious, there is a serious slippery slope argument against contending that someone is too short to play big-league ball. If Gaedel at 3-foot-7 is too short, then what height is just tall enough?