When Tom Keefe turned 14, his father, Tom Sr., gave him a book that changed his life.
No, it wasn’t the Bible.
“Veeck – as in wreck,” it was called, the autobiography of Major League Baseball’s P.T. Barnum: Bill Veeck, the man who pioneered the use of wacky promotions to fill his stadium seats.
And on Sunday in Pasadena, California, Keefe will be lauded for how he used what he learned between the pages of that birthday present he received a half-century (and change) ago.
The 67-year-old Spokane attorney is the 2015 recipient of the Hilda award, which recognizes “the distinguished service to the game by a baseball fan.”
The Hilda is presented each year by the Baseball Reliquary, a sort of alternative to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Instead of sterile statistics, the good folks at the nonprofit Reliquary appreciate baseball more from a perspective of folklore, farce and fandom.
I can barely express how proud I am of my city for being home to baseball’s Top Fan, and I’m planning to be there when Keefe gets his award.
Sure, I realize that many of you out there don’t give a pop fly about the game, but look at this way:
Isn’t it swell to see Spokane finally getting some national limelight for reasons other than, say, having a perverted mayor, or the nation’s leading rate of car thievery, or that oddball woman who can’t tell whether she’s black or white?
And besides, Bill Murray won the Hilda in 2006.
So how cool is that?
“I’ve never won anything,” Keefe said. “When I told my kids that this was the baseball fan’s equivalent of the Oscar or the Emmy, they started to get it.
“For me, winning this award is a real validation for the role of being a fan.”
The Hilda award (named for Hilda Chester, a legendary over-the-top fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers) is part of the Reliquary’s yearly meeting at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium in the Pasadena Central Library.
Keefe not only has prepared a speech to deliver, but he had 1,000 very real-looking baseball cards made that show him wearing the St. Louis Browns uniform that was stylish back when Veeck owned the franchise, which eventually morphed into the Baltimore Orioles.
Keefe plans to give his cards away at the meeting because baseball fans love freebies.
“The key is to act humble and thank the little people who made it possible,” he said.
Little people. Good one.
Though already a lifelong baseball fan, what sealed this Hilda deal is Keefe’s forming of the world’s first Eddie Gaedel Society.
Established in 2011, the loosely knit organization meets at O’Doherty’s Irish Pub every Aug. 19 – the day in 1951 when the 3-foot-7 Gaedel stepped up to home plate with a bat in his hands and starred in one of the quirkiest episodes of baseball lore.
As owner of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck was always looking for a gimmick to sell tickets.
But the Eddie Gaedel episode?
This was the Mona Lisa of lunacy.
Unbeknownst to all but a few insiders, Veeck had quietly signed Gaedel to a Major League contract and then put him in the lineup with orders to not swing, or risk a firing squad.
Come game time, wearing a uniform with “1/8th” on the back, Eddie did his job. He crouched at the plate, which turned the strike zone to about the size of a Premium saltine.
He walked, of course. The crowd went wild. Baseball was arguably never the same.
Already leaning toward the irreverent humor found in Mad magazine, Keefe never forgot about this.
“A good story tells itself,” Keefe said. “I don’t know anyone who’s heard the Eddie Gaedel story or heard me tell the story who hasn’t laughed.”
Forming the society was Keefe’s way of paying homage to Veeck, his own inner hilarity and, most of all, that diminutive guy who left the game with a perfect on-base percentage and an autograph that now sells for more than Babe Ruth’s.
Gaedel’s career was short-lived in more ways than the obvious.
Hotter than the pepper-laced Capsolin that Sandy Koufax used to spread on his arthritic left arm, the American League president booted Gaedel from baseball the following day.
Gaedel was reportedly cheesed.
Keefe is more philosophic.
“There have been 20,000 players in the major leagues and 1,000 of them played in (only) one game,” said Keefe, who believes Gaedel, and not Gehrig, was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.
“Every kid who ever put on a Little League uniform looked in the mirror and saw a Big Leaguer staring back.”
A couple days afterward, Keefe added, someone told Eddie that for “the rest of your life you’ll be a former Major League baseball player.”
There are thousands of frustrated jocks who’d trade major appendages just to be able to make such a claim.
But Keefe didn’t earn his Hilda just by forming the club.
Keefe has visited the Gaedel grave outside Chicago. He dropped in on the Eddie Gaedel Pub in Elburn, Illinois. He paused at the home where Gaedel once lived.
Keefe is currently organizing an Eddie Gaedel Society chapter in Dublin, Ireland.
Last year, Keefe persuaded Spokane Mayor David Condon to declare Aug. 19 as Eddie Gaedel Day.
True, Keefe had endorsed Condon. But I’m not sure Condon’s edict was a partisan payback. This may have been more about our small-statured mayor recognizing one of his own.
“It’s interesting that baseball is played on a diamond,” Keefe said. “Because diamonds have so many facets.”
To Keefe, Gaedel is more of a crown jewel.
Everywhere he goes, Keefe spreads the gospel of Gaedel, recruiting and proselytizing like a missionary.
Speaking of which, it should be noted that every March 17 Keefe, who lets his beard grow to Old Testament fullness, dresses up as St. Patrick and addresses the beer-soaked masses at O’Doherty’s.
His look is so opulent that real Catholic priests have been known to covet his regal green garb.
It’s only natural to wonder if Keefe is somehow trolling for some St. Paddy’s Day Society to give him a national award.
“There’s nothing wrong with having multiple personalities,” said Keefe, adding a laugh, “as long as you’re wearing the right costume.”
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