Baseball has long history of short players

December 20, 1992|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- A Highland Park, Ill., matron, an acquaintance with strong moral fiber and impeccable social standing, telephoned after reading the latest baseball numbers: 177 players had salaries in excess of $2 million this year; 71 more than $3 million.

She had been intending to push her 13-year-old son into becoming a doctor or a lawyer but was having second thoughts. "He has strong hands and good motor skills," she explained. "Everybody says he's a very good baseball player. He loves to play ball. But he is small for his age. His father was very short. Should I encourage him to go into baseball?"

Lady, I said, that's the one thing about baseball: Size isn't crucial. I have since been going through baseball encyclopedias, separating the big from the small, and have surfaced with a long list of so-called Mighty Mites. I also have spoken to several scouts. All agree desire and enthusiasm, not size, are the primary requisites. It's the size of your heart.

The best players on the 1959 White Sox were the late Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. Fox was listed at 5-10, but was closer to 5-7. Aparicio, stretched from stem to stern, was 5-9. Aparicio made it to the Hall of Fame. Fox also deserves to be enshrined. He had 2,663 hits, nine more than the towering Ted Williams.

Joe Morgan of the Cincinnati Reds, twice winner of the National League's Most Valuable Player award, was 5-7. Morgan hit for both power and average, drew walks and stole bases. In 1976, he led the league in slugging percentage. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Fred Patek, 5-5 and 140 pounds, had a distinguished 14-year career, mostly with the Kansas City Royals. A gate-guard once refused to let him through the players' entrance at Dodger Stadium. "The guy thought I was 15 years old," Patek said. "But there were advantages. I had a small strike zone."

One day Patek got an urgent phone call from shortstop Harry Chappas of the White Sox. Chappas had to talk to him. "He was about the same size, maybe a half inch smaller," Patek recalled. "He didn't know to handle it. I told him, 'Size isn't everything. You won't hit many home runs but you have good lateral movement in the field. That's more important.' "

Chappas, sad to report, had a brief big-league career, three years, a .245 average. But he did hit a home run.

Bill Veeck had an affection for undersized players and was among Chappas' biggest boosters. Chappas' father, from the beginning was also very supportive and more than once told him, "Don't worry, Harry. You're still a lot bigger than the ball."

In 1951, when he owned the St. Louis Browns, Veeck signed Eddie Gaedel, a 3-7 midget. But it was strictly for laughs. In his only appearance, Gaedel walked on four pitches. The next day, Gaedel was banned from baseball.

"What about Phil Rizzuto?" Veeck asked Will Harridge, then the American League president. Rizzuto, the long-time Yankee shortstop, was and still is 5-6.

According to Kevin Kirrane, who has done considerable research, except for Gaedel, the shortest player in big league history was Peter Burg, an infielder with the 1910 Boston Braves. For years Burg was listed in most encylopedias as 5-10. It was a typographical error. He was 5-1.

Nin Alexander, who caught one season, 1884, in the big leagues, was 5-2. When he died his obituary, in part, read: "He caught in the days when it took pluck and bulldog courage to fill the catcher's place."

Wee Wille Keeler, famous for the saying, "Hit 'em where they ain't," was 5-4. He hit .424 in 1897 and retired with a 19-year .343 career average, ninth highest in diamond history. Also in the Hall of Fame is stocky Joe Sewell, 5-6, who still holds the record for the lowest percentage of strikeouts. In 7,132 at-bats he struck out only 114 times, about once a month.

And there was the memorable Albie Pearson, 5-5, nine years in the big leagues, a .270 career average. When they were teammates in Baltimore, the late Bob Nieman, told Albie, "You're too big to be a jockey and too small to be a ballplayer."

rTC Nieman was wrong. Pearson was a very good ballplayer. In his rookie season, in 1958 when he was with the Washington Senators, he was moved from right field to center. Pearson complained that his view of the plate was blocked by the pitcher's mound. "Don't worry about it," Cookie Lavagetto, his manager told him. "When the ball gets out there, you'll see it."

In Pearson's first game at Yankee Stadium, Mickey Mantle hit a drive over his head. The ball carried to the monuments honoring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. When Pearson retrieved the ball, he had to delay his throw. He was too short to see over the statues. Mantle circled the bases for an-inside-the park home run.

"That's OK, kid," Lavagetto told him. "You're one of the best on the club."

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