How some of the shortest players in baseball history changed the game
Watching Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is just pure entertainment. Like Nate Robinson winning dunk contests in the NBA or Maurice Jones-Drew barreling through bigger defenders in the NFL, fans love to watch the little guys succeed against their supposedly more-talented opponents. It’s the classic David versus Goliath, and for most people, it never gets old.
When talking to my dad a few weeks ago, we were discussing how much we enjoy watching Altuve, and more importantly, how tall Altuve really is. He is listed at 5’7”, but it’s been reported that’s a “very generous” number. When watching him next to the other players, it seems like a flat out lie. Regardless, the guy can hit, and he’s been a real pleasure to watch for the otherwise not-so-fun-to-watch Astros this year. I mean, how can you not like a guy whose first ever home run is a lead-off inside the parker? You can’t. The hustle, the determination, the will to win — it’s infectious. From watching Altuve, I began to wonder what other little guys had big impacts on the game of baseball. Here’s what I came up with:
Eddie Gaedel, 3’7” (St. Louis Browns) — Most baseball historians and above-average fans already know the story of Gaedel, who was a legal midget, but there can’t be a list of short baseball players without Gaedel listed as case-study #1. Appearing in the second game of a double header on Aug. 19, 1951, Gaedel had one at-bat and walked on four straight pitches. When he got to first, he was pulled from the game for a pinch runner. Afterwards, MLB voided Gaedel’s contract and banned the use of midgets as professional baseball players, saying it made a mockery of the game. Gaedel’s jersey is now displayed in the Hall of Fame, and he was hired back by the Browns as a promotor and a vendor, so fans views of the game weren’t blocked by the guy selling peanuts. In 2011, his grandnephew, Kyle Gaedel, was drafted in the sixth round by the San Diego Padres.
Freddie Patek, 5’4”-5’5” (Pirates/Royals/Angels) — Drafted in 1968 out of Seguin High School in Texas, Patek went on to be a three-time All-Star, lead the AL in triples in 1971 (when he finished 6th in MVP voting) and stolen bases in 1977, and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame after his playing days were over. In 14 seasons, he finished with a .242 BA, 1340 H, 490 RBI and 385 SB in 1650 games. Patek is also remembered for his famous response to a reporters question about being a little guy in MLB, to which he responded, “I’d rather be the shortest player in the majors than the tallest in the minors.” His words, I’m sure, have been used for t-shirts, banners and underdog speeches ever since.
Phil Rizzuto, 5’6” (Yankees) –– The best known of anyone on this list, Rizzuto was a key member of the Yankees dynasty during the ’40s and ’50s. The accolades speak for themselves: Hall of Fame, 1950 AL MVP, five-time All-Star, number 10 retired by the Yankees — the guy did it all. While none of his stats jump off the page at you (in fact, they’re very similar to Patek’s: 1661 GP, .273 BA, 1588 H, 563 RBI, 149 SB), it was the intangibles that made Rizzuto so special. While stating the case for Rizzuto’s induction into the Hall of Fame long after their playing days, Red Sox great Ted Williams said, “Rizzuto was the main difference between the Yankees and Red Sox. If we had Rizzuto in Boston, we would have won all those pennants [during that era] instead of the Yankees.” High praise from one of the greatest hitters of all time. After his career as the Yankees shortstop, Rizzuto went on to be one of the most beloved and famous Yankees broadcasters ever. He even coined the phrase, “Holy cow!”
Candy Cummings, 5’9” (Cincinnati Reds/a bunch of other teams from the 1800s nobody knows) — Cummings is the tallest player on the list at a respectable 5’9”. He’s certainly not one of the shortest, but he weighed a meek 120 lb. and must be included because he’s probably the most important. His career only spanned six season (1872-1877), in which he went 145-94 and he retired at the ripe age of 28. In that time, however, he had two major accomplishments. First and foremost, he created the curveball. Let me repeat: he created the curveball! What more do you want from the guy? He revolutionized baseball forever, and shouldn’t have to do anything else. But just in case that isn’t enough for you, he also was the first player in history to pitch two complete games in one day. That’s right, on September 9, 1876, while pitching for the Hartford Dark Blues, he pitched two complete games victories on the same day against the Cincinnati Reds. Because of his mastery of the curve, which most hitters still weren’t used to, the slender man could dominate teams, and his contribution will never be forgotten.
Albie Pearson, 5’5 (Angels/Senators/Orioles) — The shortest player ever to win a MLB Rookie of the Year award, Pearson took home the AL honors in 1958. He scored the inaugural run for the California Angels, and was also named to the AL All-Star team in 1963. Since his playing days, Pearson has been an All-Star off the field, too. He has built orphanges in Ecaudor and Zambia, and his foundation, the Pearson’s Father’s Heart International, feeds about 4,000 Zambian children who have lost their parents to AIDS each week. While his statistical career was less than stellar, one could argue nobody has done more with their profile as a professional baseball player than Pearson.
Altuve’s career is just getting started, but when looking at these guys, it’s clear he’s got some big shoes to fill.
Note: I’m sure there are tons of players I could have included as well. Who do you think should be on the list that I excluded? Comment below.