The Ideal Lead-Off Man… “But He’s Too Short!”
Everybody has now heard about the minuscule miracle which is Jose Altuve–the Flying Munchkin! Dedicated baseball fans also recognize the name of .Marcus Stroman But it takes an oldtimer to remember the remarkable Albie Pearson, who was well under the stature of either of these All Stars. At 5’5″ and 140 lbs., Albie was one of the smallest men ever to play in the modern game. And play he did! In the three season spanning 1961 to 1963, he scored well over 300 runs, leading the AL in ’62 with 115. That season also saw his lowest BA of the three, at .261 (sandwiched between .288 and .304). In each of these yearly campaigns, Pearson’s walk totals tallied into the mid-90’s, as one would expect of so small a strike zone.
Yet Albie’s career was essentially over after 1963. He continued to produce runs in greatly reduced plate appearances, so one has to doubt that injury had damaged his wheels. I have tried to contact him for a fuller explanation, but without result. In my experience, a ballplayer who refuses to talk about his career usually doesn’t have pleasant memories of how it ended. My bet is that Pearson’s diminutive height haunted him even during his glory years. He was an acceptable lead-off man for the expansion LA Angels until they got things going… but afterward, some genius in the front office must have decided to “get serious”.
Scouts, coaches, and general managers have harbored a blind, reflexive prejudice against short players for most of the game’s history; and, Altuve notwithstanding, that prejudice has probably never been more rigid than it is now. With so many young adolescents topping six feet (thanks to hormones in our food, perhaps?), coaches even at the Little League level don’t feel the need to take a chance on a smaller build when filling out the line-up card. Tall boys with lousy technique still tend to get fair results, after all, whereas smaller boys have to execute perfectly–and then the suspicion that they “got lucky” clings to them like pine tar. No wonder so many of this latter body type simply give up baseball before they ever reach high-school age! Why put up with that kind of treatment when you could play soccer or tennis?
I’m afraid I’ve seen some pretty stupid coaching in my time, and in no regard stupider than in the mis-estimate of talent based on height. Shorter kids often have better balance, better coordination, quicker hands and feet, more explosiveness, and even a more competitive attitude. I want to see them get a fair shake and do well. I believe this site can help. ~ JRH