For me, baseball, like no other sport, has proven over time, as the saying goes, that it is absolutely not the size of the dog in the fight; rather, the size of the fight in the dog.
And, the most recent example certainly is garnering a lot of attention these days as a possible American League MVP candidate. His name is Jose Altuva, the Houston Astros second baseman, who is playing, most assuredly, a whole lot bigger than his 5-6 frame.
The 26-year-old native of Maracay, Venezuela, is currently running away with the American League batting title with a .350-plus average, well ahead of his nearest competitors such as the Angels’ Yunel Escobar; Boston’s David Ortiz, who is drawing his final Major league season in remarkable style; Ortiz’s teammate Mookie Betts and the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. Additionally, Altuva, barring injury, is a cinch to surpass 200 hits, long a standard for the game’s most proficient batsmen when it comes to barreling baseballs.
Additionally, in an era when so many of baseball’s best struggle some on the road because of the wear and tear of playing in multiple cities, often over the span of just a few days, during a six-to-seven month season, the diminutive second sacker actually is hitting for a significantly higher average, over .400, in road contests.
Add the fact that he’s an excellent fielder and base runner who will likely eclipse 30 steals this year, and it’s clear Altuva, now just entering his prime years by baseball’s standards, just may post final numbers that will put him in the discussion of baseball’s all-time greatest little men.
Unlike many other sports where physical size plays a prominent role in a player’s potential for success, with only occasional little-man NBA success stories of the likes of Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb and Tiny Archibald (who, at 6-1 wouldn’t be all that short if you, say, saw him at the mall), baseball actually has crafted a lengthy list of prominent players who see the world from a far less lofty perch than, say, one of the new-look Yankee baby bombers, Aaron Judge, the 6-7, 280-pound behemoth who sports a pair of 9’s as his numeral below his massive shoulders.
In the sport’s earliest days of the modern era, considered in a sport as venerable as the national pastime, to be the 1900s, many of the game’s best players were smaller men.
At just 5-7 and 155 pounds, one of the game’s earliest adept batsman and, perhaps, its fiercest competitor, John McGraw, began his playing career in 1891, when, according to the website Bleacher Report, McGraw was a couple inches under the league average (5-9). Playing in more than a thousand games in a playing career that lasted until 1906, the future Hall of Famer compiled a career batting average of .334, before going on to manage the New York Giants as one of baseball’s first great managers.
A couple decades later, another sub-six-footer, the 5-11” Rogers Hornsby, dominated the sport as few ever have, becoming the only player ever to hit 40 home runs and bat over .400 in the same season of 1922. His lifetime batting average of .358 is second only to the 6-1” Ty Cobb’s .366.
When it comes to the shortest player with the most jewelry, that honor goes, probably in perpetuity, to Yogi Berra, who, from his rookie season of 1946 to his final season of 1965, played in a remarkable 14 World Series with his Yankees winning 10 of them.
By the 1960s, right in the wheelhouse of my youth, several little men distinguished themselves in baseball. Altuva’s Houston franchise, originally the Colt 45s and, by 1965, the Astros, featured two. Jimmy Wynn, at 5-10-” and just 160 pounds, arrived in Houston in 1963 and, eventually, acquired one of the coolest of monikers, “The Toy Cannon,” for his propensity to generate, despite his small stature, enough torque to launch balls far over distant fences, He finished with 291 of them over a 15-year career, with all but four of those years spent in Houston.
That same ’63 season saw another new Colt 45, the 5-7 and 160-pound Joe Morgan, and before he was done, especially as a vital cog on the Big Red Machine World Series-winning 1975 and ’76 teams, when he won back-to-back National League MVPs. All he did was enter the conversation as one of the greatest all-round second basemen ever to play the game. Two years ago, on my fourth trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I saw Morgan’s glove in a display case honoring the juggernaut mid-70s Reds and was amazed at how small it was.
Certainly not all of the game’s shortest players have been Hall of Fame-caliber players. Nonetheless, players like the 1960s-era Albie Pierson, a solid .270 hitter as an outfielder over nine seasons, primarily with the then-fledgling LA Angels, and the 1970s-era Royals shortstop, Freddie Patek, who played well enough to log 14 seasons, most on some very good Kansas City teams and who had back-to-back stolen-base seasons of 51 and 53 in 1976 and 1977, certainly distinguished themselves.
Remarkably, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Pierson and Patek, the tiny Ps, had nearly identical dimensions. Pierson played at 5’5” and 140 pounds while Patek played at 5’5” and148 pounds.
In the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st, yet another of Altuva’s Houston predecessors besides Morgan, Craig Biggio, at just 5-11, also carved out a Hall of Fame career that included more than 3,000 hits and 291 home runs.
Nowadays, besides what Altuva is doing in Houston, there are certainly other little big men, such as Boston’s Yankee-killing second baseman Dustin Pedroia, a former American League MVP himself in 2008.
While no one will ever approach the record for the shortest player ever to step into a batter’s box in a Major League game, the 3-7 and 65-pound Eddie Gaedel, who walked on four pitches in a publicity-stunt appearance crafted by Bill Veeck, the iconic baseball promoter and owner of the St. Louis Browns in a 1951 game against the Tigers, there’s little question that the sport will continue to welcome players like Altuva.
And, because of that, baseball just may very well be, in addition to our nation’s oldest major team sport, our most equitable and democratic as well.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at email@example.com.