Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ode to Eddie

On this date in 1951, the 3'7" Eddie Gaedel made what would be his only plate appearance in the major leagues.

Most baseball fans know the story by now. Bill Veeck, the man behind promotions such as the Grandstand Managers and later the infamous Disco Demolition Night, was the owner of the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns at the time.

In what became perhaps his most famous innovation, Veeck signed the pint-sized Eddie Gaedel to a contract in order to try and boost attendance.

He stepped up to the plate wearing the number 1/8 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers on August 19th, 1951, pinch-hitting in the bottom of the first for Browns leadoff hitter Frank Saucier.

The umpire immediately called for Veeck and Browns manager Zack Taylor, letting Gaedel hit after they produced a copy of his official contract. Not surprisingly, he walked on four high pitches from Detroit hurler Bob Cain and was lifted for a pinch-runner.

The Browns lost the game, 6-2, but it went down as one of the most immortal moments in baseball history. Gaedel's contract was voided the next day. He retired with a career on-base percentage of 1.000.

My hat goes off to Eddie Gaedel on the 63rd anniversary of that fateful August afternoon.

While he took it to an extreme, Eddie Gaedel represents one reason why baseball is the greatest sport on Earth.

Anyone can play it. There's no size minimum. I'll be at the White Sox game by the time this post publishes (weather permitting), and I'm sure if I dressed up in Sox pinstripes, quite a few casual fans might not be able to tell me apart from some of the guys on the field.

There's a quote from Annie Hall where Woody Allen's ex-wife says something along the lines of "What's so fascinating about a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop?" while he's watching the Knicks on TV.

That may be overstating it a bit, but it's why I don't get much enjoyment out of watching basketball in a nutshell. Ninety-five percent of NBA players probably have nearly a foot on me. It's like watching superhumans play a sport, and I'm not much for the fantasy genre.

I know the Muggsy Bogueses of the world occasionally slip by, but those cases are extremely few and far between. The same goes for football.

Baseball is the sport of all shapes and sizes. That's why, in honor of Eddie Gaedel, I've decided to feature a few of my favorite smaller ballplayers. Everyone in this post, with one exception, is as tall or shorter than I am. (I'm 5'10", and I'm not the type of guy who lies about his height. Trust me.)

I'd sky over Wee Willie Keeler. The man was only 5'4". Hence, his nickname. That sure didn't stop him from compiling .341 career batting average. His 2,932 career hits earned him a place in Cooperstown. His 44-game hit streak in 1897 stood for nearly a half-century before some guy named DiMaggio broke it.

The fact that I own a mini card of Wee Willie Keeler is perfect.

I recently inducted Jose Altuve into my hall of binder guys last month.

Don't ask what took me so long. I don't have a good answer for you. Just keep me in mind any spares of his you might come across.

The guy has quietly become one of the game's best players. Even more fascinating is the fact that he's done so despite his 5'5" height.

I still have yet to hear someone talking about Altuve without mentioning his small stature. I was guilty of it a couple sentences ago.

It's just mind-boggling that a guy that small could have such a big impact on the game.

That's baseball for you.

I grew up watching David Eckstein.

I was ten when he broke onto the scene with the 2002 Angels, just starting to hit full-fledged baseball fandom. Eckstein was one of the guys who convinced me that the National Pastime was the way to go.

Some of my cards list him at 5'7" or 5'8", but most say that he stood at 5'6". His BR page agrees.

I try to avoid using the word "scrappy" too much. If one guy deserved the label, though, it was Eckstein. He did anything and everything he could to help his team win. He'd capture a World Series MVP Award with the 2005 Cardinals during his solid decade-long career.

I'm one of many people Eckstein inspired during his time in the bigs.

A lot of the game's all-time greats were never the tallest guys in a room.

When I think of catchers, I tend to picture large, burly, gritty, hard-nosed men. Not so in a lot of cases. Both Pudge Rodriguez and Roy Campanella stood at just 5'9".

Yogi Berra, perhaps the greatest catcher ever, was 5'7".

He captured three AL MVP awards and a staggering ten World Series rings during his Hall of Fame career behind the plate.

And, yet, I have three inches on the guy.

Really makes you stop and think.

Kirby Puckett was the George Costanza of baseball, in that he was short and stocky.

The late Twins great stood at 5'8". His BR page says he weighed just 178 pounds, but a lot of my Puckett cards have him up around the 220 mark.

In all honesty, it doesn't make a difference.

No matter how tall he was or what he weighed, Kirby Puckett could flat-out play baseball better than almost anyone else.

Dustin Pedroia is one of the premier "little guys" in today's game.

The 5'8" second baseman is a former AL MVP and remains well on his way to becoming an all-time Boston legend.

I found this rather fancy Topps Marquee card in a dime box last year and was immediately grabbed by the Jacoby Ellsbury cameo. Even though the former Red Sox outfielder stands at an average 6'1", he appears to sky over Pedroia in this shot.

"Petey" doesn't seem to care.

I'm bound by law to mention Pee Wee Reese in a post along these lines.

Though he'd have a good few inches on most of the guys I've mentioned so far, the 5'9" Reese remains one of the shorter legends in history.

I doubt he liked the nickname much, but it does have a nice ring to it. If anything, he sure didn't let him bother him. He was inducted to Cooperstown in 1984 and remains one of the best players in Dodger history.

It took me far longer than I'd care to admit to find out what his real name even was.

It's Harold. Harold Reese.

I like Pee Wee better.

It's a lot tougher for smaller pitchers to have any kind of success in the big leagues.

The sheer force of throwing a baseball off a mound 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate requires a lot of bodily strength and stature. It's why you see hulks like the 6'10" Chris Young, 6'10" Randy Johnson, and 6'11" Jon Rauch on the hill.

That's not to say that short pitchers can't make it. Hurlers have had a few diminutive heroes.

Tim Collins is one of the more obscure guys I collect, but I've always thought he should be way more well-known than he is. His 2011 Topps rookie card lists him at 5'7", but I've heard that 5'5" or 5'6" is more accurate.

Collins has had a few nice under-the-radar seasons out of the Kansas City bullpen these past few years and has appeared in 18 games for the 2014 Royals.

My collection of his currently stands at a mere seven cards, only two of which were issued after 2011. He needs more.

There aren't that many guys like him around these days, after all.

Maybe Tim Collins wasn't the big name you were looking for.

I guess I'll point you to Whitey Ford then. The 5'10" Yankee legend captured an AL Cy Young Award in 1961 (pictured above) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.

The fact that a guy my height earned a nickname like "Chairman of the Board" gives me hope.

We'll wrap things up with the lone player in this post taller than 5'10".

Pedro Martinez stood at 5'11" and a slim 160 pounds when this minor league card of his was released in 1991. Not the usual recipe for a successful pitcher.

The reason I allowed made him the exception to the 5'10" max on this list is because the Dodgers basically gave up on Pedro because of his small stature. They traded him to the Expos in December of 1993 in a move I'm sure they'd like to have back.

He'd go on to dominate from there, capturing three Cy Young Awards and becoming perhaps the best pitcher of his generation during what is sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

If guys like Pedro are any clue, baseball is the sport for the everyman. You don't need to be seven feet tall or weigh 300 pounds to succeed at it.

Some of the guys I'll see take the field during my lifetime won't look much different than me.

It's one of the many beautiful things about our National Pastime.


gcrl said...

Freddie patek was my 'i am taller than a big leaguer now' guy when I was in 9th grade.

Matthew Scott said...

I do the same thing with Altuve and his height. I've seen him play several times and the only thing going through my mind was how good, and how short he is.

Adam Kaningher said...

Don't forget about Rafael Belliard. Only 5'6" but won a World Series ring with the Braves in 1995.