To hear former Chicago White Sox infielder Harry Chappas tell it, his precipitous descent started with a missed sign. During an early-season game in 1979 against the Cleveland Indians, rookie Chappas "mistook" a coach's signal to stop at third base and instead made a headlong dash for home. A nifty slide enabled him to elude catcher Ron Pruitt's tag and score the winning run, but the incident was one of several that didn't sit well with White Sox management. "After the game all the reporters were crowded around my locker," says Chappas, who recalls his days as a South Sider with uncanny precision, "but then the manager called me to his office, and I got sent back to Triple A."
Chappas earned fleeting cult status in 1979 as much for his Lilliputian stature as for his prowess as a switch-hittingwhat else?shortstop. Listed at 5'3", he became the most vertically challenged man to play professionally since 3'7" Eddie Gaedel pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns in '51. Chappas, however, contends that his height prevented him from getting a fair shake in Chicago. (Never mind that two of the best players in White Sox history, Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, stood 5'8" and 5'9", respectively.) "I began to realize that Bill Veeck just wanted me to be a gimmick to put people in the seats," says Chappas, who claims he's closer to 5'5". "The first major league contract I signed was made of cardboard and was five feet tall. All these photographers took pictures of me next to it. I didn't know better, so I went along, playing the role of the little guy."
Chappas had batted .302 and stolen 60 bases with Chicago's Class A team in Appleton, Wis., in 1978, and Sox owner Veeck said at the time that "Chappas is a player." The player went on to hit .245 in 184 big league at bats, hitting one home run and walking only 15 times. After being sent back to the minors in '79, Chappas never returned to the majors for more than a cup of coffee. Following his minor league stints, he played briefly in Italy before shattering his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1984. With little to cushion his career's free fall, Chappas moved in with his parents in South Florida. A decent golfer, he considered playing the sport professionally but says he "got down on myself and got sort of depressed." Now 39, Chappas lives alone in a Florida efficiency and has entered a vocational training program. He has also developed a passion for watching and playing jai alai. "I got the cesta and everything," he says proudly. "It's one game where it actually helps not to be big.
by Jon Wertheim
photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier
Issue date: September 29, 1997
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