The smallest, but far from the least, ballplayer in the major leagues is Albert Gregory Pearson, who bats lead-off and plays center field for the Los Angeles Angels. Albie is 5 feet 5, give or take half an inch. Several niggling biographers insist Albie is really 5 feet 4 7/8, and Albie, citing a statistic on file with The Equitable Life Assurance Society, claims he is actually 5 feet 5 3/8. At either height he is not, by almost two feet, the shortest man ever to play organized baseball. That distinction belongs, of course, to the late Eddie Gaedel, the notorious midget who made a solitary appearance at bat—he walked—for the St. Louis Browns in 1951.
Albie's weight is listed as 141 pounds. However, like many other ballplayers, he has a tendency to gain weight during the off season. "I go up to 142," says Albie. His neck size is 15 3/4; and his arms are 30 inches long. "I'm built funny," Albie admits. "I think he'll be an archeological find," says Rocky "Bridges, the Angels' third-base coach.
In 1958 the Little Guys and Dolls of America, an organization whose membership is limited to those 5 feet 6 and under, voted Albie their Athlete of the Year, but he hasn't heard from them since. "I guess they extricated me or disintegrated me or something," Albie says. But he does get some 200 letters a month from what he calls the "little people." He says one read: "Dear Albie: I want to say that I was very proud when you hit that home run against the Yankees the other day. I went home and told off my big, fat wife. Just keep hitting them so I can be the boss around the house." Alas, hitting homers is not Albie's forte—he has hit but 16 in five seasons in the major leagues.
"My dad always told me not to worry about my size," Albie says. "Two inches aren't very much unless they're on the end of your nose. The only time I feel little is when I have had a bad day. I don't mind having a bad day but I hate to look bad. Then I look like a little boy. I hate to look like a little boy. I get paid, but the kids in the Little League can do what I'm doing and they do it for free. I should have been a center in the National Basketball Association."
It has become rather a clich� that Albie Pearson makes up for his lack of size and, consequently, power with hustle and determination. "He doesn't give an inch," notes one observer, "but then he doesn't have too many to give." "The little man never has it made," says Albie. "Baseball primarily is a game of big men, but what the Lord takes away in stature he makes up for by giving the little fellow something else—that extra drive and heart. Paul Richards, who was my manager when I played for Baltimore, told me that baseball, or anything else that's worthwhile, is like a greased flagpole. If you keep climbing you're not going to get any worse and you may get better, but if you stop you're going to slide right down."
In his dogged ascent Albie has been accused of being a melodramatic player, or a hot dog. "It's difficult for a little man to be humble," he says. "I'm probably the littlest hot dog. I admit it. A little man always looks like he's putting it on. It's basically his nature, for as a small kid he always had to scrap to make his way. Even if he becomes a big-money tycoon he remains feisty. That's always been the common bond between little men. My idol is Napoleon Bonaparte, but my dad told me, 'Son, the real great people in the world are the ones with humility. The greater you become, the more humble you must become.' Sometimes I say or do things that are a little egotistical. Every day of my life I do things I shouldn't do. Then I say to myself, who are you kidding? Relax and cool it. In our era, the era of thermonuclear weapons, rumors of war, what's the use of being a warrior yourself?"
In January 1958, several months before Albie's first season in the majors, he wrote a letter to Cal Griffith, at the time the president of the Washington Senators. "I wish to request permission to attend early camp," it read. "It is extremely important. I need a ton of work on certain parts of my playing. There is no short cut to being a winning ballplayer when you're 5 feet 5...."
Griffith was dismayed when he saw his new outfielder for the first time—"He said I looked like an elf," says Albie—but Albie showed his mettle. He hit .275 and was selected Rookie of the Year. In 1959, partly because of a hernia and a lingering, debilitating cold, Albie's weight dropped to 126, his batting average to .216 and he was traded in mid-season to Baltimore for Lenny Green. He fared little better in 1960, spending half the year with Miami, then an Oriole farm team. When Albie learned that the American League was going to expand, he dashed off another letter, on this occasion to Fred Haney, the Angels' general manager. "Dear Mr. Haney," it read, "I know you're forming a new ball club and I can be had for peanuts. I still can play and I feel I can help you at the gate because I was born in California and I got a lot of relatives. Please consider me."
Shortly thereafter the Angels chose Albie in the expansion draft, and he was in their lineup opening day. He is, in fact, the only Angel to start in all three of the team's opening games. Albie hit .288 in 1961 and .261 in 1962, when he led the league in runs with 115. Last year he set a club record by stealing 15 bases and had more walks, 95, and fewer strikeouts, 36, than any other Angel. He has developed into a sure defensive player, too, especially at home in the broad expanse of Chavez Ravine, and he has a knack for coming up with the ingenious, inspired play. While running between second and third in a game against Washington early this season, for instance, he reached down momentarily with his left hand in an attempt to screen a ground ball that had been hit toward short. "At one time," says Rocky Bridges, "Albie was a novelty act, but last year he found his mark. As a small guy he made himself a big guy."
Albie Pearson, who is 27, was named after another conspicuous little guy, Albie Booth. He doesn't have any of the commonplace vices, his foulest swear word is "rat-fink" and his major indulgences are dollar Nassau—he is a first-rate golfer—and a large and modish wardrobe that includes two pairs of $75 alligator shoes. "They are not elevators," says Albie defensively. His moral fiber, radiant smile and cunning good looks often engender comment. Although he is the darling of the Angels' fans, some players around the league resent his attitudes and successes. "He don't drink, smoke or fool around," says one pitcher. "You can't trust that kind." Others find him a small but perfect target for heckling. They call Albie "the marvelous midget" and tell him to "get a couple more coats of shellac on your teeth." Albie takes the static gracefully. He makes upward of $20,000 from the Golden West Baseball Company each year. And, as his teammate Bo Belinsky puts it, "A lot of guys look up to the little man."