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Original Issue

Standing Small

Little guys can be giants in the big leagues, and 5'8" Minnesota slugger Kirby Puckett embodies the notion in a big way

The midautumn night is deep, the Twins' dream is glimmering, and up rises Puck. Not Shakespeare's Puck, the irritating comic sprite, but Minnesota's: Kirby Puckett, a genie self-summoned from a half-pint jar.

His teammates call him Puck for short, and 5'8" is what he is, but he is also 226 pounds of all-rounder, including no more than an ounce of fat, hair or egotism. Now, with the Minnesota Twins behind three games to two and the score tied 3-3 in the sixth game of the World Series, Puckett leads off an 11th inning that is packed as tightly with tension as he is with usable mass.

In the American League playoffs he was the MVP, and so far this night he has driven in or scored all of his team's runs and stolen at least one run from the Atlanta Braves with a leaping catch against the left centerfield fence. Now at the plate he stands chockablock.

When you're made of springy sacks of cement, as Puckett appears to be, you look a little taller because you don't slump or tilt—there's no slack in you, you just get thick wrinkles in the back of your neck (Puckett's is 18 inches around) from your torso's bulking upward against the limit of your height.

Incidentally, Rabbit Maranville, the 5'5" shortstop of the '10s and '20s and '30s who scuffled his way into the Hall of Fame, had a big wrinkle in the back of his neck, too, but according to a contemporary of Maranville's, "People would say, 'That's from drinking out of a bottle.' "

I digress. This story may chatter and hop around and spray hits and fall back on cleverness—but if that's not appropriate to its overall subject, then Peanuts Lowrey wasn't a little guy, Noodles Hahn wasn't a little guy, and Walt (No Neck) Williams, Vic Davalillo, Solly Hemus and Heinie Groh weren't little guys.

And they were. So, of course, was the perfectly named Johnny Pesky. Little guys have had some of the greatest names in baseball history (page 120), for instance Davy (Tom Thumb) Force, Charles Augustus (Bunt) Frisbee, Arlie (the Freshest Man on Earth) Latham....

I'm going to calm down now. Little guys are spark plugs who wear their emotions on their sleeves and can't sit still on the bench, but they also keep their wits about them. Of course, you can't generalize too much about little guys. For instance....

Boom! Puckett homers to left. Wins the game to force a seventh, in which the Twins spirit away the crown.

But you know that already. What you may have overlooked is what a great advance in little-manhood Kirby Puckett represents and also what a great hook last year's Series provides for an appreciation of baseball's storied little people.

Few fans know what it is like to be as big as most NFL and NBA players. But everyone at some stage in life has felt little. "You know the real advantage of being short?" says American League Rookie of the Year Chuck Knoblauch, who's 5'9". "When a big crowd of kids comes after us for autographs, I can blend in with the kids." Baseball is the game in which you can make up an all-star team of little guys with immortals at every spot but one.

Not many guys 5'9" or under have played major roles in the Super Bowl or the NBA championship. You know how many appeared in the '91 maybe-greatest-of-all-time World Series?


For the Twins: Puckett, Knoblauch, Al Newman and Jarvis Brown. For the Braves: National League MVP Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, Rafael (Pac-Man) Belliard and Lonnie Smith.

And do you know what their combined batting average was in the Series? It was .320. And do you know what their slugging percentage was? It was .573. If the Braves had won, Lemke, 5'9", who hit .417 with three triples, drove in one game-winner and scored another, would probably have been the Series MVP.

Key play of the final game? Pendleton, 5'9", hitting a long double into left center. Puckett chasing it down and Knoblauch (here is your quintessential little-guy move) deking Smith, 5'9", into slowing up at second base and failing to score what would have been the go-ahead run.

"I usually try that when someone's stealing and a fly ball is hit," says Knoblauch. "Pretend to be fielding it on the ground and fake throwing to second so the runner will slide into the base, and if the fly ball's caught, we double him off first." If Greg Gagne, at short, had put more into his end of the fake, Knoblauch says. "I think Lonnie would have slid into second." But Gagne is 5'11". Tricks are a little-guy tradition.

"What fools these mortals be," says the Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and when Oberon chides him for befuddling people. Puck replies merrily, "This their jangling I esteem a sport."

"It's almost an inborn instinct to scrap and scrape and be a little pest out there," says Lemke. "Sometimes other players on the team don't appreciate that. You have to do these things day in, day out, be Johnny-on-the-spot. I'm always looking for somebody to play catch."

If I may inject a quick little personal note, I was a little-guy player as a kid. Fortunately, since I was not all that quick a little person, I outgrew the category in physical terms. But even now, when I wake up in the morning, a paunchy veteran fading, perhaps dying, certainly going back to sleep, my little guy within kicks in: "Have a little pepper, have a little life."

Little guys—worriers, overachievers, students of the game—make effective if annoying managers: Earl Weaver. Sparky Anderson. Miller Huggins and the prototype, John (Little Napoleon) McGraw.

Ask Tom Lasorda, skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers, about little guys and he seems to take it personally: "What do you mean, little guy?" Lasorda in his playing days was listed at 5'10". Of course he may have misrepresented his stature upward just a tad. They'll do that, little guys, figuring they deserve another inch or so for heart. John Cangelosi, a Pirate outfielder in the late '80s, confided to a reporter that he was really 5'7". So why did he have Pittsburgh list him as 5'8"?

"It looks taller," he said.

But we can't go back and remeasure everybody in baseball history. For the purposes of this story, we define a little guy as a man who is or was officially listed as 5'9" or shorter and who therefore can fit inside the average American adult male, who is unofficially 5'10".

That may seem an arbitrary definition—it disqualifies 5'11" Pete Rose, whom many little guys cite as a playing-style model; Maury Wills, also 5'11"; Nellie Fox, Leo Durocher, Pee Wee Reese, Brett Butler and Lenny Dykstra, who were or are officially 5'10"; and even Enos Slaughter, 5'9½".

If Dykstra is 5'10", says his 5'9" Philadelphia Phillie mate Wally Backman, "I'll jump off a building." But he would jump off a building to get on base. And you have to draw the line somewhere.

Maybe all the guys who admit to being 5'9" are actually 5'8", and so on down. They can't be blamed for adding inches, because little guys tend to be discriminated against purely on the basis of height. New York Mets assistant vice-president Gerry Hunsicker says, "As a scout, it takes you longer to believe what you sec if the player is short. If you see a kid 5'8" throwing 90, you're not as impressed as if he were 6'2". Maybe, when you're a scout, it's ingrained in you. You know it would be easier to sell the organization on a kid you're raving about if he's 6'4". You hear people say, 'Baseball is the game where size doesn't count.' That's not true."

In 1991 only 45 of 1,018 major leaguers were 5'9" or under. "With a smaller guy," says Dick Bogard, the Oakland A's director of scouting, "you are looking for things like first-step quickness, and you can watch several games and if he doesn't get something hit near him, you never get a chance to judge."

"The main thing with size is getting signed," says Chicago White Sox second baseman Joey Cora, 5'7". "After that, you have a manager who wants to win, and if a small guy is better than a big guy, he'll put the small guy out there."

Do little-guy managers have a special fondness for little-guy players? Manager Earl Weaver, 5'8", got good production out of 5'8" Al Bumbry from 1972 to '84, 5'7" Don Buford from 1968 to '72 and 5'8" Curt Motton from 1967 to '71 and '73 to 74. If Motton hadn't spent 1972 in exile with the Milwaukee Brewers and the California Angels, Weaver would have had three outfielders with an average height of less than 5'8"—the odds against which were enormous.

Lasorda, at any rate, has some little guy in him. "When I was playing," he says, "somebody asked me, 'How do you feel, a little guy pitching to big guys?' 'How do I feel?' I said. 'I feel like a dime next to a bunch of pennies. Who's worth more?'

"Little guys—they kill you in the World Series," Lasorda continues. "That Lemke, that Doyle in 78...."

They'll do that, all right. Actually, the New York Yankees' Brian Doyle, who helped kill Lasorda's Dodgers in the '78 Series, was 5'10" (his brother Denny, who made a big throwing error for the Boston Red Sox in the 75 Series, was 5'9"), but Bucky Dent, who did the Dodgers even more damage in 78, was 5'9".

Oh, let us sing of big-game little guys: scrappy, can't-do-anything-but-beat-you Eddie (the Brat) Stanky, 5'8", kicking the ball out of 5'6" Phil (Scooter) Rizzuto's glove in '51; 5'6" where-the-hell-did-he-come-from Al Gionfriddo robbing big guy Joe DiMaggio of deep-center extra bases in '47; brainy Johnny (the Crab) livers. 5'9", hollering for the ball when Fred Merkle failed to touch second base in 1908; 5'7½" Sandy Amoros saving the '55 Series for the Dodgers with a spectacular running catch; 5'9" Bobby Richardson going little-guy-Series wild in '64.

And let's hear it for Wee Willie Keeler and Jigger Statz and Bitsy Mott and Dom (the Little Professor) DiMaggio and Claude (Little All Right) Ritchey and not only Rabbit Maranville but also Rabbit Warstler and Rabbit Glaviano and Rabbit Garriott and Rabbit Robinson—and, more recently, the White Sox Smurfs. (Last year the White Sox had seven players at 5'9" or thereabouts. Tim Raines admitted to 5'8"; Craig Grebeck, Warren Newson and Cora to 5'7". Ozzie Guillen, Lance Johnson and Scott Fletcher were listed at 5'11", but they didn't look appreciably bigger than the others. When Raines arrived in the clubhouse last spring after 10 lonesome-little-guy years in Montreal, he looked around and said, "They're all like me, a bunch of Smurfs.")

The transcendent Puckett, for whom height has not been fate, stands on the shoulders of many small giants. Before we can put Puckett in perspective, we must summon all the spirits of the short.

On Aug. 19, 1951, Bill Veeck, then owner of the St. Louis Browns, shocked traditionalists by sending midget Eddie Gaedel, 3'7", to the plate. Gaedel went into an exaggerated crouch—since he had never batted before, the umpire had to accept that as his natural stance—and walked on four pitches. He gave his pinch runner a pat on the fanny.

"Man," Gaedel told another Brownie on the bench. "I felt like Babe Root."

"I won't mind if they put 'Me helped the little man' on my tombstone," Veeck said later. After the game Gaedel went up to the Sportsman's Park press box. Bob Broeg, the St. Louis sportswriter, set him on the edge of a table to be interviewed. "The thing I remember about him so vividly," Broeg wrote years later, "is how beautifully dressed the guy was. He had on a perfectly tailored brown suit and a yellow shirt, open at the collar. I said to him, "Do you realize that you are now what every one of us [writers] wishes we were—an ex-big leaguer?"

"Well,I guess that hadn't hit him yet. He kind of straightened up and pulled out his chest. Then, without saying a word, he hopped off the table, walked out and left town. I never saw him again."

The shortest nonmidget major leaguer was Pete Burg, 5'1", who played 13 games, all but one at second base, for Boston in 1910. The shortest baseball executive was Donald Davidson, 4-foot even. When he was traveling secretary of the Braves in the '60s, he went with another team official and his wife to a University of Georgia football game in Athens. All three had quite a few drinks and decided it would be safer alter the game to stay in a motel and drive home the next morning. When they checked in, the desk clerk surveyed them with asperity and said, "Y'all's little boy is drunker than y'all are."

Smallness as both charm and curse may be seen in the career of Albie Pearson, who played outfield for four American League teams between 1958 and 1966. His parents, themselves small, pegged him for a little guy from the beginning, naming him after Albie Booth, the distinguished watch-fob Yale halfback of 1929-31, and by age 12 Pearson was so much shorter than his peers that he was given shots of testosterone three times a week.

His first minor league manager took one look at him and said, "What is this thing? He's the smallest thing I've seen since Bill Veeck's midget." When Pearson made it to the big leagues (or at least to the Washington Senators) he was officially 5'5" and bridling at sportswriters' insistence on making him 5'4‚Öû".

"Around here." he said as a rookie, "there's nobody my size. I'm wearing the batboy's trousers." He received enormous media attention and, partly for that reason, a mixed reception from even the little guys on his team. "A fine player of small stature. Has a good chance," said 5'8" Rocky Bridges, a good-natured shortstop who noted. "I love to warm up with [Pearson] because he makes me feel like I'm throwing downhill." But thorny 5'8" catcher Clint (Scrap Iron) Courtney grumbled, "What we need is men with strength. He isn't going to bust up any games for us. When I go down in my crouch, I can't sec him over the mound. It's like playing without a centerfielder."

Pearson hustled showily, "ran the bases like a toy terrier," to quote one observer, hit a hard .275 with traces of power and was named the 1958 American League Rookie of the Year. The fans and reporters ate him up, but his organization traded him the following May to Baltimore. The Orioles soon let Pearson go to the Angels, for whom he had a couple of good years. He made the American League All-Star team once. But his story was always his size. Ted Kluszewski, his hulking Angel teammate, went to borrow a dime from a pocket of Pearson's pants, which were hanging in his locker, and couldn't get his hand into it. "[Pearson has] a lot of little motions that make a hot dog," said crusty 6-foot outfielder Hank Bauer. "Gets you mad as hell sometimes."

"It's difficult for a little man to be humble" is how Pearson put it. Also, "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."

When Pearson retired in 1967, he became a traveling fundamentalist preacher and youth counselor. He didn't regret not having a longer playing career, he said: "It's so much more rewarding to see just one kid coming out of the pits of hell."

Freddie Patek, whom several active little guys cite as an inspiration, was listed at 5'5" but now says he was really 5'4". He put in 14 years as a quality shortstop with Pittsburgh, Kansas City and California, and he never let being called Cricket, the Flea and Moochie get him down.

Patek is now a roving minor league instructor for the Brewers. "I don't consider 5'9" short," he says. "I would have killed to be 5'9"."

"Freddie Patek and Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were my heroes," says Yankee infielder Mike Gallego, who is listed at 5'8", but that may be pushing it. "Rose may be a taller man, but he was very aggressive in the way he played. Joe Morgan, the Little Big Man. He had pop. And when I finally met Freddie Patek, the strength of his hand was unbelievable. But I did tower over him.

"One day Dave Parker asked me if I wanted to go golfing with him. I was excited that Dave Parker would even talk to me. I find out, the reason he wanted me to go play golf was to use me as a tee.

"One time Dave Winfield was on second during a game and there was a pitching change. He got the attention of one of the photographers and had him take a picture while Dave was kneeling down on second and I was standing up, and we were about the same height. I still have that picture.

"The only time I consider myself a little man is when I look up on the screen during the national anthem and realize I am pretty short. I stand next to the batboys, and they are usually a few inches taller than me. But once the game starts, I'll go head-to-head with anybody. If I have to knock a catcher over, I will. If somebody knocks me over at second, I have ways to let him know he came into my territory."

"My teammates are always kidding me about my size," says 5'7" Bip Roberts of the Cincinnati Reds. "Saying things like, they would cat peanuts off my head. When I was a kid, I was always the last guy picked, then after we finished the game, I was always the first guy picked the next game. When you're on the playground and get in squabbles, they always tend to fight the little guys first. So I really had to learn to fight at an early age."

"When you're at home plate and you have more size, you feel you have a little more leverage, a little more strength, a little more mass," Lemke says, perhaps speculatively. In fact, upper-body strength sometimes determines whether you're regarded as a little guy. Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle played at the same height, 5'11½", but Mantle weighed 30 pounds more and hit the ball distinctly farther, so Martin was a little-man type and Mantle a big stick. Switch-hitter Pendleton of the Braves is a little guy from one side of the plate but not the other. "Lefthanded I try to hit the ball into the upper deck," he says. "Righthanded I'll take you to right in a minute."

Which is not to say little guys can't go long-ball. Mel Ott, 5'9", hit 511 homers, the little-guy record. Of course, he hit 63% of them in the Polo Grounds, with its short rightfield fence. Hack Wilson, 5'6", hit 56 in 1930 and holds the alltime season RBI record with 190 in 1930, but he was basically a big guy with little legs.

Yogi Berra hit 358 homers. A 5'7½" mystic, Yogi. May have been the greatest little-guy player of all time, unless it was Morgan or Eddie Collins, both of whom played second base, which is the quintessential little-guy position. And you talk to most any little guy today, and he'll say, "I could hit 10, 15 homers a year, but...."

But, as Grebeck says, "little guys do the little things. Bunt, hit behind the runner, hit-and-run. I'm capable of hitting homers, but that won't keep me in the big leagues."

Greg (Pee Wee) Briley, the 5'9" Seattle Mariners outfielder, says, "I kind of like being small. When I do card shows, parents talk to their kids and say, 'See, he's not big and he made it.' That makes you feel good. Some say I look bigger in person."

Now let us look at our little-guy all-star teams. When you consider that only 4.4% of contemporary players qualify, our active team (page 116) is remarkably strong—except at four positions.

Pitcher. Our all-star staff consists of three of the few little guys who pitched in the big leagues last year. (Another is the Brewers' Julio Machado, 5'9", who is awaiting trial in Venezuela on a charge of unintentional murder.)

"Smaller pitchers just don't seem to have the leverage of bigger ones," says White Sox general manager Ron Schueler. But Tom Gordon throws as hard as just about any big man and says, "When I'm walking in a mall somewhere, people say, 'You're not that tall.' No, in size, I'm not. But in here, in my heart, I'm the tallest man on earth." And Brian Barnes gets a lot of strikeouts with his big curve. And Steve Frey says, "I seem to get on well with fans. Maybe it's because I'm closer to their size."

First Base. Not only is a large target an asset here, but also teams look for power-hitting from first basemen. Luis Salazar played first base in only seven games last year. He's mostly a third baseman, though he has filled in everywhere but at catcher.

Catcher. Lenny Webster feels his height makes it easier for him to present a low target, but he is the only little catcher who played in 1991. He will probably be the Twins' second-stringer this year, behind 6'2" Brian Harper.

Designated Hitter. Luis Polonia is good on offense but not exactly a slugger.

Pitchers are, on average, the tallest players, at 6'2.06"; second basemen are the shortest, at 5'10.9" (page 120). People say there are so many short second basemen, and nearly as many short shortstops, because you don't expect power-hitting from those positions. But that's being negative and begging the question. Keystone combinations tend to be short because quick, compact niftiness is of the essence at the heart of team defense.

"If anything," says Gallego, "I have an advantage in fielding ground balls. You talk to any infield coach, and the first thing he wants you to do is get down low to the ground and get a better view of the ground ball. Take a tall infielder, like Cal Ripken—I have an advantage over him because I don't have as far to go."

The 6'4" Ripken agrees. "I'm lumbering of sorts," he says. "It's a big mistake for me to try to do the things the little guys do. I don't have the quickness, the ability to run around the ball. I have to be more scientific in my positioning."

In other words, a big guy in a little guy's spot has to compensate, the way a little guy has to in the batter's box. But even there, lack of height confers advantages. "My target is smaller," says Gallego, "and pitchers have to aim the ball more."

"The little guy doesn't have to worry about hitting the curveball," says Pirate coach Rich Donnelly. "You can't throw him one for a strike. His strike zone is about a half a centimeter."

As for the alltime little-guy team (see left), maybe Ray Dandridge, 5'7", of the Negro leagues should start at third and Ripper Collins, 5'9", of the old Gashouse Gang Cardinals at first (there are no Hall of Fame little-guy first basemen). You could put Joe Sewell, 5'6½", at third, but he was a shortstop, and Collins was the best third baseman before Pie Traynor.

Sewell was without peer at the little-guy specialty of not striking out. There were three Sewell brothers, and they must have been bred to make contact: Joe, a Hall of Famer, struck out only 114 times in 7,132 at bats; catcher Luke, 5'9", 307 times in 5,383; and pinch-hitter Tommy, 5'7½", managed not to fan in his only plate appearance. In 1927, the one year the brothers were all in the big leagues, they had 1,040 at bats with only 30 strikeouts.

The bench for the alltime little-guy team would include Maranville, Evers, Rizzuto, Richardson, Bobby Wallace (5'8"), Joe Tinker (5'9") and Pepper Martin (5'8"). We may be short, but we're deep. Incidentally, at least two little guys played every position in the big leagues: Kid Gleason (5'7"), 1888-1912, and Cesar Tovar, 5'9", 1965-76. At any rate, I'll bet this alltime team is stronger than any you could put together of guys 6'3" and taller. Except in pitching.

For my starting rotation I went with guys who were active for at least a few years after 1900. This shows, for one thing, how few little-guy pitchers there have been since baseball left its infancy. No 5'9"-or-under pitcher who played entirely in this century has made the Hall of Fame or won more than 218 games. Maybe the smallest aggregation in baseball history is that of prominent little-guy relievers: Roy Face may be the only one.

Less than 2% of all players in history have been shorter than 5'6½" Clark Griffith, the Old Fox, who in 1901 had one of the best years anybody of any size ever had. He managed the White Sox to a pennant while leading the league's pitchers in winning percentage, shutouts and relief wins, and batting (.303). In his career he played every position except catcher, and he made the Hall of Fame as a manager.

Bobby Shantz is one of the few pitchers after 1923 under 5'7"; in his last season, 1964, he was 7½ inches under the average pitcher's height. "It just became part of my name," he says today, "Little Bobby Shantz. I was never Bob. Everybody used to call me something. Even Casey Stengel, and he wasn't much bigger than I was [5'11" officially, but stooped], called me diminutive. He liked that word."

Another reason I tossed all those 19th-century Hall of Fame pitchers is that they weren't really such little guys for their day. (It's worth mentioning that Candy Cummings, 5'9", is credited with introducing the curveball, in 1866, which is the kind of angle a little guy would come up with.) Which is not to say that everybody was a little guy back then. The last time all nonpitchers averaged 5'9" or under was 1875. By 1907 nonpitchers were 5'10", and pitchers were almost 5'11½". By 1912, the average pitcher was almost 6'½", and the average nonpitcher was over 5'10½". Not until 1954 did the average height for nonpitchers hit six feet.

In the entire history of the game there has been only one player listed at 5'1", 11 at 5'3", 23 at 5'4", 43 at 5'5" and 154 at 5'6". Some of these superlittle guys had nicknames like Sparky, Topsy, the Flea, Cub, Shorty and Mighty Mite. Of pitchers there have been only three at 5'4", six at 5'5" and 18 at 5'6".

Of everybody, there has been only one Kirby Puckett. Shakespeare's Puck could turn himself into anything: "Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound, a hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire." Minnesota's Puck has turned himself into everything an every-day player can be.

What he has done is take traditional little-guy attributes, nimbleness and drive, and conjure with them. Nimbleness usually implies a lack of punch. As a 5'4" teenager growing up in Chicago, "I was puny," Puckett says. So he started lifting weights and knocking back protein drinks.

Still, as a rookie big leaguer in 1984, he weighed only 175. "You look pretty strong," Reggie Jackson said at their first meeting. "You hit the long ball?"

"No, I don't, Mr. Jackson. I'm just a base-hit hitter."

Puckett had no home runs that year and only four the next. But he kept on expanding his thews and worked on pulling the ball, and in his third season he displayed 31-homer power.

He has always had speed, but scouts questioned his arm—conventional wisdom says chunky players are too tight in the shoulder to be great throwers. So he pushed himself to stretch the shoulder out, and now he has a rifle.

Drive can get on people's nerves. But Puckett has channeled his tenacity into an almost uncanny geniality. "You can be having a bad day," says Knoblauch, "and he smiles and laughs and tries to get you going, even if he's having a bad day."

The parsimonious Twins cheerfully made Puckett the game's highest-paid player at $3 million 2½ years ago. Even now that 6'2" second baseman Ryne Sandberg is making more than twice as much, Puckett is still saying things like, "All I ever wanted to do since I was five years old is play this game."

Shakespeare's Puck was a source of merriment but also a lightweight and a pain. Twins general manager Andy Mac-Phail says of his Puck, "He's just the type of guy who makes you smile."

Puck played Cupid. Puckett, like many another little man before him, says it all comes down to heart.






Lilliputians like Lemke find there's no home base like second.



The hard-throwing Gordon is a mound master in miniature.



The phantom grounder Knoblauch caught in Game 7 was a fly to center.



Roberts has an idea of what it feels like to be a fly on the wall.