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."
May 26, 1963
It has become rather a cliché 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."
Albie is a dedicated Baptist and, when he had more time, taught Sunday school. Along with Bobby Richardson of the Yankees, Alvin Dark of the Giants, Jerry Kindall of the Indians, Dave Wicker-sham of Kansas City and Don Demeter of the Phillies, he is a member of a religiously oriented major league clique. Among the golf trophies on display in Albie's living room in Riverside, Calif, is a miniature cup that Kim, one of his three daughters, won for reciting the 23rd Psalm. "When my kids say grace," Albie says, "they say, 'Dear Lord, bless this food, bless Mommy and Daddy and please help the Angels win and help Daddy get a hit. Amen.' I'm a firm believer in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I try to live by them without making myself obnoxious. I live my life as an example and I'm not ashamed of it. I want to be careful I don't ruin my image as the little guy's idol. I get letters from mothers telling me how proud they are of me because they haven't seen my picture in a cigarette ad. I'm no prude and I don't knock ballplayers who smoke or drink. I, too, live my life to the fullest, but I do it in a different way. There is something inside of me other than the shell going out and playing baseball. I'm kidded and goaded by the guys to get me in spots unbecoming to the way I believe. The person that puts his standards very high has to be careful. Everybody to his own life. I don't try to push mine, but I'll talk to anyone who's interested in what I'm digging. I admit there are very few."
Early this year Albie asked to room with Belinsky, the Angels' foremost night person. "I thought maybe I could get him in bed early," Albie says, "get him off to a good start." The noble experiment failed. "I got all these phone calls in the middle of the night," Bo explains. "We talked about his way of life. 'All right, Albie,' I said, Ill try your way for two weeks if you'll try mine for three days.' He didn't go for it. I said, 'If you're trying to redeem me you got to make a sacrifice—a sacrifice to the gods.' At first I thought he had some sneaky act on the side, but no one's ever caught him and he made a believer out of me. The way he dresses and acts, though—it's like a virgin bleaching her hair. That's Albie—a virgin with bleached blonde hair! He was teaching me golf. I wanted to teach him a little pool in return. It was no go with the pool action with Albie."
"I wouldn't learn pool," Albie says. "I don't think the atmosphere's becoming. I don't want to get that green tan from the tables. Bo and I like each other, but his interests vary from mine."
Albie's next room-mate was Pitcher Don Lee, who is finishing up his master's degree at the University of Arizona. Don, who is known as The Big Water Moccasin, was a more suitable "rooms." "I tried not to disturb him," Don says. "He's small and he burns up a lot of energy, so I know how important sleep is to him. Albie was no trouble. If he got noisy I just stuffed him in a drawer."
It has been said that Albie leads the club in going to the movies when the Angels are on the road. "The only thing I don't like about baseball is traveling," he says. "I'm trying to pioneer a new league. The married guys are the home team, the bachelors the road team. If you get married or divorced you get traded."
Albie's convictions also affect his fame and fortune. He recently turned down a co-lead in a feature picture called The Petticoat Pirates. "It would have meant six weeks in Greece for my family and myself," he says. "I was supposed to play an ensign in the Navy, sit at a bar, laugh, get half drunk, dance around with girls on my arm. It wasn't me, so I couldn't accept it. I respect every man's belief if he's true to his convictions. I don't care if you're the world's worst man, but don't be a hypocrite."
Albie did have a part in Day in Court, a television drama, and acted in another TV series, The Roaring 20 s, but the show was discontinued before his segment was shown. "I was Frenchy, The Hood," he says. "There was nothing derogatory about the part. What I do is between me and God. That's the world's worst pronoun—I."
His rigid precepts also helped terminate a modest singing career. He cut two records for Capitol in 1961. He has what he terms "a Steve Lawrence-type" voice. On the first record he sang Tin Still in Love with You and Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere. "It sold 997,000 copies less than a million," Albie says. On his second record he sang This Love of Mine and If It's the Last Thing I Do. It was—the record was never released. "It's my own fault," Albie admits. "They called me in, wanted me to sing rock 'n' roll. I told them I didn't want to do it. I found out right away I wasn't indispensable, and I was dispensed with. Me with my dad-gum high principles! But that's exactly the way I want it. I sing on tune, and if you sing on tune you haven't got a chance unless you're a Sinatra or a Nat Cole. If you holler in the outhouse that's what the kids like. That's where the market is." Albie called the tune at his wedding to Helen Zaha, however. "I sang Tenderly to start the procession," he says. "When my bride was coming down the aisle I sang Because." Albie is now vice-president and owns 27½% of the stock of an enterprise that doesn't present any ethical conflicts. It is the Mighty Mite Corp., which holds 91 patents on adhesive grips for baseball bats, golf clubs, tennis rackets, ski poles and underwater sports equipment. "It was named by me, as you might have gathered," says Albie.
Contrary to published reports—"There have been a lot of stories done on me, since I'm a freak of nature," he says—Albie was never interested in becoming a jockey, but one winter (1961-62) he was from one to 5 in the morning a disc jockey on KPRO, a 1,000-watt station in Riverside. " 'Good morning, all you goofs and insomniacs,' I used to say," Albie recalls. " 'This is the littlest Angel. If you're nutty enough to stay up this late I'll play you some sounds. If you're hungry, race back and get you some Circus Peanuts.' That was my sponsor. I used to play two records in a row. I called it a double play. When I really got tired I'd play a triple play. That's three records in a row. Sometimes I'd play a whole album. At the end I'd let it run over to see if anyone was awake to phoneme. 'Oh,you dears, I'd say when they did. 'Now, if you're real nice, I'll play you my own record, but I don't want anyone to throw up.' People who did stay up to listen to me had problems and they would phone, too. Before I knew it, it was a lonely hearts club: Cry on My Shoulder with Albie Pearson. I couldn't stand the hours. It was too time-consuming. All I want to do is play golf."
Although Albie golfs only during the off season, or five months a year, he has a 3 handicap. In January 1962 Albie and Bob McAllister won the Bing Crosby pro-am, Albie giving his team 44 strokes. He won the Baseball Players' Championship in 1958 and was runner-up in 1959 and 1960. "I'm not proud of anything but winning," he says. "I don't like to do anything I can't excel in." He won three southern California baseball players' tournaments, was first in the Southern California Open Pro-Am with Bob Rosburg last year, shooting a 66-72, and was fourth low amateur in the Open itself with 222. His best competitive round is a seven-under-par 65 at the Indian Wells course in Palm Springs. Until last month it was Albie's ambition to be the first left-handed golfer to win a tournament on the U.S. pro circuit, but Bob Charles dashed this hope when he took the Houston Classic in April. Albie's driver and one-iron are an inch longer than average to give him more arc and clubhead speed, and he claims he outdrives the average pro. He is something of a hot dog on the golf course, too. "My putter's flown a few miles," Albie says, "but not with an airline." His name does not appear on his golf bag. "Hustlers don't advertise, "Albieexplains. This baffles Rocky Bridges. "Albie Pearson," he says, "is Albie Pearson wherever he goes, unless it's Santa Anita. I don't think anyone could ever mistake him for Alex Karras."
Albie is considering becoming a touring pro when he is finished playing baseball. He has no pretensions whatsoever about his ability as a ballplayer. "I never was a star and I never will be," he says. "I fit on the field now but it wasn't always that way. Once—well, T wasn't taken as a freak, but it was, 'He's there, he's not going to hurt you.' If I can be an adequate ballplayer there'll always be a place for me. I'll do the very best I can but comes the time there's someone better...."
If Albie can't make the tour he would like to be part owner of a country club. This month he is moving into a five-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot home that is being built by the second green of the Jurupa Hills Country Club in Riverside. It is a 55-mile commute from Riverside to Chavez Ravine, but Albie finds the long drive beneficial. On the way to the park he prepares himself mentally for the ball game. "There are 162 games," he says, "and you can't bear down for all of them, but the guy that can bear down for the most is the best." If he's had a bad game he lets off steam on the drive home. "I'm a very bad self-critic," he says. "As I drive along I ask myself, who ever told you you could play? If it wasn't for the money I'd quit right now. Then I think, what've you got to moan about? You've got health, a wonderful wife and three kids. You live in a big house, eat good, wear $75 alligator shoes. You like to keep wearing them so you better play good. I kick the car instead of the family. By the time I'm home I've passed the dish-breaking and chair-throwing stage. I put a Henry Mancini record on the stereo, get my feet up on the couch and I've got the world on a string."
Both Albie's grandfather and his father were prizefighters, but Albie always wanted to play baseball. "I short-leg it to the fights on the field," he says. "I hope someone grabs me and pulls me away. Sometimes I pick out a big guy who isn't too excited, and we put on a little show. Once Hank Bauer lifted me off the ground by my shirt as I ran to get in the pile. 'That's far enough, little man,' he told me. I told him, 'Hank, I wasn't going to flail. Do you think I want to get killed?' "
When Albie was, in a manner of speaking, growing up in El Monte, Calif, he improved his strength and athletic proficiency in the privacy of his backyard. He would throw a brick for distance and fling a dirt clod against the wall of the Pearson garage for accuracy. He dug a broad-jump pit and built a high-jump standard. "I was an only child," he says. "There was nothing else to do. But I only did these things when no other kid was around. I didn't want to be outdone." When he was 12 Albie weighed 62 pounds and stood 4 feet 5. His worried parents—Albie's father is 5 feet 5, his mother 5 feet 1—took him to a specialist, and for three years he received thrice-weekly shots of testosterone to stimulate his growth. "If I hadn't had the injections I'd probably be 5 feet 2," Albie says. "I wasn't allowed any sweets, either—they hinder growth and metabolism. I was permitted one sundae a week but I snuck a little bit, that's why I'm not 5 feet 7."
Albie won 13 letters at El Monte High: four in baseball (he was a pitcher-outfielder) four as a football halfback, three in track (he ran the 100 in 9.9), and two in basketball. "I wasn't any good in basketball," Albie admits. "The only reason I got the letters is that I played the last three minutes of most of the games and usually got two fouls trying to get the ball." Although he was 23-6 as a high school pitcher, had an 0.83 ERA and batted .506 his senior year, the big league scouts overlooked or ignored him. He did, however, get two football scholarship offers, from Cal Poly and Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.—he was skilled at returning kicks and punting. Albie rejected the scholarships and went to Mt. San Antonio College in nearby Pomona, where he lasted less than a semester. "I never took a schoolbook home in my whole life," he says. One afternoon he was sitting in a psychology class and mooning out the window when the professor spoke to him: "Mr. Pearson, are you more interested in psychology or in that athletic field outside the window?" Replied Albie: "I'm more interested in the athletic field. Excuse me, I'm going to go out and sign a baseball contract."
In January 1953 he was sent a blank contract by the Boston Red Sox. Tom Downey, the scout who took a gamble on him, told Albie that if he wasn't willing to sign the contract he could just as well throw it in the wastebasket. "I was afraid they wouldn't give me another chance," Albie says. "I realized this was the way it had to be. They only sent me the contract because I wanted to play so badly and because I'd be an attraction in C ball." Albie signed and received $225 a month to play for San Jose in the California League. He never made it to the Sox—in January 1958 he was traded to Washington with Norm Zauchin for Pete Runnels—but he did get the good counsel of another one of his idols, Ted Williams. "I tried to do everything he did," Albie recalls. "He told me I wasn't him."
I'm a homebody," Albie Pearson says with feeling. "Some other guys might have a big, royal ball when they're on the road but I have mine at home when we all fish, swim and golf together. My 8-year-old has a mean golf swing, baby. My daughters could all swim before they were 21 months old. I don't mind not having a son. The Pearson name sure ain't going to go down in history like my idol, Napoleon's." Besides Albieand Helen, the Pearson menagé includes his father and mother, daughters Kim Michelle, 8, Kareé Lynn, 6, Kandi René, 4½, and Angel-O, a German shepherd. The girls' pony, K's Boy, is stabled down the road. Mister Sister, a cat, had to be given away because he—originally thought to be she—got put down by Angel-O.
When he has the chance, Albie gets the children together and tells them all a bedtime story. "Their favorite is one I made up," he says. "I must have told it to them 15 times, but they still want to hear it. It's called 'The Little Horse with a Gimpy Leg but a Great Heart Who Ended up Winning the Kentucky Derby.' It's about this farmer who owned a little horse that had one leg shorter than his other three. The farmer was going to shoot the little horse because he wasn't good for anything very much. But one day a little, tiny boy saw the farmer carrying his gun and said, 'Please, mister, don't shoot. I'll buy your little horse. I've got $1.98.' 'Take him away, boy,' the farmer said, pocketing the money. 'Get him off my farm.' Now, the little horse had two brothers and a sister, and they all laughed as the little boy led their brother away, and the little horse was very sad of eye. The little boy and the little horse soon became great buddies and the boy trained him for the races all by himself. He couldn't run very fast with his funny, gimpy little gallop, but he could run forever. He could run and run, and he wouldn't even be breathing hard. He had a great heart. The boy entered him in six-furlong races and he finished last. He entered him in mile races and he finished last. There were never long enough races and he always finished last. The boy put him in a mile-and-a-quarter race at Santa Anita and he finished last—but he started to come on. He timed him for two miles and it was a tremendous time. The boy then took him to the off-beat tracks at fair grounds and places like that and won enough money with him to get up the $1,600 entry fee for the Kentucky Derby. In my story the Kentucky Derby is a two-mile race.
"So there he was in the Derby with the boy on his back, and who was alongside him in the starting gate? That's right, his two brothers and his sister. I make that up, too. Of course, they all laughed to see him there. 'You don't belong here,' they said. 'Go away. You're nothing but a mutt.' When I get to this part my kids get real mad. The gate opens and his brothers and sister laugh some more as they go flying by the little horse. Pretty soon he's 30 lengths off the pace. But when he hits the 1/8 pole he makes his move—and here he comes! His brothers and his sister look at him with their eyes real big as he flies by them to win the Kentucky Derby.
"The story has two endings. The first is—but he ran so hard his heart burst but he was a champion. 'Don't, Daddy,' my kids say when I tell them that ending, and they cry. So I tell them the second ending—but the little horse with the gimpy leg had run his last race and he was retired to the boy's farm where they put up a statue of him. Now the boy has thousands of horses in his stable and he is a millionaire, but he started out with a little horse with a gimpy leg. And there's a moral: No matter how short you are or how tall or whatever handicap you have, a gimpy leg or only one eye, keep trying, for the one that keeps trying always ends up on top."