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IT'S NOT ONLY A GAME OF INCHES

March 19, 1979
March 19, 1979

Table of Contents
March 19, 1979

Two Hittters
  • Super-bantamweight champ Wilfredo Gomez continued to devastate his division, and featherweight champ Little Red Lopez dropped still another challenger as their careers continued on a course that could end in a big bang

The NCAAs
Chappas
Andy Bean
Exceller
Pro Basketball
Horse Racing
Track & Field
Wrestling
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

IT'S NOT ONLY A GAME OF INCHES

Whether rookie Shortstop Harry Chappas is or isn't the smallest big-leaguer is of little concern. The really big question is can he help Chicago pull up its Sox and win

In a world where bigger is presumed to be better, shortness has never had much of a following. Shortcomings are failures, short circuits cut off the electricity and short odds do not pay big money. Consider the undesirability of being short-lived, short-tempered, shortsighted and shorthanded. Who wants to be sold short, shortchanged, short of breath or waited on shortly? Indeed, who among us wants to be short?

This is an article from the March 19, 1979 issue Original Layout

Well, Harry Chappas does. He has been short all his life, though how short is now under dispute, and as far as Chappas is concerned, it's no big deal. In his 21 years, Chappas has heard all the jokes, endured all the insults and, along the way, converted nearly all the skeptics.

Chappas is a switch-hitting rookie shortstop with the Chicago White Sox. As this year's rookie crop is judged, Chappas is something less than a phenom but something more than a prospect. The White Sox are giving Chappas a long—not short—look because last season he hit .302 and stole 60 bases for their Class A affiliate in Appleton, Wis., and then hit .267 and handled 92 chances without an error in 20 games with Chicago in September.

White Sox President Bill Veeck feels that Chappas has many of the qualities—defense, speed, a high on-base percentage at the top of the batting order and ticket-selling pizzazz—that the team so obviously lacked in 1978. Chappas could be particularly appealing to Chicago's large Greek community; both his mother Valli (five feet) and the parents of his father Perry (5'7") were born in Sparta. If it all works out, Comiskey Park may become Parthenon West, and souvlaki will be a big seller for the concessionaires.

The promotional value of a very short shortstop has not been lost on Veeck (6'½"), who is to baseball what P. T. Barnum (6'2") was to the circus. Barnum had Tom Thumb (3'4"), and Veeck had Eddie Gaedel (3'7"), the midget who pinch-hit for Veeck's St. Louis Browns 28 years ago. Gaedel's career began and ended with a walk. The wily Veeck imagines a lot of walks for Chappas—and a lot of customers looking on.

"Gaedel was a gag," Veeck said while watching Chappas work out at the White Sox training camp in Sarasota, Fla. "Chappas is a player. Except for winning, there is nothing I would rather have than for Chappas to play shortstop. When he came up last year he immediately caught the fancy of the fans. If he plays, we'll draw, because everybody loves to see a little guy get ahead. If David hadn't beat Goliath, nobody would have heard of either one of them. David would have been just another guy who was scrounged in the ground."

To avoid being scrounged, Chappas must learn to do what Gaedel did. "The key to whether Chappas plays is the discipline he shows at the plate," Veeck says. "He's a tough target, and we want him to learn the strike zone and use his size to advantage. We're emphasizing the base on balls. We DH-ed him in the instructional league this winter just so he could work on it. I would sit up in the stands and yell at him not to swing at balls over his head. He did a good job, too. The only mistake he made was to hit two home runs. That can give him bad ideas."

Veeck says the decision to play Chappas will be made by the Chicago manager. Unfortunately for Chappas, the manager now happens to be last year's shortstop, Don Kessinger (6'1"). Even though he will be 37 years old in July, Kessinger hopes to pick up the lineup card without putting down his glove. "I'm in shape and I'm ready to play," he says. "We're going to put the best team on the field we can, and if that means having me at shortstop, then I'll be there. I don't think there is any question that Harry will be a major-leaguer, but I don't know yet if it will be now or next year."

A rookie's life is never easy, but imagine the difficulties facing Chappas. Veeck is telling him how he should play, while Kessinger is telling him if and when. To make the situation worse, poor Harry can't even tell anybody how tall he is.

Last Sept. 1, on Chappas' first day as a major-leaguer, White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray (5'11") pulled out a tape measure and declared Chappas to be 5'3" short, or one inch shorter than baseball's reigning "shortest player," Kansas City Shortstop Fred Patek. Caray's measurement became Chicago gospel. "Harry is the smallest player in the major leagues since Eddie Gaedel," Veeck says. "He is 5'3"."

As a rookie, Chappas is in no position to disagree with Veeck or Caray, but a knowledgeable member of the White Sox organization (?'?") confides, "Harry is really 5'5". Veeck wants people to think he's the smallest player in the majors. The publicity would make money for Chappas and for the club. Harry Caray told the kid he should go along with it unless somebody wants to pay him a lot of money for an official measurement. Chappas is uncomfortable with the whole situation, but he is staying quiet because he is afraid to make anybody mad."

Chappas' acquiescence has already forced him to participate in some demeaning photograph sessions. For one, he posed in the arms of a teammate, and for another he stooped inside a trunk. "I should have said no," Chappas admits, "but I know the club wants the publicity. That's not me, though. I'm not a salesman. It's like putting a dime in a nickel slot. It fits but it don't work. I want to be known as a quality ballplayer, not as a midget or a punk. I think I can create a lot of excitement on the field by being a complete player. There aren't very many of those around."

The White Sox' desire to lop a couple of inches off Chappas is particularly ironic because Chappas' lack of size almost prevented him from being a professional ballplayer. Baseball people, like most sports experts, invariably look at short people the way Randy Newman (5'11") did in a popular song of a while ago. "Short people got no reason to live," Newman wrote. "I don't want no short people 'round here." Newman, of course, was being satirical; baseball men really feel that way.

"It takes courage for a scout to recommend a small player," says White Sox Vice-President Roland Hemond (5'8"). "He's bound to be skeptical of a little man. I know if I can look down on a player, I wonder how good he really is."

A White Sox scout, Walt Widmayer (5'9½"), was very skeptical the day in 1974 he first saw Chappas work out with his Fort Lauderdale high school team. "He looked like such a little fellow I couldn't get very excited about him," Widmayer recalls. "A player his size is open to a lot of criticism. He has to be real good all the time. A 6'2" player can have an off day and not hurt himself."

Widmayer wasn't at all impressed with Chappas then, but his second look was a real stunner. "I went to see him play a game in Miami, and he hit the first pitch about 360 feet against the wind for a home run," says Widmayer. "I couldn't believe my eyes." Even with this clear evidence of little man, big stick, Widmayer still had reservations. The White Sox did draft Chappas in June of 1975, but in the 18th round as the 538th player selected. Instead of signing with Chicago, Chappas wisely decided to accept a scholarship to Miami Dade North Community College, which has sent 14 players into the majors, including Bucky Dent (5'11") and Mickey Rivers (5'10"). Chappas made such a favorable impression during the school's fall schedule that he was picked sixth by the White Sox in the January 1976 draft. After making All-America for his outstanding play in the spring season, he signed with Chicago for a $10,000 bonus.

If Chappas had been bigger, his bonus likely would have been bigger, too. His father says he remembers overhearing one American League scout say, "If that little shortstop were six feet, he'd be worth $100,000." Widmayer says one National League scout gave Chappas high marks in every department but refused to recommend him. "Why not?" Widmayer asked. "Ah, he won't catch the high line drive," the scout replied.

Such logic has kept a lot of little men out of baseball. The exceptions are few—oldtimers such as Wee Willie Keeler (5'4½") and modern players such as Albie Pearson (5'5"), who retired in 1966 after nine seasons, and Patek (5'4"). (Pee Wee Reese, incidentally, was not a pee-wee at all—he stood all of 5'10".)

Lack of height never seemed to handicap those players, and Chappas doesn't consider it a problem for him, either. He knows he has a strong arm, fast feet and a durable, 150-pound body. "Once I take the field, my size doesn't matter," he says. "The only time I'd even think about it is if a brawl got started."

Chappas' father has the most logical view of the whole matter. "What difference does it make?" he says. "Harry is a hell of a lot bigger than the baseball."

As a matter of fact, Chappas is bigger than a lot of God's creatures, including the average gnome (15 centimeters), the world's smallest man (28") and past and present notables such as James Madison (5'4"), Toulouse-Lautrec (4'6") and Truman Capote (5'3"). More important, he also is big enough to overlook the slighting remarks of others. Here is a recent sampling:

•Veeck, while watching Kessinger and Chappas work out: "There's the long and the short of it."

•Hemond, describing Chappas' minor league background: "After we sent him from Double A back to A, he grew up a little. Well, you know, not physically."

•Teammate Ron Blomberg (6'1"): "The first time I saw him I thought he was the bat boy. He's a nice little boy."

Chappas has put up with such condescension for a long time. "Smaller guys are put down sometimes, but I guess that sounds like I'm pulling for equal rights," he says. "It doesn't really bother me anymore. I've learned to ignore it. I might laugh just to go along, but it doesn't absorb. I've never felt I was unusual so I don't know why other people do. As long as I'm wearing a major league uniform, I don't care what anybody says."

Sports has always been Chappas' equalizer. (He was a wide receiver on his high school football team.) His father started him off early in baseball, tossing him a plastic ball to hit when he was three. By the time he was eight, he was the youngest player on his Little League team. In fact, Chappas has been just about the youngest and smallest member of every team he has ever played on. He started for his high school club as a ninth-grader and played semipro ball with men in their 20s and 30s when he was 17. "Being small makes you more aggressive and more ambitious," he says. "My friends called me 'the little giant.' "

In 1976, his first pro season, the little giant did respectably enough, hitting .262 and stealing 40 bases with Appleton. But the next year, at Knoxville in Double A, he slumped to .231 and 20 steals. That sent him back to Appleton for the 1978 season. At first, Chappas says, he was so depressed he felt like quitting. But after accepting the change he helped Apple-ton to 101 victories and won the Blue Jays' most-popular-player award. Then he was called up to Chicago.

Caray led the campaign to promote Chappas. The White Sox were struggling along in sixth place at the time, and the broadcaster felt Chappas might relieve the boredom. "If he had flopped he wouldn't have been doing any worse than anybody else," Caray says. "As it turned out, for the last month of the season he was the star of the team."

However, 20 games in September are just that: 20 games in September. The jump from Class A to the major leagues is about the longest a player can make, and if Chappas isn't capable of starting, the White Sox no doubt will send him back to the minors for more seasoning. "I hate to see a young player like him sit on the bench," says Kessinger.

Chappas believes he's ready to start, but would gladly accept a utility role to stay in Chicago. "I'm very confident in myself," he says. "If the club doesn't think I'm ready to play every day, I think I'd be ideal for pinch-hitting, pinch-running or late-inning defense. I want to prove to the skeptics that there is room for the little guy. I could give others some hope. I'd be somebody they could look up to."

Chappas will get his chance because White Sox economics almost seem to demand it. And if we are to believe Randy Newman, Chappas should do just fine. Short people, Newman warned, are "gonna get you every time."

PHOTOChappas' big competition for the White Sox' starting shortstop job is Manager Don Kessinger (6'1").SIX PHOTOS

ROOKIES WHO HOPE TO MAKE IT REALLY BIG

A college psychology major, Ranger Outfielder Bill Sample (left) seems to have psyched out the pitchers he's faced; in three pro seasons he has not hit less than .348. Nelson Norman, 20, who batted .284 at Tucson, hopes to win the shortstop job from the man whose bubble-gum cards he once collected, Bert Campaneris.

Healthy now following operations on both knees, Pirate Catcher Steve Nicosia (nick-OH-shuh) hit .322 and had 74 RBIs last season at Columbus. The only rap against the 23-year-old seems to be that he frequently "needs a kick in the rump."

The Blue Jays stole a total of 28 bases all last year, or seven fewer than switch-hitting Shortstop Alfredo Griffin stole all by himself while batting .291 for Portland. Toronto plans to use Griffin in the lead-off position and give him the go sign.

A 6'3½", 200-pound, righthand-hitting outfielder, the Astros' Jeff (Cotton) Leonard, 23, led the Pacific Coast League with a .365 batting average and had 93 RBIs and 36 stolen bases. A line-drive hitter, Leonard batted .385 for Houston in September.

First baseman-outfielder Scot Thompson, 23, has had successive .300-plus seasons for the Cubs' top farm team at Wichita and won the 1978 American Association batting title with a .326 average. Not a power hitter, he batted .417 in 19 games for Chicago.

With the departure of Luis Tiant and Bill Lee, the Red Sox have a huge gap in their starting rotation, one they hope will be narrowed by Bobby Sprowl, 22, who had a composite 16-7 record and averaged almost a strikeout an inning in the minors last summer.