Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers had his season cut short last week due to herniated disks in his neck, and consequently will be out for the remainder of the 2016 season. Baseball analysts speculated that Fielder’s condition would likely end his career.
Some of the earliest recollections of Fielder are as a chubby 12-year-old slamming home runs while taking batting practice with his major league dad, Cecil Fielder. When Prince grew up, he remained a hefty guy and didn’t necessarily strike the appearance of a professional baseball player. But he could still hit the long ball.
Fielder, at 5’ 11” and 275 pounds, is representative of quite a few other baseball players, past and present, one might not guess could be a star in the game, because of what appears to be a non-athletic body type for the sport.
Bartolo Colon is frequently ribbed by his New York Mets teammates because the veteran pitcher can’t run very fast when running to first base on ground balls. But there are two big factors that contribute to his situation—he is 43 years old but, probably more significantly, he is seriously overweight at 285 pounds, while standing only 5’ 11” tall. Despite his physique, Colon is still an effective starting pitcher on the Mets team that features several young flame-throwers in their rotation.
Little Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros is another physical phenomenon in the big-leagues today. Except he’s not a big-body type like Fielder and Colon. Altuve measures in at 5’6” and 165 pounds, one of the smallest players in the majors. However, this Mighty Mite’s bat speaks as loudly as the largest sluggers in baseball. The four-time all-star is on a pace for his third consecutive 200-hit season and has new-found power with 19 home runs so far this season.
Altuve is similar in build to Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who’s just a tad bigger than Altuve. However, the diminutive Red Sox all-star seems to generate as much torque in his swing, when he turns on an inside fastball, as anyone else in baseball.
Because of his 6’ 6”, 265-pound size, Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins looks like he could start as a tight end for most NFL teams or as a power forward on NBA teams. His athleticism in baseball is off the chart for such a big guy, as he runs like a deer and plays a solid defense in right field in addition to being a power hitter. The slugger has registered the longest home run of the 2016 season so far, a monstrous 501-foot blast.
A recent major league rookie, New York Yankee Aaron Judge has a similar physique as Stanton. The 6’ 7”, 275 pound outfielder slugged a home run in his first major-league at-bat and appears might be another athletic stud like Stanton.
A look back in baseball history reveals similar stories of players who didn’t fit the traditional model of professional athletes because of their atypical body types. Yet their size or physique didn’t inhibit their ability to be highly successful in the sport.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Baltimore’s Luis “Little Louie” Aparicio and New York’s Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto were small shortstops, 5’ 9” and 5’ 6”, respectively, yet they managed to have Hall of Fame careers. By comparison, their eventual successors at their positions, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Derek Jeter, were 6’ 4” and 6’ 3”. There’s a classic photo of Rizzuto and Jeter together at pre-game ceremony honoring Rizzuto at Yankee Stadium. Jeter, with his arm around Rizzuto, easily dwarfs the little guy.
Another shortstop, Freddie Patek of the Kansas City Royals, was one of the shortest players in baseball history at 5’ 5”, yet he put up a successful 14-year career which included three all-star selections in the 1970s. His nickname was appropriately “The Flea.”
San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, Stu Miller, was once staggered on the mound by a big wind gust in the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park, resulting in a balk. The little hurler only weighed 165 pounds.
The New York Yankees’ Ron Guidry was another pitcher with a slight build, weighing in at only 161 pounds, yet he threw like legendary power pitchers Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson, and had one of the nastiest sliders of his day. Guidry’s Cy Young Award season in 1978 is one of the all-time best pitching performances in baseball, when “Louisiana Lightning” went 25-3, posted a 1.74 ERA, and struck out 248 batters.
Randy Johnson used his 6’ 10” frame to become one of the most feared strikeout pitchers of his era. His unusual height, coupled with his trademark menacing stare, shook the cleats of more than a few batters. He posted five Cy Young Award seasons, including four in a row from 1999 to 2002, and finished second on the all-time strikeout list with 4,875.
Other former major-league pitchers suiting up at 6 ‘7” or above included Rick Sutcliffe, Ed Halicki, Mike Smithson, and Tim Stoddard, who was a starting forward on the North Carolina State championship basketball team of 1973-1974.
Major-league first basemen Frank Howard (6’ 8”) and Chuck Connors (6’ 7”) were gigantic players of their eras. Coincidentally, they both also had been basketball players. Howard was an All-American basketball player at Ohio State, while Connors played a couple of seasons in the early years of the NBA in the 1940s. Howard went on to lead the American League in home runs in 1968 and 1970, while Connors eventually left sports to pursue a TV and movie acting career.
Mel Ott and Hack Wilson were two old-time players who didn’t let their size get in the way of Hall of Fame careers. Ott was only 5’ 9” and 170 pounds, but his batting style employed a high leg-kick to generate his power that led to 511 career home runs, second only to Babe Ruth at the time of his retirement in 1947. The squatty-bodied Wilson, at 5’ 6” and 190 pounds, led the National League in home runs in four seasons. His 56 home runs and 191 RBI in 1930 stand out as one of the most prolific offensive performances in history.
However, the most famous major-league player that was physically challenged by his size was Eddie Gaedel, a 3’ 7” midget who made a pinch-hitting appearance in a regular season game for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Of course, it was a promotional stunt by Browns owner Bill Veeck, yet Gaedel is still in the official record books by drawing a walk in his only at-bat.
There aren’t any 161-pound players in pro football or any 5’ 5” players in pro basketball these days. Those sports have evolved such that there is now practically a minimum size requirement to get on the gridiron or hardwood.
But in baseball it still doesn’t seem to matter as much what a player’s body type is. Consequently, fans get to marvel at the accomplishments of some of the game’s unusual players like Fielder and Altuve, even if they aren’t midgets.