On August 19, 1951, Eddie Gaedel walked. Wow. Isn’t that amazing?
Oh, it might help if you knew that he was 3’7″ tall. As part of a publicity stunt from the infamous Bill Veeck, then owner of the St. Louis Browns, he got an at-bat in the second half of a double-header. He jumped out of a cake in between games and donned a jersey with the number “1/8” on the back. He drew a four-pitch walk and promptly retired with a 1.000 OBP. The next day, the MLB office voided his contract, and it required that all future contracts gain its approval before becoming official.
Before you worry about MLB discriminating against people with dwarfism, note that Gaedel worked for the AGVA, the American Guild of Variety Artists. He was not trying to live a normal life; he made his living on his abnormality. If a Major League team decided to sign a little person, I have no doubt that it would be allowed if done correctly. If the player had athletic ability, played baseball for a college or independent team, and was a legitimate attempt at winning, he would be accepted.
After Gaedel’s contract was voided, Veeck threatened to file a claim that the Yankee’s shortstop Phil Rizzuto was also a little person, and thus ineligible (he was 5’6″). This got me to the slightly more relevant baseball question- who are the best short players in MLB history? And according to WAR, these are the top players by height:
5’3″- P, Larry Corcoran, 1880-1887, 28.8 WAR. In 1880, he led the National League in strikeouts, in 1881 led the league in wins, and in 1884 he led the NL in ERA. Quite a fine pitcher.
5’4″- OF, “Wee” Willie Keeler, 1892-1910, 60.8 WAR. This New York Giant was not just “good for his height,” but he was flatout “good.” A lifetime .341/.388/.415 hitter, he also stole 495 bases. In 1897, he started the season with a 45-game hitting streak, which is the longest NL streak ever, and the second-longest in history after Joe Dimaggio’s 56-gamer.
5’5″- SS, Rabbit Maranville, 1912-1935, 38.2 WAR. An undeserving member of the Hall of Fame, he was a serviceable but not very good player. He never led the league in any category, but played above average defense, saving 130 runs above the average shortstop in his day. Unfortunately, he gave back 238 runs below average with his “bat,” though.
5’6″- OF, Billy Hamilton, 1888-1901, 69.6 WAR. Hamilton is a very deserving member of the Hall. He put up gaudy numbers for the Philadelphia Athletics. He led the league in walks 5 times (with as many as 128 one year), OBP 5 times (peaking at .521!!), and stolen bases 5 times (reaching 111 twice). In 1894, WAR rates him as the 3rd best player in the league.
Height was no disadvantage to these ballplayers, or at the very least, not an insurmountable disadvantage. That leads to the question tackled wonderfully by Bradley Woodrum over at the amazing FanGraphs.com: are little people the next market inefficiency?