Albie Pearson, RIP: Little Big Man

"I never have the satisfaction of looking an umpire in the eye, I'm forever signing autographs for kids taller than I am, and human skyscrapers like Norm Zauchin and Jim Lemon of our club make me feel like a midget when they walk by but, hand me a bat and let me step into the box, and I'm as good as the next guy — some of 'em, at least." Thus said 5'5" outfielder Albie Pearson, then with the ancient Washington Senators, in the Chicago Tribune in 1958, the year he was named the American League's Rookie of the Year.

He proved a man far bigger than his physical lack of stature.

Pearson died February 21 at 88. He's remembered far better for his tenure as one of the original Los Angeles/California Angels, picked in the American League's first expansion draft. In fact, in a couple of ways he evoked the Biblical admonition that the last shall be the first.

The Senators swapped him to the Orioles and Pearson had an up and down life between Baltimore and the Orioles' farm system. Then he heard the Angels were being created in his native southern California. He wrote to the new team's general manager, Fred Haney, asking to be drafted. Haney granted his wish — as the 30th and final player to be chosen.

When the new Angels played their first official game, against Pearson's former Orioles mates as things worked out, Pearson drew the new team's first walk and scored its first run, coming home after Ted Kluszewski, the former Reds muscleman, hit the new team's first official home run with two outs in the top of the first. Kluszewski would hit the second official Angels home run an inning later.

"When my kids say grace," the devout Pearson told Sports Illustrated for a 1963 profile ("The Littlest Angel"), "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.

Sometimes Pearson got goaded into unbecoming spots through no fault of the guys' own — sort of. Early in 1963, Pearson asked to room with Bo Belinsky, the left-handed pitcher who became the Angels' sex symbol the previous season. ("I thought maybe I could get him in bed early," Pearson cracked.) According to Belinsky biographer Maury Allen, Pearson and Belinsky shared only one thing that might, maybe, be considered a vice. Each man drove a candy-apple red Cadillac convertible. And it led to a hilarious mishap.

At the time, Belinsky's collection of girlfriends included an Asian lady named Zenida who caught up to him not long after his once-fabled 1962 rookie no-hitter. She decided to wait for Belinsky in the player parking lot, perched atop what she thought was Belinsky's Cadillac. Oops. "Here comes Albie out of the park with his wife," Belinsky told Allen.

He's walking toward the car. He sees Zenida sitting on the car, her (cheongsam) dress up to her ass, her legs twitching all over the place. She's halfway across the parking lot and can't really see who it is, so she's waving because she knows it's a ballplayer with a broad coming out of the players' entrance and who could it be but me? When Albie gets a little closer she stops waving, but by that time it's too late. Albie is white as a ghost and his wife is just pissed.

As roommates, Belinsky and Pearson weren't exactly soulmates. Pearson ultimately switched to room on the road with another pitcher, Don Lee. "I tried not to disturb him," Lee told SI. "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."

Pearson developed a sound sense of humor about his lack of height early. Nicknamed the Littlest Angel, Pearson looked anything but little in 1963, his All-Star season. He had a .402 on-base percentage, a .304 hitting average (I'll explain shortly), and though the National League won the All-Star Game, Pearson started a tying rally in the third inning with a double off Cardinals pitcher Larry Jackson, coming home when Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone singled him in with one out, before Twins catcher Earl Battey singled Malzone home to tie the game at three. (The final: 5-3, NL.)

Pearson's Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) for 1963 was a respectable .484. He wasn't a power hitter but he was a tough strikeout: he finished his major league career with 282 fewer strikeouts than walks. Self-aware almost to a fault, Pearson was more than content to exercise his abilities as they were and not as he might have wished them secretly to have been.

"I never was a star and I never will be," he told SI. "I fit on the field now but it wasn't always that way. Once — well, I 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."

He couldn't stick consistently as a regular as often as not. Then, during spring training 1966, he ruptured two discs in his back on a hard slide. He got into two regular season games after he recovered, that July, but elected to sit the rest of the season out and retire after it. His back plus the Lord told him to do it.

He made his way after baseball as the part owner of Mighty Mite, a company making adhesive grips for sports equipment. In 1972, he became an ordained minister in the Baptist Church. He started a southern California youth foundation aimed at keeping children far away from drugs and another non-profit aimed to train ministers and pastors for setting up churches and orphanages in South America and Africa.

By 1997, Pearson and his wife, Helen — parents of five, eventual grandparents of 17 and great-grandparents of 16 — sold their California home to create Father's Heart Ranch in Desert Hot Springs, a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned boys between ages 6 and 12. The facility included both a Little League baseball team and a Pop Warner football team. The companion Father's Heart International also provided food to four thousand Zambian children left orphaned when their parents died of AIDS.

That's the man about whom one anonymous pitcher huffed, "He don't drink, he don't smoke, he don't fool around. You can't trust that kind." Whose smile was so incessant he was once told "to get a couple more coats of shellac on his teeth." Whose third base coach on the Angels, Rocky Bridges, observed, "I think he'll be an archaeological find."

"When you see a life changed," Pearson told the Orange County Register in 2011, before he was scheduled to throw a ceremonial first pitch in Angel Stadium, "it's worth everything compared to getting a base hit or winning a game."

The littlest Angel wasn't so little, after all.

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