Obituary: Albie Pearson (1934-2023)

RIP to Albie Pearson, an All-Star outfielder and the 1958 American League Rookie of the Year. He died on February 22 at the age of 88. Pearson, who was sometimes called “The Littlest Angel” for his diminutive size, played for the Washington Senators (1958-59), Baltimore Orioles (1959-60) and Los Angeles Angels (1961-66).

Albert Gregory Pearson was born on September 12, 1934, in Alhambra, Calif. He was named after Yale halfback Albie Booth, who didn’t let his own small stature keep him from football stardom. Pearson inherited his athleticism from his family — both his father and grandfather were prizefighters. Unfortunately, He also inherited his size from his family. His father was 5’5″, and his mother was 5’1″. According to a Sports Illustrated profile from 1963, 12-year-old Albie stood just 4’5″ and weighed 62 pounds, so his parents started taking him to the doctor for testosterone injections. He had to get three shots a week for three years. “If I hadn’t had the injections I’d probably be 5 feet 2,” Pearson said. “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.” He eventually topped out at 5’5″, give or take 3/4 of an inch.

See Albie Pearson at Baseball Almanac

Pearson’s size didn’t limit his sports activities at El Monte High School. He was awarded 14 letters in baseball, football, track, and even basketball. He was primarily a pitcher in high school, and a good one, but his hitting was also first rate. In 1951, he was the only Pacific League player named to the All-CIF Baseball First Team, as a left-handed pitcher. He had an 8-2 record with 111 strikeouts, and he also hit over .500. Pearson graduated in 1952 but joined a Mason City team in the semipro Iowa State League as a center fielder rather than sign a pro contract. He rejected several offers, including one from the Boston Red Sox.

“None [of the offers] was very good,” he told The Des Moines Register. “I believe I’m as good as a lot of the bigger fellows and that’s why I’m playing semipro ball in this league this season. I think I can prove that I’m worth more. I just gotta play major-league ball.”

Pearson said in his Sports Illustrated interview that he spent part of a semester at Mt. San Antonio College in Pomona, but his desire to play ball overrode his desire for further education. He walked into a Red Sox training camp one day in early 1953 and asked for a job. The Sox sent him a contract with no bonus, and scout Tom Downey told him that if he didn’t sign it, he could just throw the contract in the garbage. Pearson signed and joined the San Jose Red Sox of the Class-C California League. He was an instant sensation. He was given all manner of nicknames in the press — “Mighty Mite” was a popular choice — but any newspaper that mentioned his size also had to mention that he beat up the league’s pitchers. The 18-year-old slashed .334/.463/.445, scored 106 runs, stole 14 bases and hit 23 doubles, 11 triples and 2 home runs. Pearson stole 14 bases, walked 108 times and had a mere 25 strikeouts in 576 plate appearances. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year to his teammate, pitcher Truman “Tex” Clevenger.

Pearson batted a less-impressive .268 for Class-A Albany in 1954, but that was the low point of his minor-league career. Usually, he hit over .300 or close to it. He batted a sizzling .371 for Oklahoma City in 1956 to win the Texas League batting title by more than 25 points. Everywhere he went, his height made him a standout — there weren’t any other ballplayers in memory that were his size — but he won people over with his work at the plate. Opposing scouts loved him, and some sportswriters imagined Boston going from the hulking Ted Williams to the diminutive Pearson when Williams retired. However, Boston apparently wasn’t very enamored of their little sensation. In January of 1958, the Sox traded Pearson and Norm Zauchin to the Washington Senators in exchange for Pete Runnels.

Albie Pearson (center) is stuck in the middle between Senators teammates Jim Lemon and Norm Zauchin. Source: Hartford Courant, May 24, 1958.

The 1959 Senators would go on to lose 93 games and finish in last place in the American League. To put it politely, the team didn’t have talent like Ted Williams or Jackie Jensen blocking Pearson’s path in the outfield. Pearson was the usual talk of the camp, and photographers delighted in posing him with his much taller teammates. When asked about his fielding abilities, catcher Clint Courtney said that he couldn’t judge, because when he squatted down behind the plate, he couldn’t see Pearson. But as camp went on, it became clear that the little guy would make the team. Not only that, but Pearson was the starting center fielder for Washington on Opening Day, on April 14, 1958, against Boston. He was hitless in that game, but he had his first major-league hit on April 19 against Red Sox pitcher Mike Fornieles. He scored the second run of an eventual 4-3 Senators win on a double by Jim Lemon.

Pearson remained as the starting center fielder for the rest of the season and slashed .275/.354/.358. His 25 doubles were tenth-best in the AL, and he even smacked 3 home runs. His batting average occasionally dipped into the .230s or .240s, but he was never more than a multi-hit game away from bringing it back up to a respectable number. Even if he didn’t always hit, he took 64 walks and struck out just 31 times in 610 plate appearances. He knew how to get on base, and he scored 63 runs. His fielding in center field was… not great. Once at Yankee Stadium, Pearson lost a Mickey Mantle fly ball in the monuments, and Mantle was able to coast around the bases for an inside the park home run. Rocky Bridges, who was stationed to get the cut-off throw, joked, “I waited so long out there I thought Miller Huggins was going to throw me the ball.”

At the end of the season, Pearson was first on 14 of 24 ballots to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. He finished ahead of Yankees reliever Ryne Duren and Cleveland pitcher Gary Bell. Pearson credited Senators manager Cookie Lavagetto for having him hit the opposite way instead of trying to pull everything. It wasn’t always easy for Pearson to find useful hitting advice. “In the minor leagues, I tried to copy everything Ted Williams did,” he said. “He politely told me it was all wrong, that I was almost one foot shorter and nearly 100 pounds lighter.”

Pearson’s stay in Washington came to an abrupt and surprising end. He struggled to start the 1959 season and lost his starting job to slugger Bob Allison, who would win the Rookie of the Year award after hitting 30 home runs. Pearson was traded to Baltimore on May 26 for outfielder Lenny Green and spent parts of two seasons as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter. He batted .232 for the Orioles in 1959 and .244 in 1960. In 128 games with Baltimore, he had a total of 12 RBIs, and 4 of them came with one swing of the bat. Pearson unloaded off Yankees starter Jim Coates on April 24, 1960, for a grand slam homer. The Orioles actually hit two grand slams against the Yankees that day but still lost, 15-9.

By the end of 1960, Pearson had gone from a surprise Rookie of the Year to a reserve player who spent half the previous season with Baltimore’s minor-league affiliate in Miami. He needed a fresh start, and it came as part of the expansion draft that welcomed the Los Angeles Angels and the new Washington Senators. His Sports Illustrated profile says that Pearson wrote a letter to Angels general manager Fred Haney to tout himself. “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.” It worked, as the Angels took Pearson in the Fourth Round of the expansion draft and gave him an opportunity to start in the outfield.

Pearson was the right fielder in the first-ever Angels game on April 11, 1961. He became the first Angels batter to reach base when he took a first-inning walk against Baltimore’s Milt Pappas, and he scored the first Angels run moments later when Ted Kluszewski homered to right field. Pearson liked the confines of Wrigley Field — the ballpark in California, not Chicago — and hit a career-high 7 home runs in 1961. During one torrid stretch in late June, he hit 3 homers within a span of 5 games. In one of the games where he didn’t go deep, he walked 5 times in a 14-inning marathon against Baltimore. “In a park like this all you have to do is meet the ball. It’ll go,” he said.

Pearson finished the year with a .288 batting average, and he set career highs with 96 bases on balls and a .420 on-base percentage. He continued to produce in 1962, when he hit .261. He also led the American League with 115 runs scored and was in the Top 10 in stolen bases with 15. While he would never be considered a Gold Glove outfielder, he had improved his defense. “Just hit the ball out there and you’ll find him,” said Yankees manager Ralph Houk. “He’ll be standing under it unless you hit it in the 10th row — and sometimes even then.”

Pearson had his finest all-around season in 1963, making his only All-Star Game appearance as the AL’s starting center fielder. He had 2 hits in 4 at-bats in the game, with a single off Cincinnati’s Jim O’Toole and a double off Cubs pitcher Larry Jackson. On the season, he slashed .304/.402/.398 for a career-high 132 OPS+. He homered 6 times and drove in 47 runs while scoring 92 times. The only category where Pearson led the AL was getting caught stealing 10 times (he was successful 17 times), but his season was successful enough that he picked up a few MVP votes.

While playing winter ball in Cuba in 1958-59, Pearson meets one of Castro’s soldiers.

Pearson tried to help the team off the field as well, without much luck. He was a clean-living Baptist and a Sunday school teacher, and he volunteered to be the roommate of the Angels’ own problem child, pitcher Bo Belinsky. He couldn’t get the hard-living Belinsky on the straight and narrow. “We talked about his way of life. ‘All right, Albie,’ I said, ‘I’ll try your way for two weeks if you’ll try mine for three days.’ He didn’t go for it,” Belinsky said. The two remained friendly even after the roommate experiment failed. “A lot of guys look up to the little man,” Belinsky said of Pearson.

Pearson was slow to start the 1964 season, and just when he started to getting his batting average above .200, he tore his Achilles tendon. He played through the pain, but he was largely relegated to a pinch-hitter and hit just .223. He recovered well in 1965 and regained a starting role in the outfield. He batted .278, though he was limited to 122 games. His career came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1966. The Los Angeles Times reported that Pearson had been born with an incomplete spine, and his back was causing more and more pain as he moved out of his 20s and into his 30s. He was hospitalized and spent 10 days in traction early in the year in the hopes of restoring him to playing shape. However, in a spring training game against Cleveland, Pearson tripped while trying to catch a foul ball and re-aggravated the injury. “I can’t play anymore. I hurt so much I can’t bend over,” he said in the aftermath of the injury. He was placed on the disabled list and was able to return in July to make a couple of appearances in front of the Angels fans who loved him. He was hitless in 3 at-bats, with his final appearance coming on July 16, 1966, against Boston. He grounded out to shortstop in his final at-bat and was cheered loudly. Days later, on July 20, the Angels placed him on waivers, officially ending his career.

Pearson, a talented singer, released a couple of albums, but he refused to sing rock & roll.

In 9 seasons, Pearson had a slash line of .270/.369/.355, with 831 hits that included 130 doubles, 24 triples and 28 home runs. He scored 485 runs and drove in 214. Pearson struck out just 195 times and drew 477 walks, and he also stole 77 bases. Baseball Reference credits him with 13.2 Wins Above Replacement, and he had a lifetime 103 OPS+.

When he retired as a player, Pearson wasn’t hurting for things to occupy his time. He was a terrific left-handed golfer and was winning baseball player golf tournaments as early as 1954. He also had a fine singing voice and recorded a couple of albums before his refusal to sing rock & roll killed that career. Ultimately, Pearson followed his father’s footsteps. Albert Sr. had gone from prizefighting to mission work, and Albie Pearson devoted the rest of his life to his faith and good works. In 1979, Pearson and his wife, Helen, founded United Ministries International. The organization, which still exists today, established churches, orphanages and schools across the United States, South America, Europe and Mexico. The Pearsons moved to the Coachella Valley in 1993 and purchased land in 1997 that eventually became Father’s Heart Ranch. The Ranch takes in children who have been the victims of abuse and neglect and provides emotional and spiritual care.

When he retired, Pearson spoke with columnist Jim Murray of the Times and gave a list of thank-yous, with a mix of humility and humor. Included were his wife and three daughters for putting up with his career and the absences that come with it. He thanked Angels manager Bill Rigney, “even though he must have felt cheated not to have been allowed two of me for every game.”

“But most of all, I want to thank God for showing that, through simple belief, you can be a winner forever — regardless of height, weight, reach, swing or what ounce bat you have to swing.”

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