By Rob Goldman - AngelsWin.com Historical Writer
As the Washington Senators rolled into Boston during the summer of 1958 for a series against the Red Sox, Senators outfielder Albie Pearson was mired in a bad slump. His batting average stuck around .220, and Pearson-a 24 year old wide eyed rookie-couldn’t figure out why. Pearson had just completed his last round of batting practice and was headed to left field to shag balls when a shrill whistle coming from around the direction of the third base dugout stopped him in his tracks. Then came a disembodied voice: “Hey, Little Man!”
Pearson looked around, saw no one, and figuring it was a fan, resumed his march to the outfield. Then came the whistle again and the voice, only louder this time: “Little Man! Over here!” Suddenly a tall familiar figure in Red Sox flannels emerged from a doorway just beyond the dugout. Get in here, Little Man.” Commanded a smiling Ted Williams, waving his hand at Pearson, “Come on in.”
The stunned Pearson did as ordered, following Williams through the doorway that led to a private grounds crew storage area beneath the stands. At nearly 6’4”tall, Williams towered over the 5.5” Pearson. Having trouble?” Williams asked. Pearson told him about his batting slump, and how he had exhausted all the means he could think of to break out of it. Williams looked at Pearson square in the eyes and grinned.
“You originally signed with the Red Sox because of me, didn’t you?” asked Williams.
“Yes sir,” replied Pearson. “When I was growing up I never got to see you play, but we listened to your games on the radio.”
William’s grin grew wider. “Little Man, there is only one Ted Williams, and you’re not him.”
“But you know what? Asked Williams. I’ve watched you since you joined the Senators in spring training. You get the bat on the ball as good as anybody. You can hit.”
The problem, Williams went on to explain, was that Pearson was “trying to kill the ball” with every swing. You’re shoulder’s flying open and you’re hands are slow because you’re looking fastball everytime, and they’re throwing you everything else but, right?”
When Pearson agreed, Williams gave him an assignment.
“Today when you’re batting I want you to spit on every fastball you see. You hear me? Spit on it! Keep your front shoulder in and look for the curveball, change and slider. Don’t even swing at a fastball!”
Fastballs were Pearson’s bread and butter, but he wasn’t about to disagree with the greatest hitter of all time. As he nodded and began to stammer his thanks, Williams muttered, “Forget it kid,” and disappeared down a hallway.
In the game that followed, Pearson let the fastballs go by and swung at every-thing else. The slump ended that day, as he collected three base hits and scored four runs for the Senators. As Pearson jogged out to center field in the ninth inning, he passed Williams heading back to the Sox dugout.
“Thataway, Little Man! Said Williams softly. “Good job!’
Giving batting lessons to players on opposing teams didn’t exactly endear Williams to his teammates, but like everyone else he was drawn to the very likeable Pearson. He respected his tenacity and drive, and marveled at how Pearson could hit and throw like someone a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier. People everywhere naturally gravitated toward Pearson. His innate kindness, hustle and ability put everyone – mothers, children, future Hall of Famers - in his corner.
For many fans diminutive Albie Pearson will always be the most endearingly popular Angel. The first legitimate star on the inaugural Angel team, at 5’5”, his disarming smile and consummate hustle helped build the fan base that laid the foundation for the future of the franchise. Ironically, “Little Man,” as Pearson was known around the league, almost never became an Angel. In fact, it looked as though his career would end not long after it started.
Named 1958’s Rookie of the Year with the Washington Senators, Pearson was traded to Baltimore the following year. But then disaster struck when a congenital back condition flared up and put him on the sidelines. Actually it was a miracle he had made it that far because as a youth, Pearson had spina bifida. Through sheer force of will he had made his way through the ranks with an incomplete spine. But in 1960, it almost ended his career.
“I ruptured my spine and Baltimore sent me down to the minor leagues,” Pearson said in a 2004 interview. “I didn’t play for three months—it was a real killer because I could hardly walk. They finally let me go because my bat was bad.”
Baseball may have given up on him, but Pearson didn’t give up on himself. In the winter of 1960, he sent a letter off to new Angel General Manage Fred Haney, hoping to appeal to his reputation as fair and savvy baseball executive. It was short and to the point:
I’m Albie Pearson. I was “Rookie of the Year” in the American League. I’ve been sent down to Rochester, but I want you to know my back is well and I can play. I want to come home and play in Los Angeles where I was born and raised. Please consider this letter as you make your draft.
Of the 28 players drafted or signed by the Angels that year, Pearson was the last chosen. He attended spring training, rehabilitated his back and was on the field for opening day. From that point on, he wore his trademark No. 28 jersey.
The original ’61 Angels were considered by many to be a second-rate team that had no business playing major league baseball. Baseball writers tried hard to outdo one another coming up with clever phrases, puns and witticisms to mock them. “One of the worst teams ever assembled” wrote Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post in the spring of ’61. “They are in uniforms because they proved their inefficiency.” Dodger fans largely regarded them with indifference and curiosity. But the general negativity did not infect the team and Pearson recalls that it was only a matter of time before the players began to gel and start believing in themselves.
“We beat the Dodgers in a spring training game 6-5, after being behind 5-2,” Pearson recalled. “I know it was just an exhibition game, but it put it into the hearts of those guys right there that they (the Dodgers) were not going to be the only team in town.”
The acquisition of Leon Wagner in April along with Ryne Duren and Lee Thomas in May made the Angels a legitimate contender. One of the hardest throwers in the game, Duren was also known as a two-fisted drinker. Thomas aptly nicknamed “Mad Dog” because of his fiery temper, played first and contributed 28 homers. Wagner, a former Giant, had come in from the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization. “Cheeky” or “Daddy Wags” as he was known to his teammates, slammed 28 dingers in ’61.
With Pearson in right, Wagner in left and the talented Ken Hunt playing center, the Angels had a formidable outfield. Fans gravitated most to the likeable Pearson, whose wide smile, aggressive play and fielding skill made him the first Angel player with a real following.
“I was popular mainly because my lack of size,” Pearson admitted. “I never had a boo in my life. I was the hero for the guy who never made it. They always saw me as the underdog because I was competing at the highest level, against guys a foot taller. I got many, many, many letters saying, ‘I got a kid and he’s little or he’s small, or, I go to work and I got this boss that bugs me, but when I go and we watch the game we see you and we want you to know we love you and we’re for you.’ I would go to Detroit and the fans would come in early bring their six-packs, and they’d be yelling and booing everybody that would come in the ballpark. I would take my batting practice and go out in center field and they’d say ‘Hey Little Man! We’re against everybody but you! We hope that Detroit hammers your team but we’re for you!’”
Possessing a tremendous release, Pearson could throw with anybody in the American League. His outstanding hand-eye coordination and quick bat gave him surprising power for a little man, but his lack of size meant he had to do things differently.
“I had to think way ahead. I had to be very sensitive how to play hitters,” Pearson said. “I would watch them and study their strengths and weakness. With Mickey Mantle, I could tell in batting practice by the way he held his hands if he was hurting physically or if he had too much to drink the previous night. If he were tired he would lower his hands and have trouble handling the ball. So during the game I might move on him. Play a couple of steps the opposite way.”
Pearson played right field in ’61, then moved to center in ‘62 and remained there until his retirement four years later. Manager Bill Rigney felt that with his speed Pearson could cover a lot of ground. He also proved invaluable as a leadoff batter, constantly hitting around .300.
In 1963, Pearson was fourth in the American League in hitting with a career high .304. He was the first Angel player to hit .300, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until 1970, when Alex Johnson hit .329 to win the batting league title.
By the mid-60’s, Pearson’s back problems flared up anew and by the spring of ’66, the discs in his spine had deteriorated so badly that he couldn’t walk. Pearson sensed the end was near but fighter that he was he battled against the inevitable. “I hurt myself sliding in spring training. My leg atrophied two-and-a-half inches, and was in a wheel chair in and in traction on and off for 36 days. I saw Opening Day that year from a hospital bed. My discs were so ruptured I literally could not move,” Pearson said.
Pearson’s last at bat he barely made it down to first, the pain was so bad he literally collapsed at the base. A voice inside told him it was done and it was time to move on
Pearson left an inevitable legacy on the diamond, but as it turned out, he had even higher calling. He has since became an ordained minister and has opened churches all over the world. He has also established the Fathers Heart Ranch for neglected and abused kids in Desert Hot Springs.
© 2006 Rob Goldman - Once They Were Angels