In 1951 Eddie Gaedel was the shortest player ever to appear in an MLB game:
“Gaedel was in his early 20s and stood 3-foot-7. The Browns celebrated their 50th anniversary in the American League and Gaedel popped out of an oversized birthday cake between the games. He remained in the Browns dugout wearing a jersey with the number 1/8 on the back.” - A quote from an article on short players in the MLB
In the game against the Detroit Tigers where the St. Louis Browns saw Abraham, Gaedel took an at bat as pinch hitter (and drew a walk!) and thus became the shortest player ever to have played in the MLB. But Gaedel was an actor and was hired as a stunt, to celebrate the anniversary of the St. Louis Browns, and was thus an extraordinary exception in the history MLB player heights.
To get to the shortest “professional” players to have appeared in the game, according to the same article we quoted from, we have to go all the way back to the 1890s and early 1900s to find Hugh Nicol and Billy Gilbert, who were both listed as 5’ 4’’.
From them it is a short leap to Donnie Sadler’s 5’ 6’’. And although there have been more players of that size, Jose Altuve is probably the most famous of them all, short baseball players are rather the exception than the norm.
Does size matter? If you are small-sized you will probably argue that size doesn’t matter. :)
“No, there are baseball players of all heights that range from 5’ 6 inches” to well over 6” 5” in Major League Baseball. Typically, there is an advantage to being taller as a pitcher, but as an everyday player in the field, it does not significantly make a difference.” - Article on Does Height Matter in Baseball?
That is one take. There is also another.
“Carroll would almost certainly be consensus top-10 pick if not for a pair of factors he has no control over. He is under-sized and he is considered “old” for being a prep player. Depending on the source, Carroll lists at either five foot nine or ten inches. TO go with that, he weighs in at 161-165 pounds. That’s not just a bit undersized, that’s borderline small.” - 2019 Draft preview on Corbin Carroll on AZSnakePit
Corbin Carroll has added muscle and thus hits for more power, although MLB Pipeline still considers him more of a player that will have to rely on his hitting tools. But in their current assessment of Corbin Carroll, height no longer plays an issue.
Maybe teams are less concerned about a position player’s height nowadays, and it is true that when grading a “5-tool position player” height isn’t one of them:
“There are 5 keys or tools to being an excellent baseball player. [...] A 5 tool player has all five of these skills and are highly rated in each one. Height does not impact one’s ability to hit for average or power or how fast they are. It also doesn’t negatively impact fielding ability, in fact it might help a middle infielder due to the quickness often required to play shortstop or second base and finally arm strength is not impacted by the height of a player.” - Article on Does Height Matter in Baseball?
So where does the fixation on height come from? One explanation could be “traditional perceptions”:
“There are no rules for heights for baseball players per the positions they play – but there are tradition-based suggestions. [...] In the past, middle infielders used to be quite thin and small, but the trend shifted. [...] Most middle-infielders today are expected to swing the bat with authority and not just be defensive specialists.” - Article on the average height of MLB players.
That shifting trend was in place when Donnie Sadler was selected in the 1994 MLB draft. Maybe he was still that thin and small infielder spotted by the traditional scout from the 80s, but with a shifting trend in place, height was probably getting related to size and thus power. The small and undersized Sadler didn’t fit into that new profile of shortstops and that certainly played a role into why he wasn’t picked until the 11th round by the Boston Red Sox, out of a Texas high school.
Despite the low pick, Donnie Sadler impresses the baseball world and is soon seen as one of the better prospects in the Boston Red Sox’ farm system. Already in his first looks as a professional baseball player in 1994, just 19 years old, in the rookie leagues, he catches the eye with a whopping 32 stolen bases in 53 games.
In his first full season in 1995 in Class A for the Michigan Battle Cats he shows excellent on base skills (.397) and steals 41 bases in 118 games. Scouts are sold on him. Key, of course, is his speed while Sadler is also valued highly as a defensive middle infielder with a good read of the game. In 1996 he is considered the best prospect in the Boston Red Sox system by Baseball America and he cracks the Top 100 list at 28, ahead of Nomar Garciaparra.
“Could anyone else have scored on that fly ball?” Jimy Williams was asked after yesterday’s game was done. “Not only would no one else have been able to score on that ball,” said Williams, “no one else would have even been sent.” - Red Sox manager Williams in 1999 quoted in a post-game comment on South Coast Today on a run to home plate from Donnie Sadler
A hype is born and expectations soar in Boston. But in 1996 in Double A in Trenton, Sadler isn’t able to live up to expectations. With his speed he is still a threat on the bases, but getting on base becomes more of a problem. His walks drop, as does his batting average. Sadler is still getting on base at an average clip, but his stock drops, at least in the eyes of the prospect sites. Minor league ball ranks him as a B+ prospect, Baseball America now ranks him 5th in the Red Sox’ farm in 1997 and he drops to number 51 on the top 100 list.
Despite the disappointing performance the Texan still gets a promotion to Triple A, but 1997 is a complete disaster. Sadler is moved to 2B but he still struggles to a triple slash line of .212/.295/.326 in Pawtucket. Despite the poor performance in Triple A and his falling stock, probably to many’s surprise, speedy Donnie cracks the Red Sox’ 1998 MLB Opening Day roster and even starts in the lineup on Opening Day, although hitting 9th in the lineup in a game in Oakland. He goes 0 for 11 and is optioned to Pawtucket only a week into the MLB season. He stays a month in Triple A, gets injured for almost 2 months and is then called up again to the big leagues. Sadler finally appears in 58 games in the MLB, but with a .276 OBP he isn’t able to max out the value of his speed skills at the highest level, that are valued that season with an 8.7 speed score on Fangraphs.
The Red Sox start to shuffle Sadler around. With Garciaparra the shortstop position is more than covered, and there isn’t really much room for a below average light hitting infielder. He becomes a utility guy, but never excels at any position. After the 2000 season and with no options left, Sadler becomes expandable. Thus ends his time in Boston and after that several articles remember him amongst the biggest prospect busts or even the biggest prospect bust in the Red Sox’ history.
Shortest D-Back ever.
Sadler becomes part of several trades. He leaves Boston in a trade with the Reds and after appearing for them, the Royals and the Rangers in the MLB from 2001 to 2003, he finally ends up as a Diamondback in 2003, when the club signs him in November after becoming a free agent.
You might say you remember Donnie Sadler, but the truth is you don’t. And you can’t be blamed for that. He surprisingly makes it to the Opening Day roster with the 2004 Diamondbacks (or maybe it wasn’t that surprising at all...), although he doesn’t make his debut until 4 games into the season when he makes his debut against the Cardinals as a substitute for Roberto Alomar. With that at bat he becomes the shortest player to have ever played for the Diamondbacks. Sadler hangs onto the roster until June 2nd, but is then DFA’d and granted free agency.
He returns as a Diamondback in 2006, spending the entire season in Tucson, and is re-signed for the 2007 season as a 31-year old. He gets a brief call-up in May with a hitless pinch-hitting appearance after, like Jim McLennan would recall, Alberto Callaspo is put on the restricted list following a domestic incident. A couple of months later, in July, he infamously hits national headlines when he fails a drug test.
This is Sadler’s second positive test for a drug of abuse, Arizona Diamondbacks director of player development A.J. Hinch said. It was not a performance-enhancing substance, Hinch confirmed. He declined to specify the drug of abuse. - Piece from an article on tucson.com
That automatically ends his season for the Tucson Sidewinders and his tenure at the Diamondbacks. He is able to get a minor league contract with the Brewers for the 2008 season, but that would become his final season as a baseball player.
In 2009 his name returns in a professional baseball organisation as he is announced as the hitting coach for the GCL Phillies, who would win the GCL in 2010. In 2011 he becomes outfield and baserunning coordinator in the minor leagues, but is replaced in November 2011.
Ever since Donnie Sadler is giving instruction in baseball clinics, trying to teach kids the lessons he learned in baseball.
Donnie’s “Try over Talent” T-shirt shows his belief that continued effort will beat natural talent any day. So he teaches that the players shouldn’t expect to win every time, but to always challenge themselves and to know they tried their best. - Article on Chisholmcounty.com
If you have any memories of Donnie Sadler or an opinion on whether size matters, share it in the comments!