There was one point when it looked like Aaron Judge was destined to capture the 2017 AL MVP award.
But the gargantuan New York Yankees rookie has cooled off in recent weeks, hitting .159 since the All-Star break. That’s opened the door for a different contender—Jose Altuve. The Houston Astros second baseman is batting an insane .365 on the season, and his 6.1 WAR is far and away the best in baseball.
As far as physical dimensions go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find two players more different than Judge and Altuve. Judge is a 6-foot-7, 282-pound giant capable of launching 500-foot home runs. Altuve is a 5-foot-6, 164-pound spark plug who ranks as one of the shortest active players in the MLB. A win for Altuve would be a win for undersized athletes everywhere, but he wouldn’t be the first diminutive player to capture an MVP award.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the most undersized MVPs in modern sports history.
1. Barry Sanders
1997 NFL MVP. Season Stats: 2,053 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry, 305 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns
For those who got the chance to see Barry Sanders play in his prime, it’s difficult to describe his game without breaking into a smile. Not only did Sanders possess unbelievable vision and remarkable quickness, but the fact he measured just 5-foot-8 made his dominance all the more delightful. Here was a guy shorter than your average Joe making entire NFL defenses look like fools.
Even Sanders’ opponents couldn’t hide their admiration. “He’s like a little water bug out there,” Bo Jackson told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I love the way the guy runs. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.” Sanders actually shared the 1997 MVP award with Brett Favre after the two ended up in a tie for first place.
2. Martin St. Louis
2004 NHL MVP. Season Stats: 38 goals, 56 assists
Martin “Marty” St. Louis is one of the most talented wingers in NHL history. Standing a shade under 5-foot-8, St. Louis was a shifty playmaker with superb stick-handling skills. But the man who would go on to become the 2003-2004 NHL MVP was actually never drafted by an NHL team—mainly because of his stature. “He has been told throughout his career that because of his size he can’t advance,” John Tortorella told Sports Illustrated of St. Louis in 2002. “That gets him pissed off. That’s a constant motivation.”
St. Louis’ lower-body strength was the stuff of legend—his quads were once the focus of a shoot in ESPN The Magazine. “My game has always been about quickness and reaction time. I need powerful hamstrings, glutes and thighs to give me speed and allow me to hang with the big guys without getting tossed around,” St. Louis told ESPN.
3. Ichiro Suzuki
2001 AL MVP. Season Stats: .350 batting average, .838 OPS, 69 RBIs, 56 stolen bases
Ichiro Suzuki took the MLB by storm. After signing with the Seattle Mariners as a 27-year-old, Ichiro led the MLB in both hits (242) and stolen bases (56) during the 2001 season. He instantly become an international superstar. He’s one of only two players in MLB history to win both the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP award in the same season.
“His success has killed, once and for all, the long-held conceit that a small Japanese player (Ichiro is 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds) would be overwhelmed in the major leagues,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 2002. Consider how rare an MVP like Ichiro was during this era. At a time when the sport was dominated by steroid-fueled behemoths like Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez; a wiry, slap-hitting Japanese man was one of the game’s brightest stars.
“When I first came (to the U.S.) I heard a lot of people say, ‘You do all these things and you are so small,” Ichiro told ESPN in 2016. “But for me, when I first came over I looked at all the players, and I thought to myself, ‘How can you play when you are that big?!’”
4. Allen Iverson
2001 NBA MVP. Season Stats: 31.1 points per game, 4.6 assists per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, 2.5 steals per game
2001 was apparently an excellent year for undersized athletes. Not only did Ichiro claim the AL MVP award, but Allen Iverson also won NBA MVP. “At 6-foot, Iverson is the shortest player in NBA history to win the award. At 165 pounds, he is also the lightest player in NBA history to win (the award),” NBA.com wrote in the press release announcing Iverson’s win. Seventeen years later, A.I. remains the shortest and the lightest player to ever win an MVP.
“They say he was 6 feet, but A.I. was like 5-10½. Do we even want to say 160? 170 [pounds]? Do we even want to give him that much weight? And he played like a 6-8 2-guard. He was one of the greatest finishers we’ve ever seen. You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all,” LeBron James told ESPN in 2013.
5. Ivan Rodriguez
1999 AL MVP. Season Stats: .332 batting average, 35 home runs, 113 RBIs, 25 stolen bases
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was recently elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. The 14-time All-Star won thirteen Gold Glove and seven Silver Slugger awards during his illustrious MLB career. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound Rodriguez is arguably the greatest defensive catcher in baseball history.
One of Pudge’s most iconic plays came during Game 4 of the 2003 NLDS. In the top of the 9th inning with Rodriguez’s Florida Marlins clinging to a 7-6 lead over the San Francisco Giants, J.T. Snow stood on second base with a chance to score the tying run. He bolted toward home on a single to left field, but Jeff Conine’s throw beat him to the dish. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Snow barreled into Rodriguez in an attempt to dislodge the ball, but Pudge absorbed the contact and held on. That was the final out of the series, and the Marlins would go on to win the 2003 World Series.
“I think I proved heart matters more than height,” Rodriguez recently told USA Today. “It doesn’t matter how big you are. I was a short guy playing with big guys but played hard and respected the game. I tried to take my game to another level.”
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