The smallest strike zone in major league history belonged to 3 ft. 7 in. Eddie Gaedel. Rickey Henderson's may now rival it.
When the 5 ft. 10 in. Oakland speedster crouches at the plate, he gives pitchers about a 10-inch target. No wonder he's on base so often, for either he gets a!juicy pitch to hit or walks. And once on base, he's a tremendous base-stealing threat, with 57 thefts so far this year. At this rate, he would break Lou Brock's season record of 118 stolen bases.
Not surprisinoly, Henderson's strike zone has become the source of some controversy. Inconsistencies exist in defining this area, according to California manager Gene Mauch, who says, ''Most umpires call his strike zone from that crouch, but that isn't right. He doesn't hit from the crouch, so his strike zone should be where he stands before the crouch.''
Basically, the strike zone is that space over home plate between the batter's armpits and the top of his knees. But is that space delineated with the batter at rest or in motion?
The rulebook is somewhat ambiguous. First it states the strike zone is established ''when (the batter) assumes his natural stance,'' then adds, ''The umpire shall determine the strike zone according to the batter's usual stance when he swings at a pitch.'' As a result, some argue against determining the strike zone until the pitch is on the way.
Instead of trying to judge a fluid strike zone, umpires generally rely on a batter's set stance as a guide. This, of course, causes no problems until you run across a Henderson.
If baseball were loaded with Henderson bat-alikes, there could be real problems. Under present rules, however, players can't mimic his batting style simply to receive a base on balls. Umpires, after all, are instructed to use a player's natural stance as a frame of reference. Henderson naturally crouches; most players don't.
''I can see the ball better this way than standing up,'' he says. ''Stand-up hitters see only the top half of the ball. I see the whole thing.''
As for Eddie Gaedel, well, he batted just once in the majors. Bill Veeck, the P. T. Barnum of baseball, hired the midget pinch-hitter in 1951. He drew a walk for the St. Louis Browns in a meaningless game against Detroit, but was banished from baseball almost immediately.