Major League Baseball — Playing With A Disability

Circa 2009

Many athletes with disabilities have succeeded on the professional playing field. Probably in no other professional sport is this truer than in Major League Baseball.

Few fans are aware of the number of these players who have succeeded in the majors. This may be because of the athletes themselves, who either downplayed or hid their disabilities, because they considered them to be just the hand they’d been dealt, according to Rick Swaine, author of Beating the Breaks: Major League Baseball Players who Have Overcome Disabilities.

For some, however, their disability was impossible to hide, and became a source of motivation, instilling in them a fierce desire to succeed and prove the “naysayers” wrong.

Jim Abbott has perhaps done the most in recent years to change people’s perception of how baseball can be played and who can play it. Born with one hand, he had a successful 10-year Major League career primarily with the Angels and Yankees, and was the 15th player to ever make his professional debut without spending a day in the minor leagues.

As a pitcher for the then-California Angels, he wore a right-hander’s glove at the end of his right arm. After delivering a pitch, he quickly transferred the glove to his left hand so he could field any balls hit back to him. In that first 1989 season, he won more games as a rookie than any other previous player without Major League experience, winning 12 games with a 3.92 ERA.

His disability inspired him to work harder than most. “As a kid I really wanted to fit in,” Abbott says on his website about growing up with a disability. “Sports became a way for me to gain acceptance. I think this fueled my desire to succeed. I truly believe that difficult times and disappointments can push us to find abilities and strengths we wouldn’t know existed without the experience of struggle.”

Abbott led his college team, the University of Michigan Wolverines, to Big Ten titles in his freshman and junior years. As a member of Team USA, he pitched a complete game seven hitter, leading the United States to the gold medal in a 5-3 victory over Japan at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Perhaps the most famous highlight of his career was throwing a no-hitter for the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in 1993.

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“I was very fortunate to be surrounded by people who treated me just like the other kids on the team,” says Abbott about his efforts as a youngster to be taken seriously as a ballplayer. “My growing up was learning to do things a little bit differently. There were just so many people who took the time [to help me]. ‘All right, let’s figure this out. I see potential in this guy.’ I really was the beneficiary of that spirit.”

Although Jim Abbott has been the most visible recent baseball player with a disability to play in the majors, many others preceded him. Mordecai Brown, nicknamed “Three Finger,” was a successful pitcher with only three fingers on his right hand. Due to a farm-machinery accident in his youth, he lost parts of two fingers on his right hand and acquired his famous nickname. With various three-fingered grips, he learned to use his disability to his advantage and became one of the most elite pitchers of his era.

“Three Finger” Brown’s most productive years were with the Chicago Cubs from 1904 until 1912. During those years, he won 20 or more games six times and was part of two World Series championships. At the time, New York Giants manager John McGraw regarded Brown as one of the two best pitchers in the National League. Christy Mathewson was the other.

Best known for his tenure with the St. Louis Browns in 1945, Pete Gray had been right-handed until he lost his right arm after he slipped while riding on a farmer’s wagon at age six. For love of the game, he learned to bat and field one-handed, catching the ball in his glove and then quickly removing his glove and transferring the ball to his hand in one motion, similar to Abbott’s fielding style.

Gray played center field for the Browns in 77 games, batting .218 with a .958 fielding percentage. He could not hit breaking balls, however, because once he started swinging he couldn’t stop. Still, Gray’s success became an inspirational example for returning servicemen who had been disabled during World War II. He can be viewed in newsreels of the time visiting army hospitals and speaking with amputees to reassure them that they could look forward to a productive life.

Edward Carl “Eddie” Gaedel was another player who couldn’t hide his obvious differences. Though his at-bat is considered a stunt, at 3’1, Gaedel is the only person of short stature to play in the majors. He has an on-base percentage of 1.0, walking on four pitches in his only plate appearance on August 19, 1951. Bill Veeck, owner of the St. Louis Browns, did put Gaedel up to bat as a publicity stunt to attract fans to the last place team. The Browns ended up losing, however, and American League president, Will Harridge, voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. For other players, it wasn’t quite as obvious that they were playing with a disability, yet they still made a significant impact on the game.

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William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy was a center fielder who played for several teams from 1888 to 1902 and is noted for being the most accomplished deaf player in major league history. In Hoy’s day, many people thought there was a connection between inability to speak and lack of intelligence, so people who couldn’t hear or speak were often called epithets such as “dumb” and “dummy.” Though Hoy even referred to himself as “dummy,” in keeping with his times, he was one of the most intelligent players of his era, and may have played some role in the creation of hand signals for out and safe calls. For his all-around contributions to the game, there is a movement to support his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Like William Hoy, Curtis John Pride played the game deaf. The former outfielder spent most of his career with the Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos or Detroit Tigers. He lost 95 percent of his hearing at birth from rubella, and was one of the first deaf players in modern league history. In an 11 major league career, he batted .250 (199-for-796) with 20 home runs and 82 RBI in 421 games.

He is currently head baseball coach at Gallaudet University, which is considered to be a world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduate students. When he is not playing or coaching baseball, Pride and his wife, Lisa, are actively involved in the Together With Pride foundation, which supports and creates programs for hearing impaired children that focuses on the importance of education, learning key life skills and gaining self esteem.

Most baseball fans are well aware of Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, about whom the movie Pride of the Yankees was made. For five decades, he held the major league record for most consecutive games until Cal Ripken broke the record in 1995. For his durability, Gehrig, who played first base for the Yankees, was nicknamed the “Iron Horse.” He also gave amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a nickname, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and probably played the last couple of years of his career with the onset of the disease.

At the midpoint of the 1938 season, Gehrig’s performance began to diminish. Although his final 1938 stats were respectable, it was obvious that he no longer possessed his once-formidable power. In the summer of 1939, he was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal disease that degenerates nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

On June 21, the New York Yankees announced Gehrig’s retirement and proclaimed July 4, 1939, “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium. That day, there was a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, and ceremonies were held on the field between games. That’s when Gehrig made his “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…” speech, which was immortalized in Pride.

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Ron Santo also battled a health condition: diabetes, which he carefully concealed for most of his career. A nine time National League all-star third baseman with the Chicago Cubs in the sixties, he batted .300 and hit 30 home runs four times each. Santo is the only third baseman in Major League history to post eight consecutive seasons with 90 runs batted in (RBI), and was the second player at his position to hit 300 career home runs.

When he was an active player, Santo feared that if it became known that he had type 1 diabetes, he would be forced to retire. Because the methods of regulating diabetes in the 70’s were not as advanced as they are today, Santo used his moods to gauge his blood sugar levels. If he felt his blood sugar was low, he would snack on a candy bar in the clubhouse. Years later, his disease progressed and eventually necessitated the amputation of his lower legs.

As society and laws have changed to accommodate people with disabilities, some major leaguers have been more forthcoming about their conditions. In fact, many have used the media attention they received as a springboard to raise money and awareness. Some of these players have received awards for their spirit and perseverance.

Dave Dravecky, a former player for the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, fought a highly publicized battle with cancer during his athletic career. In 1988, he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous desmoids tumor in his pitching arm. A year or so later, he returned to the field, pitching eight innings to defeat the Cincinnatti Reds in a game that was widely covered in the national media. Five days later, however, in a game against the Montreal Expos, Dravecky’s humerus bone snapped, ending his career.

More recently, Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer. One of the top left-handed starters in the game, he was diagnosed in 2006 and underwent off-season chemotherapy treatments at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. At the end of that same year, Lester’s CAT scan showed no signs of the disease. Then, less than two years after being diagnosed with lymphoma, he pitched the final game of the 2007 World Series, and in May 2008, threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals.

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To honor Lester’s comeback from lymphoma, Boston Baseball Writers’ Association of America honored him with the 2007 Tony Conigliaro Award. Then, coming full circle after his treatment at the Hutchinson Center, on October 7, 2008, Lester was named a finalist for the 2008 Hutch Award, given to the Major League player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of Hutchinson, the former MLB pitcher and manager whose life was cut short by cancer at age 45 in 1964. On November 10, 2008, Lester was announced as the award winner.

Jim Eisenreich has arguably brought as much attention to Tourette Syndrome (TS) as Dravecky and Lester have to the importance of cancer screenings. In the 80s and 90s, he played for the National League Phillies and Dodger. TS, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations, caused him to briefly retire between 1984 and 1987 to undergo treatment. In 1993, his first year with the Phillies, he enjoyed one of his best years, batting .318 and helping the Phillies to win the National League pennant.

In 1990, Eisenreich was the first player to receive the then-newly instituted Tony Conigliaro Award, given annually to a major league player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage in his lifetime. Eisenreich now dedicates his time to helping improve the lives of children with TS.

Making it to the major leagues with a disability or continuing one’s career after the diagnosis of a serious health condition are phenomenal achievements reserved for a select few. Beyond talent, it takes determination and hard work.

Many of the athletes profiled here went on to become spokespersons to raise awareness for their disability or conditions, including Jim Abbott, the former pitcher, who now works for PITCH (Proving Individuals with Talent Can Help) with the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. They collaborate on several initiatives encouraging businesses to hire people with disabilities. Their campaign raises awareness about the talent people with disabilities have to offer.

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“Hey, anything is possible,” says Abbott. His advice applies to any profession or endeavor: “You need to be very open minded to new solutions. Be comfortable with trying different ways of getting things done, and be strong enough to ignore the attention that being different might bring.”

“I worked hard,” he went on to say. “There are times when I wonder if I could have gotten a little bit more out of my left arm and there are times when I think maybe I got everything I possibly could out of it.”

Abbott’s baseball success and message have inspired many, including Chad Bentz who made history in 2004 with the Montreal Expos by becoming the second pitcher in the majors, after Abbott, to play with one hand. Bentz fields and catches with his glove the same way Abbott and Pete Gray did. After Bentz met him as a freshman in college, Abbott became his mentor. Bentz currently plays for the Cincinnatti Reds.

“Never allow the circumstances of your life to become an excuse,” Abbott advises. “People will allow you to do it. But I believe we have a personal obligation to make the most of the abilities we have. The focus has to remain on what has been given, not what has been taken away. It is the only choice.”

“My goal … was to be the best baseball player I could be,” says Abbott. “That’s how I would like to be remembered. I think being constantly put into a certain category can be frustrating. However I am very proud to serve as an idea that you can rise above categorizations and expectations of others.

by Renne Gardner

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