In the next in our series on athletes overcoming obstacles, Erik Crosier discusses one-handed pitcher Jim Abbott, the embodiment of achievement in the face adversity.
The no-hitter is one of the most acclaimed achievements in all of sports. For the uninitiated, a no-hitter is a baseball term referring to a game in which the pitcher doesn’t give up a single base hit, a truly phenomenal performance. On September 4, 1993 Jim Abbott became one of the few major league pitchers who have accomplished this feat.
It was a grueling performance, and Abbott was assisted by several good plays from his teammates. But even though all pitchers, like Abbott, who have thrown a no-hitter received assistance from their teammates—making the achievement not an entirely individual one—you could say that Jim Abbott earned his no-hitter singlehandedly.
You see, Jim Abbott was born without a right hand.
Like many other boys in the early 1990s, I was a baseball fan. I played little league and collected baseball cards during a time that was the last vestige of classic cards: the wax packs; rough stock on the backsides of the cards; rock-hard chewing gum in the pack that snapped into pieces when you bit it. This was a time when we would still memorize the statistics on the backs of the cards and emulate our heroes in our little league games.
It was around then that a new hero emerged. A player with one hand. And not just any player: a pitcher. I can remember the Topps card vividly: the tall, dynamic looking man staring steel-faced at the camera, his left hand on his hip and a left-handed glove cradled on his right forearm. Needless to say, the news of a major league pitcher with one arm was big among the boys. Abbott became one of the players in which I was most interested.
I’m sure anyone unfamiliar with Abbott is wondering the same thing I was back when I first heard about him: how does he do it? The literal pitching of the ball seems straightforward enough. After all, throwing a baseball only requires one arm. But how does he field? How does he receive the ball when the catcher tosses it back to him?
Abbott and his father developed a system for him when he was a child. Abbott would keep a left-handed glove on the end of his right arm. After throwing the ball, he would quickly switch the glove to his left hand to field. In another well-practiced motion, he could then squeeze the glove between his torso and right forearm and retrieve the ball to throw it to a baseman.
I never got the chance to see Abbott on television performing his amazing glove work during my childhood card collecting days, which was something I always regretted. But one of the great things about the Internet is the ability to search for clips of times past.
When the Good Men Project sent out a call for submissions about athletes overcoming obstacles, I immediately thought of Jim Abbott. When we look at sports figures as models for real life, for my money there’s no one more inspirational than Jim Abbott. If a man with one hand can successfully play the busiest (and arguably most important) position on a major league baseball team, it makes you believe that you can overcome the obstacles in your own life.
In his career, Abbott pitched for the University of Michigan, received the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete (the first baseball player to do so), pitched the final game for a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and played for ten years in MLB. He was the eighth overall pick in the 1988 draft and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 1991. And, of course, there was that no hitter.
In 1993, as a member of the most storied team in professional sports, the New York Yankees, Jim Abbott performed one of sports’ great individual achievements on one of the world’s biggest stages, Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were in a pennant race and Abbott had been struggling, so it wasn’t the kind of day one would have expected of Abbott. But in the ninth inning when shortstop Randy Velarde fielded the final grounder and threw the ball to first, Abbott joined an elite group of pitchers.
Despite having been elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame, Abbott is the first to admit that he’s unlikely to go to Cooperstown. He struggled at times during his professional career and finished with a record of 87-108. But when one is looking for a model of achievement despite setbacks, Abbott is in a field by himself. As such, it’s not surprising that he now works as a motivational speaker, spreading his positive message to a variety of audiences.
On his website, Abbott has this to say about overcoming his adversity: “I understood that I was different. I knew that being born without a right hand made a difference to people. But, I always felt like if that was going to mean anything—if I had some measure of success to attach to that, then it would provide an even better model. I think I did well enough to do that.”
Read more in our series on Athletes Overcoming Obstacles:
Robert Bennett III on Ohio State track star Michael Hartfield.
Travis Timmons on Derek Redmond.