In September 1967 in Detroit, Mike Abbott and Kathy Adams, recent high school graduates, welcomed Jim, their first child, into the world. Their marriage, fifteen days later, was subdued because Jim was born without a right hand. (1) With the help of their parents, Mike and Kathy overcame their doubts about their ability to raise a child with a handicap and helped Jim cope with challenges galore – putting on his clothes, tying his shoes, (2) blending in with peers, coping with jokes and insults, and opting for perseverance over self-pity. (3)
Early on it became clear that baseball was Jim’s best sport. He excelled as a pitcher. He had a fast ball called a “cutter.” As it approached the plate, it dropped sharply toward right hand batters. But he had to overcome a major hurdle. A pitcher is also a fielder. If he was to succeed, he had to learn to switch his glove quickly after a pitch from his right side, where he pinned the glove against his chest with his right arm, to his left hand, so that he could catch grounders, especially bunts, and throw out the runner. Virtually every team he pitched against early in his career tried to bunt early in the game to test his fielding skills. With the help of coaches, however, Jim mastered the glove transfer technique and opponents eventually abandoned the bunt strategy.
As the years passed, Jim had remarkable success:
In three years at the University of Michigan, Jim won 26 games and lost 8, with an ERA of 3.03;
In 1987 he won the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the nation and in the same year, as a member of the U.S.A. national team, he became the first U.S. pitcher to defeat Cuba in Cuba in twenty-five years; (4)
In the next year -1988 - Jim was named the Big Ten Conference Male Athlete of the Year, he pitched the entire game in the U.S. victory over South Korea in the gold medal game at the Olympics, (5) and the California Angels, the first of five teams for which he would pitch, drafted him in the first round as the eighth player selected;
In 1991, Jim won eighteen games and finished third in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award; and
As a member of the New York Yankees, Jim pitched a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium on September 4, 1993, against a Cleveland Indians team with formidable hitters, including Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Carlos Baerga. (6)
Alas, the speed of Jim’s cutter faded during his ten years as a pro so that his success was measured. (7) His crowning achievement, however, was off the mound. At ballparks across the nation, year after year, before and after games, win or lose, he met with thousands of disabled children and their families, and every season he answered stack after stack of letters from them. He was as much an inspiration to them as they were to him. (8)
Today, Jim Abbott, at age 45 and married with two daughters, is a motivational speaker who gets rave reviews from audiences, to the surprise of no one who crossed his path over the years. It is difficult to imagine a person better suited to give hope to people, young or old, facing challenges. (8)
Jim Abbott and Tim Brown, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, Ballantine Books, 2012, p. 40. Future references to this autobiography are by page number. Most of the information in this commentary comes from this book, Abbott’s website (see jimabbott.net), and Wikipedia.
Abbott’s third-grade teacher, Mr. Clarkson, actually figured out a way for Abbott to tie his shoes by himself and he taught the technique to him. (pp. 62-63)
Abbott reports that he encountered hundreds of people worse off than he was. For instance, as a child his parents took him to Mary Free Bed Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be fitted for a prosthetic arm with a mechanical hand with a hook. There he saw and met children “with no legs, or no arms and no legs, or various combinations thereof.” (pp. 53-54) Abbott later abandoned the prosthetic device. Abbott opines that “There was more heroism in an afternoon at Mary Free Bed than there is in a decade of baseball games.” (p. 56)
Fidel Castro met Abbott and his teammates during this seven game series. Later, when Abbott was a pro, Castro contacted him with a request for a signed baseball, which Abbott granted.
Baseball was then a demonstration sport but is no longer played in the Olympics.
To add to this, in his senior year in high school, Jim won ten games with three no-hitters. He had an earned run average of 0.76 and struck out two batters per inning on average. He also hit .427 with seven home runs and thirty-six RBIs.
Abbott finished his professional pitching career with a record of 87-108 and a 4.25 earned run average. (p. 251)