Inspirational Athletes

Major League Determination: Jim Abbott

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.” Chinese Proverb

It took a lot of character and poise for young Jim Abbott to join the local children’s baseball game in Flint, Michigan. Prior to joining that first game, he had on many occasions observed the other kids playing baseball, and although he desperately wanted to participate, he remained a spectator.


Because Jim Abbott had only one hand—he was born with an incomplete right arm that ended near his right wrist. Up to that time, he participated exclusively in lower body sports like soccer, and to most people, it seemed out of the question that he could play a sport as hands-intensive as baseball.

It would have been easy for him to have just forgotten about baseball. Most people in his situation would have.

But he had watched the local games over and over, and he had a sincere desire to play, and an attraction that—missing hand or not—would not stop him from doing so.

So after watching for so long and not participating, Jim took his own initiative and decided to learn how to field, throw, and bat with his one hand in order to join the local games. He practiced by himself and with his father as he adapted the game to his unique situation. And through practice, patience, perseverance, and a love for baseball, Jim and his father eventually devised a way for him to catch the ball in the glove on his left hand, remove the glove, and then throw it with that same hand.

A determined Jim constantly practiced the skill with his father or by himself, often for hours per day, until he could quickly slip the ball out of his glove in a quick and fluid motion while he either dropped the glove to the floor, or put it on his other arm. He also quickly learned how to bat by laying the bat on his incomplete right arm, while gripping both the bat and his right arm with his left hand.

All the while, Jim’s parents were supportive of their young son’s quest to play baseball. In fact, when Jim was born, they decided to avoid emphasizing his missing hand, and instead encourage him to do as he pleased and learn all types of skills, without being self-conscious about his missing hand—so when he decided to learn how to play baseball, they treated as normal, and never gave him the impression that he was doing something unlikely to achieve, or something that made him extraordinary or courageous.

When Jim finally felt that he had gained the necessary skills to join in the local children’s baseball games, he made his “debut.” Of course, most of the kids were not as understanding as Jim’s parents, and most did not take him seriously or accept him at first.

To them, it seemed unlikely that a one-handed boy could join their baseball games. Some of the children teased him and made fun of his right arm, calling him names like “Crab” and “Captain Hook,” and jesting that his right arm looked like a foot. And Jim also received many strange stares as he fielded the ball in his own unique method.

But although the teasing and attention did sometimes get to Jim and often sent him home crying, he continued coming back, encouraged by his enthusiastic desire to play as well as his parent’s support.

And he was also encouraged by his solid play and quick progress. In fact, it soon became evident that not only could he compete with the others, but that the one-handed Jim Abbott was actually a standout among them. His solid overall play and his developed fielding skill made everyone overlook his missing hand—so much so that soon everyone was trying to get him on their side when it was time to pick teams.

Jim’s interest in baseball continued to rise while growing up. He joined the youth baseball program, first as an outfielder, and later as a pitcher and first baseman. The pitching position did, however, require an additional maneuver: rapidly slipping his left hand into his glove after each pitch so that he could be ready to field. An eager to learn Jim quickly learned the skill, as his coaches watched with admiration.

Jim quickly became a dominant strikeout pitcher in his little league games, pitching a no hitter in his first start, and at one point going on a six game 0 ERA win streak where he averaged over two strikeouts per inning, and even batted over .500.

Nevertheless, most observers were sure that better players at higher levels of baseball would eventually be able to exploit Jim’s one handed fielding technique by hitting balls faster to him, or by using well-placed bunts.

But as Jim progressed to the junior varsity and varsity levels of baseball at Flint Central High School, he maintained and increased his adeptness at fielding, even though so many people were sure it could not be done; and he even played other positions during his non-pitching days.

In fact, Jim also played quarterback for his high school football team. He learned how to hand off the ball to the left (which, playing with only a left hand presents difficulties), as well as how to protect the ball with one hand.

As the team’s backup quarterback, he was thrust in the starting position towards the end of one season when the team’s starter could not play, and put up a solid showing, leading his team to several big wins—one of which caused a CBS sports crew to interview him, and broadcast the interview nationally at the halftime of an NFL Thanksgiving day game.

Jim capped off his high school career with a dominant senior season of baseball, pitching four no hitters, and even hitting .427 with seven home runs. He attracted attention from various media, as well as from several major league baseball scouts. The scouts, however, were reserved about choosing Jim, and wondered if he could field well enough to play professional baseball.

But the Toronto Blue Jays organization was willing to give him a chance, and they chose Jim in the 36th round of the 1985 MLB free-agent draft. Though Jim was pleased that a Major League organization was interested in him, he decided to attend college and play baseball at the University of Michigan before going pro.

While playing in college, Jim continued to receive tons of media attention and press about his unique story. In the midst of the hoopla, he remained focused on his play, and handled the pressure remarkably well.

And although he was often singled out as a courageous hero, he always emphasized that he preferred being viewed as a pitcher just like anyone else. He was never looking for sympathy, and refused to be viewed as disadvantaged. When he won an award for Most Courageous Athlete for 1986, he was quick to remark, “I pitch to win, not to be courageous.” Jim considered himself a good pitcher, period—not merely a good one-handed pitcher. But nevertheless, he also frequently met and spoke with children with physical problems similar to his, and told them that there was no limit to what they could do.

Achieving great success as a college pitcher, Jim was invited to play in international competition with other amateur players in the 1987 Pan-American games. He exceeded expectations, highlighting his performance with a win over a very strong Cuban team.

In March of 1988, he won the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award as amateur athlete of the year; and after completing his strong 1988 junior season, he entered the Major League Baseball Draft, and was chosen in the first round by the Angels.

But before joining the Angels, Jim went off to Seoul, South Korea to participate in the 1988 Olympics, where once again, he attracted tremendous media attention. In those games, Jim put up some impressive performances, and capped of his Olympic experience with gold medal game win over Japan.

Shortly later, he joined Angels spring training, and had to deal with a swarm of reporters constantly following him around. A highly poised and composed Jim handled himself well in the midst of all of the attention, and put up such a strong showing in spring training and exhibition games that the Angels organization decided to move him straight to the Major League level.

After a slow start that saw him lose his first two games by wide margins, Jim quickly bounced back and finished his rookie year with a 12-12 record, and a 3.92 ERA. He also showed that he could undoubtedly field in the Major Leagues, and that, as he knew the whole time, a one-handed pitcher could make it all the way to the Major League level.

Jim followed up his 1989 rookie year with a similar 1990. Then in 1991, after getting off to a very rough start, he dramatically turned things around, so much so that he finished third in voting for the American League Cy Young award for pitcher of the year. He followed that season with a similar one in 1992, finishing with a 2.77 ERA, and not one fielding error the entire season—a true testament to his elite fielding ability.

Throughout the rest of his career, Jim ad ups and downs as he bounced around on several teams, and retired after the 1999 season with a 4.26 lifetime Major League ERA, with only nine fielding errors. His career was highlighted by such performances as a 1993 no-hitter for the New York Yankees.

But perhaps most importantly, Jim wanted to play baseball, and did so all the way to the elite Major League level, even in the midst of countless doubters and looks of skepticism at every level he played on. Any time he made any mistake on the field, many people were quick to point at his missing hand for blame. But Jim did not lose any poise, and turned out to be among baseball’s best players of his era.

Jim also encouraged many children with conditions like his to confidently pursue their goals. Over his career, he met with many of these children, including numerous formal scheduled meetings. He reflected about those meetings when he announced his retirement.

“Most of the kids I met had a limb deficiency [such as] missing hands, a short limb, some sort of birth defect,” Jim said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “Last year I was meeting kids for the second time, ones who I met years ago in Baltimore. Now they’re teenagers and playing sports and accomplishing things. That’s tremendously rewarding.”

Inspirational Athletes