This weeks crowning of R.A. Dickey
as National League Cy Young award winner sets the Tennessee native near the top of another rather
select list of major leaguers…those who succeeded despite physical
deformities. These men didn’t overcome
bad knees, a la Mickey
Mantle, or end a dominant career with a bone on bone elbow like Sandy Koufax….
No these men had actual missing (or in 1 case extra) parts. Some achieved great things in their careers,
but few have been feted as immortally as Dickey has been for his 2012
Mordecai (ThreeFingers) Brown was a pitcher who excelled for the Cubs in the early 20th
century, winning 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons, including totals
of 29 and 27 in consecutive years, while winding up with a career ERA of
2.06. Brown suffered his disability (memorialized
by his thoughtful nickname) as a result of accident (or two in his case) as
opposed to birth. An Indiana native, Brown lost most of his index
finger and mangled the others in a farm machinery accident. Before the hand had fully healed, Brown took
an unfortunate fall which broke his middle finger. That finger was never set properly and
remained bent forever. Still the former
coal miner managed to lead his Cubs to consecutive World Series victories over
the Detroit Tigers (1907 and 1908) while forging a Hall of Fame career. He was enshrined
for his 239 wins in 1949, a year after his death.
like Brown, suffered his ailment, a lost right arm, as result of a youthful
accident. According to his obituary in
the July 2, 2002 New York Times, Gray, at
age 6, slipped under a train and his arm was run over, soon to be amputated
above the elbow. Gray came to the big
leagues as a member of the St. Louis Browns, his opportunity coming as a result
of many of baseball’s stars serving in WWII.
In 1945, he appeared in 77 games in the Browns outfield. It didn’t take big league pitchers long to
figure out that despite his speed and ability to slap at the thrown ball, Gray
couldn’t handle a major league curve-ball.
By June 30th his .218 average proved insufficient for him to
remain in the majors, though to his credit he had struck out only 11 times in
his 253 plate appearances. Pete Gray
truly served as an inspirational symbol to the handicapped of his time.
was a true little person, standing 3’7” and weighing only 65 lbs. Gaedel was employed by the St. Louis Browns
for exactly 1 day, August 19, 1951. Browns owner and promoter nonpareil Bill Veeck recalled in
his autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck” that 1951 was spent celebrating the
Fiftieth Anniversary of the American League.
By mid-August the Browns were already more than 40 games under .500, and
attendance at Sportsman’s Park was dismal.
Veeck decided to do something so outlandish, something he touted as
never having been done before in order to fill the stands with the curious
minded, since his team couldn’t lure true baseball fans. No one knew what he had up his sleeve, the
only clue being the “midget” sized beers given to the fans as they entered the
park that day, meant to celebrate both the leagues’ and the White Sox’ sponsors
( Falstaff Beer) anniversaries. But
then, in the home half of the first inning of the Sunday nightcap game, the 18,000
attendees ( the largest Browns home crowd in four years) heard the announcer
call for a pinch hitter for the Browns LEAD OFF hitter. And up to the plate stepped number 1/8, Eddie
Gaedel. Gaedel, it turns out, had been
added to the team roster that morning, and had been kept hidden in the
executive offices during the first game.
Four pitches later Eddie trotted to first base, where he was promptly
pinch-run for, never to appear on the field again. Veeck had had his big day at the box office,
and Eddie Gaedels’ 2 minute career, truly an aberration, was one that would be
was a first round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1966, making his big-league
debut in late 1968. 1969 saw him serving
in the US Marine Reserves (as many ballplayers of that time did, in order to
fulfill their service time while still playing ball approximately three-fourths
of the time). In July, he and his brother
Lee had both played in the major league all-star game in Washington, D.C.,
a first for siblings. A month later, however,
during his service at Camp Pendleton,
California, May suffered the body
changing injury that left him believing his career was over. Attempting to
clean a mortar that, unbeknownst to him, hadn’t fired, he pushed an iron rod
into the shell, causing it to explode and take off part of Carlos’ right thumb
with it. Uncertain of his future, his
short season was still good enough to be named the American League Rookie of
the Year. Hard work and an adjustment in
his hitting style allowing him to utilize all fields led to his next award, the
1970 Comeback Player of the Year. May
never let the injury slow him down, making All-Stars again in 1972 and
completing a ten year career in 1977, having been a part of the American League
Champion New York Yankees the year before.
Pete Gray wasn’t the last one armed man to take his shot at
the big leagues. Jim Abbott
amazed the world as a successful starting pitcher, despite a birth defect that
left his right arm deformed below the elbow without a right hand. Bats left, throws left hardly tell the story
of how Jim Abbott competed on the field.
Forced to find a way to deliver his pitch, don his glove, field the
ball, remove the glove and grab the ball all with his left hand, Abbott had to
do this quickly enough to both protect himself from batted balls from only 60
feet away and to complete defensive plays as competently as any two handed
player. The 200 lb hurler became adept at tucking his glove under his right arm
before his delivery and after fielding the ball, allowing him to have a storied
career at the University
of Michigan, where in
1987 he was named the nation’s best amateur athlete, winning the James E
Sullivan Award to commemorate this.
Reaching the majors at age 22, he lasted 10 years, primarily in the
American League where the DH rule kept him from having to bat. He did end his career with the NL’s Brewers
where he managed two hits and three RBI’s in his only 21 career at-bats.
Winning as many as 18 games in his best season (1991 while with the Angels),
Jim Abbott’s crowning moment came with the New York Yankees, for whom he threw
a no-hitter on September 4,1993, versus the Cleveland Indians. Though Abbott retired with a losing record (87-108),
he was a workhorse of a starter for most of his career, and a study in courage
as well as a marvel to watch compete.
Alfonseca pitched nearly 600 games in relief over an 11 year span,
appearing in five different major league uniforms. Never an All-Star, for several of those years
Alfonseca was considered a very good closer, leading the National League in
saves in 2000 with 45 for the Florida Marlins.
His malady, you might be wondering?
Alfonseca was born with TOO MANY body parts…he had six fingers and six
toes on each of his extremities. A condition called polydactylism, it was in
fact inherited from his grandfather. Steroids may have enhanced players
performances during the time Alfonseca competed, but Antonio was not able to
parlay these extra appendages into any noticeable advantage.
did not amass any big numbers in the eleven partial seasons he spent in the big
leagues. Used largely as a pinch hitter
and defensive specialist in the outfield, Pride wore six different major league
uniforms in his career. Despite leaving
little mark on the game statistically, Curtis Pride’s bravery and ability to
compete with some of the most gifted athletes of his time is remarkable because
Pride was deaf from birth due to rubella.
Named the 1996 winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award ( given
annually to the MLB player who best overcomes adversity ), Curtis’ post career
work may be his biggest source of pride,
helping hearing impaired children via his Together With Pride foundation.
And then there is Robert Alan (R.A.) Dickey, one of the most
unlikely standouts of this just completed 2012 campaign. Dickey was a fine pitcher for his home state University of Tennessee and an academic All-American
in 1996. The Texas Rangers selected him
with the 18th overall pick in that years draft and offered him some
$800,000 dollars to sign. Recent legend
has it that before the papers were signed, a Texas team doctor noticed IN A PHOTOGRAPH
that Dickey’s arm hung peculiarly. The
Rangers poked and prodded Dickey some more, only to discover that he was
missing a ligament, specifically the ulnar collateral ligament in his right
(throwing) elbow. Having lived with this
condition his entire life, Dickey was suddenly labeled as damaged goods, and
the Rangers bonus offer dropped by more than ninety percent. Dickey accepted the lower offer and went of
to toil in the minors. Some 10 years
later and with only 33 big league starts under his belt, his odyssey continued,
as his contract started being shuffled around , earning him the journeyman tag.
Having developed a knuckle ball during
his minor league tenure, Dickey used the trick pitch to put together a fine
2007 season in the Brewers organization which earned him PCL Pitcher of the
Year accolades. That effort just led to his bouncing to the Twins organization,
then to the Mariners, back to Minnesota and
back once more to Seattle,
all in the 2007-8 off-season. 2008 and
2009 saw him throw his floater nondescriptly, and mostly in relief, for the
Mariners, and , of all teams, the Twins once again. But in 2010, at age 35, the New York Mets
gave him his first real chance as a starter, and R.A. did not disappoint them.
Eleven wins and 2.84 ERA were bright spots for that lowly club. Dickey remained in the Mets 2011 rotation,
and while his numbers weren’t quite as good as the year before, he still
consumed over 200 innings as he made every start. And the rest, as they say , is history. 2012
proved to be a magical time for this man.
He bared his soul early in the year, penning a book wherein he admitted
to having been sexually abused as a child.
He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. And he exploded on the National League scene
with a career year that any phenom hopes to achieve somewhere along the line by
winning 20 games for a hapless ball club, and striking out a league leading 230
hitters along the way. His performance
peaked in June, when his six starts garnered three complete games and two
shutouts including an unfathomable pair of back to back one-hitters during
inter-league play, going 5-0 for the month.
He was also incredibly consistent, as he won at least three games in
five months out of the six the season encompassed. Dickeys’ exploits were rightly rewarded
earlier this week when he was named as the very first Cy Young award winner to
feature the knuckle-ball. Success had
come in spades at age 38, defying his biological shortcomings.
There were others who have dealt with physical adversities
over the years other than game injuries or regular wear and tear, ranging from Tourette
’s syndrome to club feet , cancers, and diabetes. These eight men mentioned here all defied
odds and tradition and made their marks on the national pastime despite their
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