American baseball player
With 95-mph fastballs, Jim Abbott would be considered a gifted pitcher by any standard. What made Abbott stand out during his amateur and professional career was the challenge he overcame to deliver his strikeouts. Abbott was born with a deformed right arm, and played baseball virtually one-handed.
A product of Flint, Michigan, Abbott was brought up by his father, Mike (a sales manager), and mother Kathy (a lawyer) to live independently. The Abbotts tried using a prosthetic device when Jim was very young, but the boy hated the artificial hand and learned to do without it. Abbott's parents encouraged their son to play soccer, a game in which the legs, not the arms, prevail. Jim, however, was enamored of baseball. His father taught the boy a move—it would become known as the Abbott switch—that would stay with the ballplayer through his career. When pitching, Abbott would balance his glove on his right wrist, where the arm ends. For fielding, the boy learned to quickly switch the glove to his strong left hand.
The Abbott Switch
To perfect his signature move, Abbott spent countless hours pitching against a brick wall and seamlessly transferring his glove to catch the ball. The boy was equally attentive to his studies, though, showing the motivation that would carry him into adulthood. He chose as his role model pitcher Nolan Ryan , a strikeout leader during the 1970s.
Even when he entered Little League, Abbott never felt different regarding his physical condition. At age eleven, he threw a no-hitter that ended after five innings citing the mercy rule (when one team is many runs ahead of the other). The press quickly took notice of this unusual talent, sparking public interest in Abbott that continued for the next two decades. Opposing coaches who tried to take advantage of Abbott's perceived handicap
soon learned that the young man would not be intimidated: as a high-school freshman, Abbott once faced a string of batters who had been ordered to bunt. The first got on using that strategy; Abbott then threw the following seven out.
By the time he enrolled at the University of Michigan, Abbott was respected for his talent as much as his inspirational value. He pitched for the Wolverines with a six-win, two-loss freshman record that helped win the school the Big Ten title for 1986. In his sophomore year, Abbott rose to an 11-3 record, but got an even bigger thrill when he carried the flag for Team USA at the Pan American Games, held in Havana. He threw his way to a win for the U.S. over Cuba—the first such victory in twenty-five years. A year later, Abbott appeared on the international stage again, this time with the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1988 summer games in Seoul, South Korea. In Seoul, Abbott made possible a defeat against defending champion Japan and helped clinch the gold medal for Team USA in what was then an Olympic demonstration sport.
Into the Majors
Abbott finished his junior year at the University of Michigan by garnering honors including the Golden Spikes Award as outstanding amateur baseball player in the United States; and the Sullivan Memorial Trophy as America's outstanding amateur athlete. It was only a matter of time before the Major Leagues came calling. Abbott decided to forego his senior year in favor of a spot on the California Angels roster. When he reported for practice in March, 1989, however, the first-round draft choice was discouraged to learn that there was some lingering doubt about his ability to hold his own in big-league ball. "There are times it hurts," he told Sport reporter Johnette Howard. "Especially when you work as hard and do as much as anybody else has done, you feel maybe there's not much more to prove, and yet, there's still that skepticism."
Still, Abbott's debut against the Seattle Mariners in April, 1989, drew enormous press coverage. The pitcher rose to the occasion, striking out four batters and giving up no runs and just two singles. He followed that up by what was considered an outstanding rookie season, with an 8-5 win-loss record, all while under heavy scrutiny. No doubt, Abbott's one-handed game contributed to the constant barrage of reporters and photographers. So in-demand was the young star that Angels manager Doug Rader told Sports Illustrated writer Bruce Anderson that Abbott "had to answer some of the dumbest, most undignified questions I've ever heard, but he's handled everything with dignity and grace. And he's one helluva pitcher."
Beyond the limelight, Abbott faced the realities of professional baseball. "It's hard work," he admitted to Rob Brofman in a 1989 Life interview. "It's hard sitting there in the dugout for nine innings every day doing nothing. It's boring but the worst part is the insecurity—never knowing exactly where you're supposed to be, what's going on." On the other hand, "the best part of being a rookie is the newness of things," Abbott added. "You look in the locker and there's something new every day—a new jacket, new spikes, a new glove."
|1967||Born September 19, in Flint, Michigan|
|1978||Makes Little League debut as a pitcher|
|1985||Drafted by Toronto Blue Jays (turned down)|
|1985||Enrolls at University of Michigan; pitcher for UM Wolverines|
|1987||Pitches for U.S. team at Pan American Games|
|1988||Pitches for U.S. team at Summer Olympics, Seoul, Korea|
|1989||Professional debut with California Angels, April 8|
|1993||Traded to New York Yankees|
|1995||Signs with Chicago White Sox as a free-agent|
|1995||Traded to California Angels|
|1998||Contract with Chicago White Sox minor league|
|1999||Traded to Milwaukee Brewers|
|1999||Ends Major League career|
By 1991 Abbott was no longer seen as a novelty, but as a hardworking professional—the best pitcher in the American League in September of that year. But as with the case of all athletes, his performance waxed and waned with the advancing years. After a poor 1992 season (7-15), Abbott was traded to the New York Yankees. In 1993-94 he contributed a nearly equal won-loss record (11-14, and 9-8) while his Earned Run Average rose to 4.55. Abbott played for the Chicago White Sox before returning to the Angels in 1995. The following year the one-time sensation posted a disastrous season—2 wins, 18 losses, and a 7.48 ERA.
Down, But Not Out
"Baseball can be cruel," wrote Sporting News reporter Steve Marantz in 1997, "even to its most admirable player." Abbott took that year off to recoup and reenergize, then accepted a minor-league contract with the White Sox for the 1998 season. He endured half a season "riding buses around North Carolina," according to a Sports Illustrated article, "pitching in the Alabama humidity … and toiling in an old stadium in rodeo-rabid Alberta." When the White Sox called him up in September 1998, added the reporter, "almost no one noticed."
But Abbott made them notice, wrapping up the season with a 5-0 record against such formidable foes as the Cleveland Indians and Abbott's former team, the New York Yankees. But the winning streak did not last. A 2-8 season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999 marked the end of Abbott's Major League play. His career won-loss record stood at 87-108, with a 4.25 ERA. But his influence lived on through the positive and inspirational image he invoked for the public, particularly the disabled.
With his Major League career ended, Jim Abbott left the spotlight of professional sports. The husband and father continued to provide inspiration off the field by working with physically challenged children. Though he's been known to shy away from television or film depictions of his life, the left-hander has been the subject of several biographies, including Nothing to Prove: The Jim Abbott Story.
|CAL: California Angels; CHW: Chicago White Sox; MIL: Milwaukee Brewers; NYY: New York Yankees.|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1978||Pitched first no-hitter at age eleven|
|1985||Baseball scholarship to University of Michigan|
|1986||University of Michigan Wolverines win Big Ten title|
|1987||Silver medal for Team USA, Pan-American Games, Havana, Cuba|
|1987||Golden Spikes Award|
|1987||Sullivan Memorial Trophy|
|1988||Gold medal for Team USA at summer Olympic games, Seoul, South Korea|
|1988||First-round draft choice, California Angels|
|1991||Named to American League All-Star team|
If Abbott's "glory days are gone," Marantz noted in the Sporting News in 1997, "it is perhaps because we have come to take his uniqueness for granted. Against what standard should a pitcher with one hand be measured? The only standard is Abbott's and he would have us measure him against pitchers with two hands. Such is his illusion, art and greatness."
Bernatos, Bob. Nothing to Prove: The Jim Abbott Story. New York: Kodansha International, 1995.
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book II. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Johnson, Rick L. Jim Abbott: Beating the Odds. Dillon Press, 1991.
Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale, 1988.
Reiser, Howard. Jim Abbott: All-American Pitcher. Danbury, CT: Children's Press, 1993.
Savage, Jeff. Sports Great Jim Abbott. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1993.
White, Ellen Emerson. Jim Abbott: Against All Odds. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1990.
Anderson, Bruce. "No More Doubts." Sports Illustrated. (July 24, 1989).
"Back in the Game." Sports Illustrated. (October 5, 1998).
Brofman, Rob. "One for the Angels." Life. (June, 1989).
Hersch, Hank. "Ace of the Angels." Sports Illustrated. (September 9, 1991).
Marantz, Steve. "Time Is Throwing a Curve to Heroic Jim Abbott." Sporting News. (March 31, 1997).
Sketch by Susan Salter