Jim Abbott was used to dealing with uncomfortable social situations; in some ways, they were all he’d ever known. As a child who’d been born without a right hand, he had quickly learned that he looked different, but no matter how hard he tried to hide it, everyone knew. “I felt the teasing and the bullying of the playground,” he told CNN Sport. “I keenly felt the awkward second glances in the school hallways and classrooms.”
He learned to survive and then thrive, but many years later, shortly before his 26th birthday, things were suddenly awkward again. Now, he was sitting in the dugout at Yankee Stadium in New York, and all his teammates were ignoring him. But there was nothing malicious about it – they were trying to help him. Abbott was about to pull off a no-hitter, one of the rarest feats in Major League Baseball. And he was going to do it one-handed.
‘I felt that anything was possible’
It never really occurred to Abbott that he had a disability; at least, it never really occurred to him that there was anything he couldn’t do. “I don’t think about what could have been or what was taken away,” he mused. “My dad used to say to me when I was a kid that what’s been taken away once will come back twice.
“I loved all sports. I loved football, basketball and baseball. But I always seemed to have a talent for throwing things. There was never a plan of playing in the major leagues; it was sort of a dream. I lived for it.”
Abbott recalls that he spent much of his childhood tucking his stump into his pocket, trying to put others at ease: “I know that it was a big part of my life. I wanted to prove myself and be a part of something.” Growing up in Flint, Michigan, he was surrounded by athletes and competitors, and he found a support system that saw only potential in his future. “I certainly ran into friction,” he said, “but I felt that anything was possible. I was surrounded by parents and coaches and teachers and mentors, and I didn’t face resistance. I faced encouragement and optimism.”
During his high school years, Abbott played both as a baseball pitcher and a football quarterback, and then at the University of Michigan, he led the Wolverines to two Big Ten Conference championships from the mound. Around the time he turned 21, he was really being noticed, becoming the first baseball player ever to receive the prestigious James E. Sullivan award, which is given annually to the best amateur athlete in the country. It was a recognition that propelled his name into the pantheon inhabited by the likes of Carl Lewis, Peyton Manning and Michael Phelps. In 1987, he was the US flagbearer at the Pan American Games, and he returned from the Seoul Olympics the following year with a gold medal. By the time he was picked in the first round of the 1988 MLB draft, his disability was almost a forgotten inconvenience.
As he would set up to throw his fastball, Abbott would position his glove on his stump so that his left hand would follow through and slip quickly inside, enabling him to assume a fielding position. The move was so seamless that you could easily miss it, but his Yankees teammate Don Mattingly never grew tired of watching him do it. “It always kept you in amazement,” Mattingly told CNN Sport, agreeing that it seemed like a magic trick. “I can’t even picture being able to do that at the Major League level. I couldn’t conceive how he was able to do it that fast and make it look so smooth all at the same time.” From Abbott’s perspective, the move had become second nature – he said he’d been doing it since the age of five – and it was as natural to him as tying his shoelaces.
During his 10-year career as a professional, Abbott played for the then California Angels, the New York Yankees, the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers, but there is one game that stands out clearly above all the others. On September 4th, 1993, Abbott threw a no-hitter against the then Cleveland Indians, a feat he describes as the greatest highlight of his career.
No-hitters are incredibly rare; the Yankees have played more than 18,000 games since 1903, and they’ve only ever managed 13 of them. Baseball insiders will tell you that nobody ever sees a no-hitter coming, and that was certainly true for Jim Abbott. Not just because of his disability, but because nobody in the famous pinstripes had thrown one in more than a decade when Abbott stepped onto the mound on a cloudy afternoon in the Bronx. And the last person expecting to see a no-no was Abbott himself.
“I had some pretty serious anxiety about that game,” Abbott said in 2013. He was up against the same Cleveland lineup that had smashed him all over the park just five days previously. Facing him on the mound were some of the most impressive batters of the day; power hitter Jim Thome would end up with 612 homers to his name, putting him No. 8 in the all-time list, and although Manny Ramirez was only three days into his major league career, he’d make it to 15th on the home-run list with 555.
Albert Belle was one of the leading sluggers of the day, and Kenny Lofton was renowned as one of the best lead-off men of his generation.
When he’d faced them in Cleveland the previous week, Abbott gave up 10 hits and seven runs and was taken out of the game before he’d been able to complete four innings. “I had gotten absolutely shelled,” he recalled. He was reportedly sent on a three-mile run as punishment. For the next start against the Indians, Abbott and his catcher Matt Nokes came up with a plan to mix it up with more curveballs and other breaking balls – and it worked.
“I remember looking up at the scoreboard in the fifth inning and saw we were winning by four to nothing,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a perfect game, but I noticed that they didn’t have any hits.” Abbott remembers trying to control his emotions despite the anticipation building in the stadium, the cheers of more than 27,000 fans gaining in volume with every out, and his teammates abiding by the “stupid superstition” of ignoring him in the dugout. “Those final few innings are nerve-wracking; you feel it in your heart, your knees and in your breathing,” noted Abbott.
There was a scare in the ninth when Lofton attempted a bunt that rolled foul down the third base line. But he was retired shortly afterwards, followed by Felix Fermin, whose fly ball was caught in center field by Bernie Williams. Abbott’s place in MLB history was then secured when Carlos Baerga hit a grounder to shortstop Randy Velarde, who fired to Don Mattingly at first base for the final out.
“When that final out comes, it’s just like this ecstatic release. You feel like you’re plugged into a wall. It feels electric,” Abbott told CNN.
Mattingly has spoken of the goosebumps he could feel tingling his arms in the last couple of innings because he knew how special it would be for a player like Abbott to throw a no-hitter. “Overall, he struggled with us through those years, but the competitor he was, and how much he cared, was awesome. I loved playing with this guy.”
The aftermath and lasting legacy
Since Abbott’s masterpiece had come on a day game on a Saturday, an evening of celebration in New York was inevitable. Mattingly recalls that they headed to one of his favorite chicken wing restaurants downtown for a few beers and a few cocktails. Abbott concurs that he had “a bit of a headache” the next morning.
“I was blown away by the reaction,” he said. “I was signing autographs, taxi cabs were honking, and people were running across the street, and I’ve been so heartened that people have remembered that game.”
But the legacy of Jim Abbott is about much more than just that September day in 1993.
By pitching from the mound in the iconic Yankees pinstripes and by playing for a decade in MLB, Abbott became a role model to disabled children all over the country. He can’t say how many he has helped, but he says that in every town or city there were always young families who came to be inspired by his story. “I wouldn’t be able to guess the numbers, they’re sort of staggering, but I think of the kids a lot, and the look in their parents’ eyes.”
In 1999, at the age of 32, he called time on his playing career: “I just lost some velocity, like a lot of people do. I played for 10 years, I would have liked to play for more, but I loved every second of it.” Retirement wasn’t the end of his story though; Abbott was able to hit the speaking circuit, where he continued sharing his message of hope.
Mattingly believes that his legacy is profound. “I think Jim’s had more of an impact on people than maybe 99.9% of anybody that’s ever played this game,” he told CNN. Abbott says that he’s still in touch with many of the kids that he’s encountered, many of whom have grown up to make their own mark in the world. He talks about his friend Nick Newell, who was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm. Newell idolized Abbott as a child, and he grew up to be a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. Abbott also mentions the college basketball player Kevin Laue, who was also born without a left forearm, and Shaquem Griffin, who played four years in the NFL without a left hand. “I see the look in their eyes,” he says. “I see the determination, and it gives me hope.”
The ultimate validation of his legacy would be for another one-handed player to make it in Major League Baseball, and Abbott is sure it will happen one day. “I absolutely think it’s possible,” he stated emphatically. “There’s just too many talented kids out there. There’s a world of possibilities for people born with challenges, that require them to do things differently, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do them just as well.”
Mattingly is still involved in the game; he’s currently working as a bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. He says he hopes to see another player like Abbott in the Major leagues.
“Lightning strikes more than once,” he said. “There’s a child out there that loves this game but may have a similar disability. Jim has already cut that trail, and even though it may be a little overgrown, that trail is still out there. It can be done.”
Abbott tries not to hide his stump anymore. He’s come to terms with who he is and he’s thankful for it. If he’d been born with two hands, he can’t even say that he would have been a better player.
“I don’t know that I would have had the ambition, which wasn’t always pretty. I believe that the push from having one hand took me to places I probably wouldn’t have gone without it.”
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