15 Most Inspiring MLB Comeback Stories Ever

Dan TylickiAnalyst IJanuary 20, 2012

15 Most Inspiring MLB Comeback Stories Ever

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    Everyone loves a good comeback story, especially in sports.

    Whether it's a team rallying from a near-impossible deficit to win a game or title, or whether it's a player coming out of nowhere to be great, these stories are what people live for.

    Many know the great comeback stories from teams in baseball. The 2004 Red Sox, the 2011 Cardinals and many others are well known. When it comes to inspirational stories regarding players, those are perhaps less known.

    This slide show concentrates on those great players, showcasing 15 who overcame some form of adversity, either becoming a ballplayer for the first time or returning to the diamond after being knocked out for a time.

Honorable Mention: Those Who Served

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    I would be remiss to forget all the veterans who served in war, often times in the prime of their careers.

    Everyone knows of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams and everyone else fighting in World War II, then returning to play baseball.

    Baseball has had its share of comebacks from other wars as well, and many comeback stories from war came from prisoners of war.

    Dixie Howell did not return to the majors until 1949 due to injuries he suffered in a P.O.W. camp, and Phil Marchildon was a P.O.W. for nine months before returning to baseball after the war, just to name two.

15. Scott Bailes

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    Scott Bailes was a starter-turned-reliever who played for the Cleveland Indians and California Angels in the '80s and '90s. After a terrible 1992 season, Bailes was released, and he retired a couple years later.

    In 1997, Bailes returned to the majors seemingly out of nowhere with the Texas Rangers, and he had a 2.86 ERA in 24 games.

    He showed that one can come back, whether it's due to issues had by many others on this list, or whether it's just due to ineffectiveness.

14. Paul Schreiber

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    Paul Schreiber was a pitcher for the Brooklyn Robins in 1922 and 1923, pitching a handful of games before pitching the next decade in the minors. His last year was 1931, then he retired to become a coach.

    In the first of several WWII-based slides, the Yankees had a depleted lineup in 1945 and let Schreiber have another shot at the big time.

    He pitched in two games at the age of 42, and the 22-year gap between major league seasons is a record that will never be broken, barring any publicity stunts.

13. Smoky Joe Wood

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    Smoky Joe Wood was perhaps the hardest thrower in MLB history, and during the Deadball Era, he was the ace of the Boston Red Sox.

    After an amazing 34-5 season in 1912, he broke his thumb and was only a spot starter after that.

    Not content to just retire, Wood converted to an outfielder and played for the Cleveland Indians for six seasons, putting up some nice numbers in the process.

12. Rick Ankiel

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    Rick Ankiel's comeback story is certainly one of the more well-known ones, as it's a lot more recent than most on the list.

    Ankiel was a starting pitcher for three seasons and a reliever for a brief time in 2004 before returning to the minors, where he spent 2002 and 2003.

    He returned to the Cardinals in 2007 as an outfielder and had a few very good seasons. In fact, it could be up for debate whether he was better as a pitcher or an outfielder, especially defensively.

11. Jose Rijo

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    Jose Rijo is perhaps one of the more underappreciated pitchers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he was consistently good with the Cincinnati Reds and was World Series MVP in 1990.

    In 1995, Rijo suffered a serious elbow injury, and despite comeback attempts, it seemed like he was done.

    In 2000, he made his return to the majors and played two more seasons for the Reds before retiring.

10. Mike Lowell

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    Mike Lowell is best known for his time with the Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox, winning a World Series ring with each of them.

    His comeback, however, dates back to when he was still a prospect with the New York Yankees.

    After being traded to the Marlins before the 1999 season, Lowell was diagnosed with testicular cancer, missing several months and only playing 97 games that year.

    He beat the disease and went on to play another decade.

9. Jon Lester

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    From one member of the 2007 World Series-winning Red Sox to another, Jon Lester made his debut for the Boston Red Sox in 2006, and after being scratched from a start, he was given an MRI and diagnosed with lymphoma.

    Lester underwent treatments during the offseason, and by July 2007, he was back with the Red Sox full-time, and with the question marks in the rotation, the team is definitely glad to have him around.

8. Cecil Travis

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    Cecil Travis is one of the "what-if"s of baseball.

    He was a shortstop and third baseman for the Washington Senators who was getting better every year, and by 1941, he had three All-Star appearances and established himself as one of the game's best infielders; at the time, his career batting average was .327.

    He served in World War II, missing four years, and during the Battle of the Bulge, he suffered from frostbite and came very close to losing his feet to amputation.

    He played three more seasons and tried to become the player he once was, but the war took a toll on him, and despite the comeback, his career was cut short.

    The fact that he was able to return at all after what he went through in the war is certainly inspiring.

7. Eric Davis

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    Eric Davis was a longtime ballplayer who had a great deal of talent, but who was marred by injuries. He missed most of the 1994 and all of the 1995 season to injuries, as well as some of the following two years.

    In May 1997, during his time with the Baltimore Orioles, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and missed nearly the rest of the season as he underwent treatment.

    He returned in September and had one of his best years power-wise in 1998, looking like the Eric Davis of old.

6. Tommy John

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    Tommy John, perhaps one of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, was a pitcher primarily for the Chicago White Sox to start off his career.

    In 1974, he was dominating with the Los Angeles Dodgers and had a 13-3 record.

    It was then that he damaged his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, which at the time was essentially a career-ending injury. He was given the surgery that bears his name and pitched 15 more seasons.

    Not only that, but he may have been better after the surgery.

5. Tony Conigliaro

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    Tony Conigliaro, perhaps more than anyone else on the list, can be defined by what happened to him on the baseball diamond, as well as his subsequent comeback.

    The young power hitter was hit by a pitch on his cheek, breaking his cheekbone, damaging his eye and creating one of the more iconic Sports Illustrated covers.

    Conigliaro returned to the game in 1969, playing four more years and perhaps putting up his best numbers in 1970.

    The Tony Conigliaro Award has since been awarded to those who overcome adversity, such as several who appeared earlier on this list.

4. Eddie Waitkus

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    Eddie Waitkus was one of the many major leaguers who served in World War II. In his case, he was unharmed and went on to play for the Chicago Cubs for three years, then joined the Phillies for the 1949 season.

    Waitkus, however, had a stalker who attended every Cubs game. When he joined the Phillies, Ruth Ann Steinhagen could not take it. She waited until June 14, 1949, checked into the same hotel, tricked Waitkus into coming to her room, and shot him.

    After nearly dying on the operating table, doctors removed the bullet, and he was back in a Phillies uniform by 1950, playing six more seasons.

    Parts of the Waitkus story were eventually turned into the book and movie The Natural.

3. Dave Dravecky

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    Dave Dravecky was a pitcher for the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants in the 1980s and was a consistently good one at that. He was only with the Giants for roughly a year before a tumor was discovered on his forearm.

    Dravecky missed most of 1988 and had surgery to remove the tumor from his pitching arm, removing much of his deltoid in the process. On August 10, 1989, he made a return to the majors and pitched eight innings, earning the win.

    In his following start, however, his humerus bone snapped, ending his career. He lost the rest of his arm two years later, but it's the comeback we remember, and he works nowadays as a motivational speaker.

2. Josh Hamilton

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    The top two comebacks on this list are players who were not in the majors at the time of their various issues. However, they are so well known and powerful that they absolutely deserve a mention; certainly Josh Hamilton's story does.

    Hamilton was the first overall selection in the 1999 MLB draft, and after a couple good years, he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs. He violated drug policies more than once, and by 2004, he was done with baseball.

    He successfully went through rehab, and the now-clean Hamilton made his major league debut in 2007. His MVP win in 2010 showed that he had the talent, and that he came very close to becoming a what-if in baseball history, rather than the great comeback story of redemption we all know.

1. Lou Brissie

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    The story of Lou Brissie is, to put it bluntly, one that not enough people are familiar with, and there's no question in my mind that it's the most inspirational comeback.

    Brissie was only 19 and a Philadelphia A's prospect when he joined the war. Overseas, a shell exploded on him, completely shattering his left leg. It took two years and many operations for him to be able to even walk with a brace.

    As a pitcher, the injury made working on the mound incredibly painful.

    Connie Mack had faith in him, however, and when he felt ready to pitch, Mack would put him in. He made his professional debut in September 1947 and pitched for seven seasons, making an All-Star team in the process.

    His biography, written by Ira Berkow, is a must-read, and it shows just how long the road was to reaching his major league dream.