30 MLB Players Who Overcame Physical/Mental Obstacles to Achieve Their Dreams
Perhaps the greatest stories in sports are not about simply the all-time greats, but instead about the ones who got a raw deal in life yet were able to make the best out of their situation.
There are those who have overcome great odds, whether it's due to a physical deformity, mental battles or another condition, to become an MLB player. Even issues of race, back in the day, were something that players had to battle.
These 30 players have all had to overcome something major, and each has an inspirational story to tell.
This is limited to those who had issues before starting an MLB career, so players like Darrell Porter or Jon Lester miss the cut. Eddie Gaedel is not on the list, either, since he wasn't actively trying to pursue an MLB career; his appearance was a Bill Veeck stunt.
Pete Gray may have been lucky to make the majors at all. His lone season was 1945, when many were overseas fighting in World War II. As a result, it gave him the opportunity to showcase his talents despite only having one arm.
At the age of six, Gray was in a farming accident, and his right arm had to be amputated above the elbow. He hit .218 for the Browns, with his average falling off late since he wasn't able to hit curveballs with only one arm swinging the bat.
Nonetheless, he was an inspiration for those returning from active duty in the war, as well as handicapped youth at the time.
Not every disability or obstacle is visible on the surface, though some (like Gray's) may be more obvious. Bill Gullickson managed 162 wins in a 14-year career and did it while struggling with Type 1 Diabetes.
Nowadays, there are a few players that do have it, but at the time, it was a big deal that he was able to play. When he played overseas for two years with the Yoimuri Giants to go with his MLB career, his condition inspired many, including a young kid who was hoping to pick up the game...
The kid that Gullickson talked to was none other than Sam Fuld. The outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 10.
Two years later, he met Gullickson, and Fuld said that it inspired him. A decade later, he rose up the minors and joined the Chicago Cubs before being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he has since become a fan favorite.
It says something when a condition is able to keep someone out of baseball. Jim Eisenreich played three years for the Minnesota Twins in the 1980s, seeing sparse playing time before voluntarily retiring due to his battle with Tourette syndrome.
After undergoing treatment, he returned in 1987 and played for another decade, helping lead the Florida Marlins to the World Series in 1997 and becoming the first recipient of the Tony Conigliaro Award in 1990, given annually to an MLB player overcoming a major obstacle.
From what I've read about Jim Abbott, he seems to be a great person. He's a motivational speaker and seems to be a very level-headed guy. He's simply a great guy, rather than a guy with one hand.
He was born with a stump rather than a hand and worked past that adversity to become a star pitcher with Michigan. He then had a ten-year career and 87 wins, mostly with the California Angels.
One of these 87 wins was perhaps the greatest; it was a September 4, 1993, no-hitter, which by him was all the more remarkable.
While there are many who perhaps played with Type 1 Diabates, Gullickson, Fuld, and Santo will be the ones represented. In Santo's case, it was even greater since he went on to a Hall of Fame career.
During his time with the Chicago Cubs, he actually kept it a secret that he had diabetes, thinking that he would be forced to retire. He eventually lost both legs to the disease before his death in 2010.
To add to the greatness that they were able to achieve, Santo is the first of many Hall of Famers on this list.
When pitching in the major leagues, proper footwork on the mound can be as important as the arm motion. That's what makes Jim Mecir's story that much more inspirational.
Mecir was born with club feet and as a result needed many surgeries just to be able to walk. He worked through that and became a quality relief pitcher for 11 seasons, primarily with the Oakland Athletics.
Unlike many on this list who are players of the past, Tony Campana's career is just starting out, as he is now the starting center fielder for the Chicago Cubs after the Marlon Byrd trade. On top of that, he's currently hitting very well.
He's come a long way from his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma as a child. After ten years of treatment, it went into remission, and he was called the Cubs' next Sam Fuld upon his debut, someone who would give their all every day and fight in the face of adversity.
While obstacles can't always be visible, they also aren't always physical struggles, either. Josh Hamilton's fight to make it to the majors wasn't any less inspiring just because of his drug use.
The former first overall pick was fast on his way to becoming a bust when, after a 2001 accident, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. After multiple minor league suspensions, he finally became clean after the 2005 season.
He made his major league debut the following year and joined the Texas Rangers in 2007. We have all seen the rest of his story unfold so far, as he is on pace for a second MVP win this year.
Sometimes, a player can be so great that he's able to turn a major obstacle into an advantage. That's what Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai Brown did.
A farm accident as a kid caused him to lose two fingers (most of one and part of another), giving him the nickname "Three Finger Brown." He was actually able to rest the ball on the stump of his index finger when pitching, giving him a great curveball.
Over his career, he won 239 games and was also a major part of the Federal League late in his career.
Ed Dundon had a very short career in the 19th century, only playing two seasons with the Columbus Buckeyes. However, he is noted as being the first deaf player in MLB history.
After attending the Ohio State School for the Deaf, Dundon went on to play several years of professional baseball. After retiring he became an umpire, using hand signals to make his calls.
Due to medical knowledge at the time, it's unconfirmed what specific problems Rube Waddell had. He may have had a form of mental retardation or autism, or he could have had ADD as well.
Despite his apparent immaturity, which frustrated managers throughout his career, Waddell was a dominant pitcher. In 13 seasons, he had 193 wins and led the league in strikeouts six times.
He may have just been considered crazy back then, but certainly nowadays he would be looked on as inspirational with whatever issue he actually had.
While Ed Dundon was the first deaf player to play baseball professionally, William Hoy was perhaps the most successful of all that succeeded Dundon.
Hoy went deaf after an attack of meningitis at the age of three. Like Dundon, he went on to attend the Ohio State School for the Deaf, and he went on to have a 14-year career, amassing over 2,000 hits and nearly 1,500 runs scored.
Sources will note him as "Dummy" Hoy, since that was the term that was used for the deaf at the time, but it's archaic and I refuse to use it. Interestingly enough, there were quite a few deaf players early on in baseball history, but far fewer once the live-ball era began. One, however, stands out.
After the live-ball era began, there were only a couple of deaf players in the majors, and neither made much of an impact. That changed when Curtis Pride arrived in 1993.
Pride was deaf at birth after a bout of rubella and became a three-sport star in high school. He rose up the minor leagues and made his debut with the Montreal Expos in 1993. His career ended 11 seasons later with the Angels.
In Pete Gray's case, World War II was what gave him the opportunity to live his dream. In Bert Shepard's case, he served overseas in World War II until an accident nearly cost him his dream.
While serving in the Air Force, he was shot down over Germany and had his right leg amputated. He used an artificial leg when pitching after returning, and Washington Senators manager Clark Griffith gave him a shot on August 4, 1945.
He only pitched that one game but did well, allowing only one run in 5.1 innings.
Like Waddell, this is another unconfirmed situation given the era that he played in and what medical diagnoses were available at the time. However, if his obstacle was in fact medically accurate, then Wilson had incredible odds not just in baseball, but in life.
Wilson's large head, small feet and short arms and legs give him the signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As poor impulse control is another, it turns his heavy drinking later in life from a what-if story with his short career and life into a much more tragic situation.
As for his playing, he was a center fielder despite his frame, and his 191 RBIs in 1930 remain a record. Had the MVP award existed in 1930, there's no question in my mind Wilson would have won it, possibly unanimously.
Louis Sockalexis had to battle two separate things in the 1890s in order to play baseball. His Native American blood (Penobscot) caused many to jeer him and attack him with racial epithets.
On top of that, he had a weakness for alcohol, which caused him to be expelled from the University of Notre Dame. He was able to keep it in check long enough to play in the majors for three years, but it kept him from playing longer.
Unlike Jim Abbott, pitcher Chad Bentz only had a cup of coffee in the major leagues. He pitched in 36 games for the Montreal Expos in 2004 and five for the Florida Marlins a year later.
Like Abbott, however, he was born with a deformed right hand, with only the thumb really being intact. He was able to work past that and work his way up the Expos' farm system. He may not have a no-hitter to his name like Abbott, but his rise to make it to the majors is still inspirational.
Normally, poor eyesight wouldn't be enough to get on this list. After all, there are a great deal of players that have been nearsighted over the years and have had fine careers.
Ryne Duren, however, could barely see even with coke-bottle glasses and was practically blind on the mound, with 20/200 vision in his left eye. His right eye was better at 20/70, but being legally blind in one eye and having low vision in another is scary from the batter's perspective.
Duren used that fear to his advantage, throwing his blazing fastball and leading himself to four All-Star appearances with the New York Yankees in a ten-year career.
Hugh Daily was a player who had a rather short career but was very productive during it. His nickname during that time was "One-Arm" Daily, due to losing his left hand to a gun accident.
He wore a pad on the left side when he pitched so that he could trap the ball between his hand and the pad. As for his playing ability, he had a 2.92 ERA in six seasons and threw a whipping 483 strikeouts in 500 innings in 1884.
Bob Wickman was a two-time All-Star during his playing career, as well as a big-time reliever for many playoff clubs, including the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees.
Wickman lost part of his right finger in a farming accident as a kid. As a right-handed pitcher, he suddenly had a big obstacle to overcome. Like Mordecai Brown before him, he turned it to his advantage, giving himself a great natural sinking fastball.
We've seen many with lost limbs on the list, but a lost eye is something that seems nearly impossible to overcome, given issues with depth perception, especially in the field. That didn't stop Tom Sunkel.
His left eye was injured as a child from a toy gun, and while doctors saved the eye back then, cataracts developed. His vision continued to deteriorate into legal blindness before he made it to the majors, and just when his career was getting going he went completely blind in it.
He played in 1937 and 1939 with the St. Louis Cardinals, yet most of his career came after his vision completely went; he played for more seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants during World War II.
It's clear that lacking fingers or toes can be a major obstacle in becoming a baseball player. At the same time, having extra ones can make life tough as well, even with things just as simple as wearing a baseball glove.
Antonio Alfonseca was born with Polydactyly and has an extra digit on each hand and foot. Since the extra finger doesn't touch the ball, he was able to work around it. He had a solid 11-year career as a reliever and led the league with 45 saves in 2000.
It's difficult to be the first, or even the second, to play Major League Baseball when you know you're going to be showered with racial epithets and be ostracized by your teammates.
That's what Larry Doby had to deal with, and while he isn't as well known as Jackie Robinson, he was the one that dealt with being the first African American to play in the American League.
Doby had to battle throughout his life, and perhaps his legacy still does as well, since everyone knows what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, but fellow Hall of Famer Doby doesn't get even close to that kind of recognition.
The story of Lou Brissie is one that should be far more known than it is throughout baseball, since I've read his story countless times and continue to be extremely inspired by.
Brissie joined the Army to fight in World War II. In 1944, he was in battle when his left leg completely shattered. The fact that doctors were able to save it was a miracle in itself. Two years and 23 surgeries later, he was able to try pitching again.
While wearing a brace on his leg, Brissie pitched in seven seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians from 1947 to 1953. Even when things were at their worst, Brissie continues pushing until he was actually able to make his dream come true.
On the surface, Charlie Faust was a cup-of-coffee player like any other, pitching in two games in 1911 for the New York Giants. The story behind those two games, however, is far greater.
Faust had some mental issues and was convinced by a fortune teller that he was to lead the Giants to the pennant. Manager John McGraw kept him on three years, and sure enough, they won the pennant each year but fell in the World Series.
After leaving the Giants after the 1913 season, Faust spent the rest of his days in a mental institution. Whatever his issues may have been, he was still able to play Major League Baseball and play well in his two appearances.
Freddy Sanchez was one of the top second basemen in the game in the mid-late 2000s with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and while he hasn't seen as much success with the San Francisco Giants, it's still great given what he had to overcome.
Sanchez was born with a club foot and a pigeon-toed foot, both of which were so severe that doctors questioned if he'd be able to walk. It took him years for him to walk properly, but that soon turned into running, and from that he was able to achieve his dream of playing in the majors.
This one actually surprised me. I always knew of Al Kaline as one of the greatest Detroit Tigers in history and a great overall talent. Most probably had no idea what he had to overcome.
As a kid, Al Kaline had to fight osteomyelitis, and he had a bone in his foot removed. The result was constant pain, and Kaline had to learn to run on the side of his foot to make up for it. That makes his 22-year career as an outfielder that much more remarkable.
Jason Johnson was a starting pitcher for over a decade in MLB and Japan, and while his surface stats don't seem overly impressive, what he had to do to get them certainly was.
Like others on this list, Johnson has Type 1 Diabetes. However, his was serious enough that even if he could pitch well, how would he get the insulin while pitching on the mound?
Johnson answered that by becoming the first baseball player to get permission to wear an insulin pump on the field. By doing so, he was able to prolong his career.
We all know the story of Jackie Robinson and what he had to go through while breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. It's an obstacle I couldn't even imagine having to go through.
There's a reason his No. 42 is retired throughout baseball. It wasn't just because he was a great Hall of Fame player, but it's what he did for baseball and society.
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