Most Inspirational Players in Baseball History

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent INovember 22, 2011

Most Inspirational Players in Baseball History

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    I'd be lying if I said the reason most of us ended up playing baseball as children wasn't because some player on our favorite team (or any other team) inspired us.  Hell, as a Yankees fan growing up, I loved Don Mattingly so much that I taught myself to bat left-handed just so I could be more like him.

    That being said, whether they like it or not, all of today's baseball players are role models who serve as inspirational figures to fans today, both young and old.  For example, whether you like the Texas Rangers or not, you can't help but feel inspired after hearing the story of outfielder Josh Hamilton (pictured) and his long road just to get back into baseball.

    If I were to name the most inspirational players in baseball history, this slideshow would probably be over 100 slides long.  Seeing as how Thanksgiving is just a couple of days away and we all probably have a lot to do to get ready, I've narrowed this one down to 20 players who stand out.

    Now, let's give them their due respect.

No. 20: Curtis Pride

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    For those of you who have never heard of Curtis Pride, his story is one that could move one to tears.  The strong-armed outfielder served as a role player off the bench on seven different teams from 1993-2006, posting a career average of .250 over that stretch.

    Yet, despite his great prowess in the field, Pride was at a disadvantage.  You see, Curtis Pride has been deaf since birth.  Given how baseball is a sport that relies heavily on verbal communication at some points, you can see how it may have been difficult for Pride.

    Still, Pride's five percent residual hearing allowed him to still hear the crack of the bat, so playing the outfield was no issue for him.  In 1996, he was awarded the Tony Conigliaro Award, an honor given to a player who overcomes a certain adversity. 

    Following his retirement, he became the head baseball coach at Gallaudet University in his native Washington, D.C. and today is actively involved with the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, teaching children the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. 

    On top of that, he and his wife are active in the foundation Together With Pride, which helps create programs for hearing-impaired children that focus on education and life skills so that self esteem can be built.

    His time in the majors may have been short, but it's hard for me not to salute a man who has done so much for others.

No. 19: Pete Gray

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    In 1945, many of baseball's best players were off fighting in World War II.  Thus, certain players were needed in a pinch just to field a team.

    Such was the case with outfielder Pete Gray, who appeared in 77 games for the St. Louis Browns that year despite having lost his right arm in an accident at age six.  Despite his disability, Gray played a solid outfield and was fairly handy with the bat.  He hit a below-average .218 in his lone MLB season, but struck out just 11 times in 253 plate appearances.

    More importantly, once the troops were home from the war, Gray went to hospitals and spoke to amputees about how they could still lead a perfectly productive life.  If that isn't inspiring, then I simply do not know what is.

No. 18: Jim Morris

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    Jim Morris is an inspiring player in that his story teaches one simple message: you're never too old to follow your dreams.  Such was the case with Morris, who attended an open tryout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999 and ended up signing a contract with the team as a 35-year-old rookie after throwing consistent 98 mph fastballs.  This was odd for Morris, whose arm problems had derailed his MLB plans at a younger age.

    He was called up to the majors in September of that year and in his first ever appearance, he struck out Texas Rangers shortstop Royce Clayton on four pitches.  Yet, the following season, Morris' arm problems came back to haunt him and he was released by the Devil Rays in May 2000.  Shortly afterward, he retired.

    The man's story was made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid, titled The Rookie.  For those of you looking for a feel-good movie to watch, I highly suggest you give this one a chance.

No. 17: Tony Conigliaro

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    Boston native Tony Conigliaro made his MLB debut for the Red Sox in 1964 and immediately established himself as a power-hitting outfielder to complement star Carl Yastrzemski well.  Suddenly, in 1967, that all changed.

    On August 18, as the Sawx were making their way towards an AL Pennant, a pitch hit Conigliaro on the left cheek and fractured his cheekbone while also dislocating his jaw.  To add onto that, his vision was damaged and he would spend the next year recovering.

    Conigliaro returned in 1969 and was effective, but his damaged vision robbed him of being the consistent power bat he once was and he retired in 1971.  Today, an award in his name is given to a player who best overcomes the odds to find their place in the majors.

    Given how Conigliaro came back when many thought his career to be dead, that award is fitting.

No. 16: Yogi Berra

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    With the myriad number of wacky quotes he's uttered, let alone his great skills on the field, it's hard to not be inspired by Yogi Berra.  Yet, I'm not going to say he's an inspirational figure for those reasons.

    Rather, what makes Berra inspirational is his commitment to community involvement in Montclair, New Jersey, where he makes his home today.  There, at Montclair State University, he has opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center.

    The center not only has assorted memorabilia from Berra's Hall of Fame career, but strives to teach children the importance of sportsmanship both in sports and in life.  Now THAT'S inspirational.

No. 15: Mickey Mantle

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    Although his alcoholism and womanizing off the field were well documented, Mickey Mantle was such a great player that people couldn't help but love him.  Kids couldn't help wanting to be him.  The man was so popular that whenever my uncle watched him on TV, he would burst into tears whenever he struck out (or so my dad claims).

    On top of that, how many ballplayers were so good that they had songs written about them?

No. 14: Derek Jeter

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    Besides being one of the most popular players in the history of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter is easily one of the classiest men in all of baseball.  Sure, he makes millions a year, but he never forgets that he is a role model and that people look up to him.

    Thus, Jeter has established the Turn 2 Foundation, which works to keep children and teenagers in school and away from alcohol and drug addiction.  The fact that he is a player on such a high level who could probably have anything he wanted with the money he makes, yet still takes time to be involved in this foundation, is just admirable.

    Throw in the fact that Jeter had a fairly privileged life growing up, being the son of an accountant and an addiction counselor, and he is even more inspiring.

No. 13: Willie Mays

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    Known as "The Say Hey Kid," it was impossible to hate Willie Mays.  Not only was he a phenomenal player, but his charisma was something that made the fans feel good.

    On top of that, Mays continued to dominate in a game that was still adjusting to integration.  Still, he handled it all with class and just did what he was paid to do: go out every day and play sick baseball.

    He finished his career with a .302 lifetime batting average, 3,283 hits, 660 home runs (good for fourth all-time) and 1,903 RBI.  The man was not only a Hall of Fame player, but a Hall of Fame person who inspired millions.

No. 12: Eric Davis

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    In May 1997, outfielder Eric Davis was playing for the Baltimore Orioles when he received some news from his doctor.  He had colon cancer and would need to begin treatment immediately.  Davis vowed that he would return to the team that season, which seemed outrageous at the time given the severity of colon cancer.

    Yet, Davis returned in September while he was still undergoing treatment.  Not only that, but he played for four more seasons!

    I don't know about you, but the fact that he was able to defeat a deadly form of cancer and then go back to a physically demanding job for another four years is just impressive.

No. 11: Sandy Koufax

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    In 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers star left-hander Sandy Koufax started feeling pain in his pitching arm.  It was determined that at age 29, the man was suffering from arthritis and that his career was on its last legs. 

    Rather than do the bare minimum required and then retire at season's end, Koufax went on to pitch another two seasons before retiring in 1966.  He realized that his team needed him and that there was no other choice but to pitch and deal with the pain.  Sure enough, the fact that the Dodgers made it to the World Series both of those seasons (winning 1965) is proof of how valuable Koufax was down the stretch.

    On top of that, take a look at his stats over that two-year stretch: 53-17, 1.89 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 699 strikeouts in 658.2 innings.

    Simply put, after hearing about what Koufax went through, I'll never complain about playing hurt again.

No. 10: Cal Ripken

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    If there was an award for reliability, Cal Ripken would have won it 15 years in a row from 1983-1997.  The man just put any bumps and bruises or aches and pains aside and took the field every day because he was that valuable to his team.  To date, Ripken holds the record for most consecutive games played with a record 2,632, having shattered Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 in 1995.

    On top of that, Ripken's streak didn't end because he was hurt, nor as any punishment.  On September 20, 1998, he looked manager Ray Miller in the eye and just said, "I think it's time."

    Forget his going out and playing every day for over 10 years.  The fact that Ripken handled such an emotional moment with complete and utter class, let alone on his own, is one of the most respectable things I've seen any athlete, let alone any man, ever do.

    It was just so inspirational to see him put his own stats aside for the good of his team, even though it meant the end of an epic record.  

No. 9: Jim Abbott

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    Like Pete Gray, Jim Abbott was at a disadvantage when he entered the major leagues in 1989 as a rookie pitcher for the then California Angels.  While Gray was without a right arm, Abbott was without a right hand.

    Despite this, Abbott managed to be an effective pitcher for 10 seasons.  He spent time with the Angels, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting in 1991.  That year, he went 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA and threw five complete games.

    Yet, the most impressive highlight of Abbott's career occurred on September 4, 1993, when he was with the New York Yankees.  On that day, he threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians.  I was actually at the game and I'll tell you this: I could feel the ground shaking with how loud the fans were cheering for this guy.

    Any other pitcher, there would have been thunderous applause and maybe some chanting.  But the ground shaking?  Fans only make that happen for someone who really inspires them.

No. 8: Jon Lester

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    In 2006, his rookie year, Jon Lester was slowly establishing himself as an effective lefty starter who had a bright future with the Boston Red Sox.  He posted a 4.76 ERA in 15 starts that year, but still went a respectable 7-2.

    Yet, Lester's rookie campaign was cut short when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer, towards the end of the season.  He underwent chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free in 2006.

    Lester returned to action on July 23, 2007 and ended up going 4-0 in 11 starts while posting a 4.57 ERA.  He ended up pitching the fourth and deciding game of the World Series that year, as the Red Sox won their second title in four years.

    Today, when he isn't being a dominant pitcher for his team, he is very involved in charities supporting cancer research, particularly The Jimmy Fund.

No. 7: Lou Gehrig

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    Besides Derek Jeter, the most charismatic player in New York Yankees history might be Lou Gehrig.  The man was the team's starting first baseman for 14 years and when he was forced to retire in 1939 due to the muscular disease ALS, both fans and teammates gave him his due respect.

    He was honored in a pregame ceremony on July 4 of that year, a ceremony which is featured in the video to the left.  I'll say this now.  To watch that video and not shed a tear could possibly be the hardest task in the universe.

    Gehrig died two years later, but his legacy that inspired generations of fans lives on forever.

No. 6: Babe Ruth

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    As the game's first truly dominant home run hitter, it's no wonder that Babe Ruth had a legion of fans following him wherever the New York Yankees traveled.  Fans loved him and, despite a lifestyle that featured heavy drinking, smoking and eating, children seemed to love him even more.

    In fact, there's an oft-told story about Ruth visiting a sick child in the hospital, as he often did.  This boy asked Ruth to hit a home run for him that day and not only did Ruth fulfill the promise, but he hit three home runs that day.

    A god amongst his teammates, a hero to children, it's hard to find something about Ruth that isn't inspirational.

No. 5: Hank Aaron

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    In 1973, Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth's career home run record of 714.  Sure enough, Aaron ended the '73 season just one homer away from tying the record.  When asked about his feelings on the record, Aaron replied that he just wanted to survive the offseason.

    That may sound like a joke but during that offseason, Aaron actually received a great number of death threats from people who did not want to see an African-American player break Ruth's record.  This display of racism was odd, considering how baseball had been fully integrated for 25 years at this point.

    Still, Aaron handled everything with class and just focused on getting himself ready for the 1974 season.  In his first at bat of the year, against Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, he tied the record.  A few days later, on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta, Aaron hit his record-breaking home run off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.  At long last, it was over.

    While some players may have lashed out at the death threats and hate mail received, Aaron did the right thing and kept his cool.  He understood that it was not his place to get upset and to do so would only make things worse.  In doing that, he found himself a spot in baseball history.

No. 4: Roberto Clemente

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    In terms of humanitarianism, there is no man more inspiring and deserving of recognition than Roberto Clemente.  In December 1972, when an earthquake struck the city of Managua, Nicaragua, Clemente sprung into action.  No stranger to offseason charity work, he arranged for relief packages to be flown from his native Puerto Rico to the victims of the earthquake.

    Yet, when Clemente found out that the packages on the first three flights ended up in the hands of corrupt government officials, he took it upon himself to supervise the fourth flight, on New Year's Eve.  Unfortunately, the plane Clemente chartered was not in any condition to be flown and was overloaded by over 4,000 pounds.  

    In a tragic chain of events, it crashed into the ocean right after taking off.  After days of searching, Clemente's body was never found.  He was just 38 years old.

    Though his biggest fan base was in Pittsburgh, where he had become a star for the Pirates, Clemente's death was mourned by fans across the baseball world.  He was not only a great player, but a great man whose charitable actions inspired many.  For him to lose his life in this manner was almost tragically fitting, as it occurred when Clemente was doing what he loved most after baseball: helping others.

No. 3: Satchel Paige

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    Had integration occurred earlier, Satchel Paige could have been one of the best pitchers in baseball history.  Instead, he made a name for himself in the Negro Leagues and became a legend there.  In 19 seasons, Paige went 103-61 with a remarkable career ERA of 2.02.

    Yet, once the major leagues were integrated in 1947, Paige chose to join the Cleveland Indians in 1948 despite being 42 years old.  In doing so, he became the oldest player to debut in the major leagues.

    Paige ultimately lasted five seasons in the majors, two with the Indians and three with the St. Louis Browns.  He also appeared in one game for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, at age 58.

    His MLB career may have been brief, but the fact that Paige still chose to play in the majors despite his age was badass.  He had faced these teams in barnstorming games before and now, it was his time to face them as an equal.  

    The class with which he handled it was amazing and inspiring, so much that players should use it as an example whenever someone or something on their team is bothering them.  They should just be thankful to be in the majors at all.

No. 2: Josh Hamilton

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    The story of Josh Hamilton is one that could move some to tears.  He was drafted right out of high school with the first overall pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999 Major League Baseball Draft and was expected to make an immediate impact once he reached the majors.

    However, Hamilton was injured in a car accident before the 2001 season and nagging injuries limited him for the next two years.  Yet, that was just the beginning.

    Hamilton became addicted to cocaine in 2003 and was suspended repeatedly for violating the MLB drug policy.  He couldn't kick his habit and was essentially out of baseball from 2004 to 2006, only getting clean following his grandmother confronting him.

    Sure enough, Hamilton got his act together and was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2006.  In 2007, eight years after being drafted, he finally made his major league debut.

    The Reds traded him to the Texas Rangers in 2008 and since then, Hamilton has established himself as one of the top outfielders in baseball.  He won the AL MVP Award in 2010 after hitting .359 with 32 home runs and 100 RBI as he helped lead his team to its first World Series.  

    He helped them get back there in 2011 and though he came out on the losing end both times, it's hard to not root hard for this inspirational hero who went from zero to hero in just a few short years.

No. 1: Jackie Robinson

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    Come on, folks.  You really think that I would do a piece about baseball's most inspirational players and not include Jackie Robinson?  The man was part of possibly the most influential and inspirational moment in all of baseball history.

    Robinson played in the Negro Leagues in 1945 before being approached by Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey about joining the team, but only if he would turn to other cheek to the racial abuse that would surely be showered upon him.  Robinson agreed and joined the Dodgers' minor league team, the Montreal Royals, in 1946.

    He made his debut for the Dodgers in 1947, openly crossing the color line that had existed since former commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had worked so hard to keep African-American players out of the major leagues.  

    Yes, some fans and even some opposing players shouted horrible things at him, but Robinson kept his promise and did not fight back.  It was as though he said to all the haters, "I'm here, and I'm staying until team management asks me to leave.  DEAL WITH IT!"

    Sure enough, Robinson's refuse-to-back-down mentality made both fans and players respect him, as he became a Dodgers mainstay for 10 seasons.  He won NL Rookie of the Year in 1947 and was named NL MVP in 1949, and he even won a World Series ring in 1955.  In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his major league debut, his No. 42 was retired by every team in the league.

    If that gesture doesn't scream inspirational, I don't know what does.