Overcomers: baseball players in all eras battled illness, disability

Posted 11/3/17

Congratulations to the Houston Astros, the victors in one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory (and that’s saying something coming from a Cubs fan).

One of my favorite things about …

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Overcomers: baseball players in all eras battled illness, disability

Posted

Congratulations to the Houston Astros, the victors in one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory (and that’s saying something coming from a Cubs fan).

One of my favorite things about the World Series is getting to know the cast of characters on each team — the fresh faces heralded as the future of the franchise, the veterans who finally found themselves on a championship team and the players who are a pleasure to watch because of their love of the game.

The Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve falls into that latter category.

Altuve has a winning personality and boundless talent. Only four other players have had 200 or more hits for four seasons in a row and only three had gotten more hits than Altuve by age 27.

Unfortunately, the stat Altuve has been most known for throughout his career has been his height. At 5 feet 6 inches, he is the shortest active player in the Major League.

Before the Series, Altuve’s teammate Lance McCullers Jr. told the New York Times that he hoped baseball writers would stop acting like everything he does is extraordinary because he is vertically-challenged.

“I just think people should take it for what it is and really enjoy what he brings to this game,” McCullers said. “He’s beyond the point now where you have to say, ‘This guy’s so small and does great things,’ because he’s been doing it for years. I think we should just focus on: This is a Hall of Fame guy we’re watching.”

Altuve is also far from the first baseball player who had to overcome a physical challenge to succeed in the sport.

In 2015, Topps released a special set of baseball cards highlighting players who battled illness or disability.

The “Pride and Perseverance” set was suggested by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society.

"People with disabilities are often looked at for what they can’t do instead of being appreciated for what they can do. We hope these cards will help people take a closer look at the potential of people with disabilities,” Mark O’Neal, PBATS President and Chicago Cubs Director of Medical Administration, said in a press release. “Imagine if a child or the parent of a child with a disability, by simply opening a pack of baseball cards, discovers that one of their heroes was legally blind or deaf or has battled cancer? They would truly feel empowered and encouraged.”

I came across the card for former St. Louis Brown Pete Gray while helping Zac reorganize his baseball card collection over the weekend.

Gray taught himself to hit and throw left-handed after losing his right arm in an accident at age 6.

In 1944, he was named the most valuable player in the Southern Association as a member of the Memphis Chicks, a Minor League team, after finishing the year with a .333 batting average and 68 stolen bases.

In 1945, he became the first (and so far, only) one-armed Major Leaguer.

His career lasted only one season with the St. Louis Browns. Some of his fellow players resented him, believing him to be a gimmick to boost ticket sales.

Gray himself was well aware that he never would have been signed by a professional team if so many baseball legends had not been overseas fighting in World War II and balked at being called courageous by Philadelphia’s sports writers.

“Boys, I can't fight, and so there is no courage about me. Courage belongs on the battlefield, not on the baseball diamond,” he said.

Still, most stories about Gray note that he was an inspiration to soldiers who returned home as amputees.

The following is a list of players included along with Gray in the “Pride and Perseverance” set:

• Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who are both cancer survivors

• San Francisco Giants pitcher Jake Peavy, who is legally blind without his corrective lenses

• Houston Astros outfielder George Springer, who has overcome stuttering

• New York Mets reliever Buddy Carlyle, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 2009

• Oakland Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld, who has dealt with Type 1 Diabetes

• Jason Johnson, a diabetic former pitcher who was the first MLB player to wear an insulin pump during regular season games

• Jim Abbott, who won a gold medal for the 1988 U.S. Olympic baseball team and threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993, despite being born without his right hand

• Jim Eisenreich, who played 15 years in MLB and won the 1997 World Series with the then-Florida Marlins, who was born with Tourette’s syndrome

• Curtis Pride, a former 13-year MLB player, who was born deaf

• William Hoy, a former center fielder was one of the first and most accomplished deaf players in the major leagues, having played from 1888-1902

Overlooked but also deserving of recognition is beloved Cub Ron Santo, who played his entire career with type 1 diabetes and was a tireless advocate for diabetes research.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.