What he did: Abbott might be the best player without four full limbs ever to play in the majors. Others have accomplished this feat, including Pete Gray, the St. Louis Browns’ one-armed outfielder in 1945 and Bert Shepard, a one-legged POW who pitched 5.1 innings for the Washington Senators in August that year. Abbott’s interesting, though, for having a 10-season career in peacetime, going 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA for the California Angels in 1991 at his best and hurling a no-hitter two years later. I suspect if Abbott had played during World War II, when the talent-depleted majors welcomed those who couldn’t serve, the one-armed man would have fared ever greater.
Era he might have thrived in: In real life, Abbott parlayed college heroics at the University of Michigan and a gold medal turn for the US baseball team in the 1988 Summer Olympics into a 1989 debut at 21 for the Angels. This might suggest a Bob Feller-like entrance into the majors of the late 1930s, assuming teams of that era wouldn’t be scared off by Abbott’s stump right forearm. Given that the big leagues were pretty hard-up for pitching in those days, it might not be an issue. Regardless, Abbott’s services would be needed after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Why: Admittedly, World War II wasn’t like World I for baseball, when the sport was ruled a non-essential industry and a number of stars saw combat, Grover Cleveland Alexander returning shell-shocked and former New York Giants captain Eddie Grant dying in France. All the same, a significant number of ballplayers served in the Second World War from Ted Williams to Joe DiMaggio to Hank Greenberg. Feller even completed a decorated tour of duty on a battleship in the South Pacific, running laps on-deck in between Japanese air attacks to stay in shape.
What remained in the majors was a motley sight, and teams did the best they could to remain competitive. The Cincinnati Reds started 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall in 1944, the St. Louis Cardinals held open tryouts with their farm system decimated, and Bill Veeck supposedly talked of buying the Philadelphia Phillies and filling the roster with Negro League stars before his plans were scuttled by Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Approaching the 1945 World Series, Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown was asked if he thought the Cubs or the Detroit Tigers would win, to which he replied, “I don’t think either of them can.”
The stage would have been primed for someone like Abbott, whose arm would almost certainly have made him 4-F for draft registration status and exempt from military service (men with this classification as well as a cadre of aging stars like Jimmie Foxx, Paul Waner, and Carl Hubbell kept baseball going during World War II.) In a wartime majors that boasted plenty of starting pitchers with names virtually unrecognizable today, I’m guessing Abbott would have outshined the likes of Ted Wilks, Monk Dubiel, and Nels Potter. On a good club, Abbott would likely have more wins than he managed during his career, and regardless, I imagine he’d put up gaudier non-team-dependent statistics.
Would Abbott have a better legacy? I don’t know. Gray and Shepard seem to mostly exist in baseball history as oddities, men who made their mark in unusual circumstances. But strong stats trump all, and assuming Abbott had them, I doubt he’d just be some punchline.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies,Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson,Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe,Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson,Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson,Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Will Clark, Willie Mays
2 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Jim Abbott”
It’s probably a safe bet to say that he’s the greatest, one armed baseball player in the history of MLB.
Nice post, Graham; you gave me a good excuse to look up Abbott’s stats. What I had forgotten (or perhpas never knew) was that Abbott’s last year in the majors was spent with Milwaukee in the National League. As a batter, he went 2 for 21 and had 3 sacrifice bunts and 3 RBIs. That’s not quite the equal of good hitting pitchers such as Bob Gibson or Don Drysdale, but it’s not too bad either.