We think of athletes as gladiators with perfect bodies, minds, and pension plans. Somehow, even without all of the qualifications we think are needed to become a professional baseball player, some men have been able to overcome their physical and mental disabilities to join the Major League Baseball ranks.
Since baseball’s earliest days, players with “flaws” that made them seem less than perfect have silenced the doubters. Not all were great or had Hall of Fame careers, but nevertheless they cracked a big league roster at some point even with a disadvantage. The most brilliant ones of them actually even managed to turn what made them different into an edge against the competition. They were never handicapped by any of it. These players instead let their competitive nature take over.
Physical and mental disabilities have held many people back from accomplishing what they want to do, especially in sports. It has also limited our perception of what those people can even offer. In baseball, where skills vary greatly and the game continues to evolve, these 12 players made the big leagues with a notable or unique handicap. In this list, we'll try to feature some of the more recent players along with the better ones from the past, that many of us probably never realized had something going against them other than a lack of color photography.
Medical advancements have helped to fix some of the problems that plagued these athletes before their careers began. However, these men still overcame what may have caused others to not even dream about lacing up some professional baseball cleats. Many of MLB players have dealt with adversity, but these 12 stand out to me as some of the most important.
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12 Chad Bentz
The MLB career of Chad Bentz was very brief, but as one of the more recent players to crack the big leagues with a notable disability. An Alaskan native, which is tough enough to get into baseball, Bentz was born with deformed right hand. This did little to stop the Montreal Expos from drafting him in the 7th round in 2001. Bentz debuted in 2004 with Montreal pitching in 36 games to the tune of a 5.86 ERA. He would only get into four games the next year with the Florida Marlins, delivering a 31.50 ERA. Bentz hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since, but did spend a few more years in the minors and in the independent circuit before retiring. Things may not have gone too well in his big league career, but the fact that Bentz was able to get there at all is a huge accomplishment.
11 Ryne Duren
Pitcher Ryne Duren had a lengthy MLB career during the 1950s and 1960s working mostly as a relief pitcher for several different teams, including the New York Yankees. He was an All-Star three times and none of it would have been possible without his glasses. A showman who seemed to enjoy the spotlight, Duren would have been close to blind without his recognizably slightly modest goggles that gave him the ability to see. The original Eric Gagne without the wicked goatee or extreme eye-wear, Duren’s athletic career was saved by his optometrist.
10 Curtis Pride
An 11-year career mostly as a reserve outfielder, Curtis Pride overcame deafness to make it to the MLB. Caused by Rubella, better known to some as German measles, the virus took away Pride’s ability to hear at birth. Thankfully baseball is a sport where Pride was not the first deaf player and communicating with hand signals or other means allowed him to hardly notice a difference. Pride’s best season came in 1996 as a member of the Detroit Tigers when he received a career high 301 plate appearances and hit .300. His numbers dropped off the following year and the rest of Pride’s time in the MLB included pinch hitting duties with the occasional start. He’s still an inspiration to others by just getting on the field.
9 Antonio Alfonseca
We may not even be able to call what Antonio Alfonseca had a disability, certainly not a handicap either. As a pitcher, an extra finger could be used as an advantage. This is what Alfonseca had going for him in his MLB career that included some very successful seasons as a relief pitcher. Nicknamed “El Pulpo” which is Spanish for “The Octopus,” Alfonseca led the league with 45 saves in 2000 as a member of the Florida Marlins. Combined he had 24 fingers and toes with an extra digit on each hand and foot. None of this meant a thing to him as he pitched just fine.
8 Jim Mecir
Jim Mecir had an 11-year MLB career as a relief pitcher while posting a 3.77 ERA in 474 appearances. He managed to do this in spite of being born with a club foot. Although he underwent several surgeries at a young age to correct it, Mecir still had to play with a right leg about an inch shorter than his left, an atrophied right calf, and a fused right ankle. You'd imagine that plenty of players would retire with these kinds of injuries, but for Mecir, it was something he had every day of his life and through each pitch he threw.
7 Freddy Sanchez
Infielder Freddy Sanchez had a brief yet successful career in Major League Baseball at the beginning of the century. Topped by winning a batting title in 2006 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in only his second full MLB season, Sanchez was a career .297 hitter for his career. Getting to the MLB took some work though as he was born with a club foot that was significantly smaller and turned inward. Added to this, he had a left foot that was pigeon toed. It took several childhood surgeries for Sanchez to have his feet corrected on his path to becoming a three-time All-Star later in life.
6 Bob Wickman
Although Bob Wickman’s increasing weight was ultimately the biggest thing that held him back, it was the loss of part of his right index finger from a childhood farming accident that lands him on this list. Wickman played in the MLB for 15 years even though he had a little less on his throwing hand than other pitchers. Mostly working as a closer or setup man through the latter part of his career, Wickman managed to compile 267 career saves including a league leading 45 in 2005 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
5 Jim Eisenreich
An incredibly beloved ex-MLB player who never spent more than six years with any team, Jim Eisenreich practically created the platoon role. He was a member of the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies who lost in the World Series, eventually getting his ring with the Florida Marlins in 1997. Eisenreich had a successful MLB career while playing with Tourette’s syndrome. His tics include blinking, facial grimaces, coughing, and a few others. None of it stopped him from hitting .290 for his career in over 1,400 games played.
4 Jim Abbott
In many ways, Jim Abbott is the face of modern-day disabled athletes even if he hasn’t played since the 1990s. Abbott inspired Chad Bentz, who you may remember from earlier on this list, as he too had a deformed right hand. Despite that, Abbott was the 8th overall pick by the California Angels in 1988. Abbott had a few really good seasons early in his career including winning 18 games with a 2.89 ERA in 1991 on his way to finishing 3rd in the Cy Young Award voting. His crowning achievement was a no-hitter in 1993 while pitching for the New York Yankees.
3 Hack Wilson
Hack Wilson is best known for driving in a record 191 runs in 1930, a record that nobody will probably ever break. He was a great power hitter in the 1920s and 1930s whose alcohol problems led to an early demise. His own love of liquor certainly limited him, however his mother’s may have been the reason why he was 5’6" and almost 200 pounds with a large head, tiny feet, and other abnormalities. Not diagnosed, it’s likely Wilson suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on all of the symptoms. None of it ever seemed to affect him during the prime of his career.
2 Rube Waddell
Like Hack Wilson, it’s uncertain what Rube Waddell was dealing with due to limited medical knowledge at the time. A pitcher who debuted before the first World Series whose career ended before Babe Ruth was “a thing,” Waddell was one of baseball’s first strikeout machines. Waddell was also an interesting character who did some of the strangest things ever. He once left the mound in the middle of the game to go fishing. A few other times he ran off to chase firetrucks. Though it isn't certain, many believes that Waddell was dealing was an diagnosed mental illness of some sort.
1 Mordecai Brown
Mordecai Brown earned the nickname “Three-Finger” for very obvious reasons; he only had three fingers on his pitching hand due to a farming accident. This actually may have worked to his advantage as the special grip allowed him to throw the ball differently from anybody else. Brown won 239 games in his career and posted a 2.06 ERA. When the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, Brown won two of the games including a shutout in his start. Brown would later enter the Hall of Fame, surely something many would doubt from a guy with 40% of his fingers missing on his pitching hand.
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