In general, professional athletes rank among the most physically gifted people in the world. That doesn’t mean, though, that ballplayers have not had to overcome significant odds on their way to the majors.
Missing body parts, abnormal senses and other health issues are just part of the story for a long roster of guys who would stand out in any collection.
Below are 11 cards of players who were faced with physical or significant emotional issues and overcame them to shine on the diamond. Some of their nicknames, born in less sensitive times, often seem cruel but thankfully, the stories behind them make sure the often remarkable efforts haven’t been lost to time.
Click on the linked titles to see their cards for sale and auction.
Dummy Hoy, 1888 Old Judge: Hoy still gets talked about sometimes as a Hall of Fame candidate, a testament to his unusual life and career. Though he didn’t make the majors until a month before his 26th birthday, he had over 2,000 hits and 596 steals. Hoy had been deaf since he was a toddler.
In both baseball and life, he had great longevity playing until he was 40 and dying in December 1961 less than six months away from his 100th birthday. Two months earlier, he threw out the first pitch at a World Series game in Cincinnati and received a standing ovation. While his nickname would be the source of consternation today, Hoy actually embraced it.
Dummy Taylor, 1910 T206 Piedmont: Like Hoy, Taylor got his nickname for being deaf. Like Hoy, Taylor excelled in spite of his disability, going 37-21 for the Giants’ pennant-winning clubs in 1904 and ’05. He may have been responsible for signs being introduced to baseball.
“We could all read and speak the deaf-and-dumb sign language because Dummy Taylor took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” Fred Snodgrass recounted years later in The Glory of Their Times. “He wanted to be one of us, a full-fledged member of the team.”
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, 1910 E90-3: Brown didn’t let a childhood farming accident that left him with only three full fingers hold him back. He forged a Hall of Fame career, using the unique configuring of his hand to throw one of the best curves of the Deadball Era.
Brown even found time, according to a December 21, 1912 edition of Sporting Life, to run an off-season gold mine in California with teammate Orvie Overall.
Tom Sunkel, 1940 Play Ball: At first glance, it looks unremarkable that Sunkel, a pitcher, hit .212 in his career, striking out nearly a third of his at-bats. He didn’t fare much better on the mound, going 9-15 with a 4.53 ERA and -1.6 Wins Above Average over six seasons between 1937 and 1944.
Sunkel had one good eye, losing all sight in his left eye by 1941. A baseball player depends on having two eyes for depth perception, to establish where the ball is. BaseballLibrary.com notes that Sunkel compensated for his disability by hitting and pitching with his head cocked to one side.
Ryne Duren, 1962 Topps: That Duren inspired the character of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the 1989 film Major League suggests grave disorder in and of itself; any connection, even tangential to Charlie Sheen generally isn’t good. Aficionados of the film may remember Vaughn’s control problems stemming from poor eyesight. Duren had this, too, as well as a drinking problem, though he somehow lasted 12 seasons in the majors.
His lifetime 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings is second-best of any pitcher with at least 500 innings before 1980, per Baseball-Reference.com. Likewise, Duren’s 5.99 walks per nine innings is fifth-worst.
Jimmy Piersall, 1966 Topps: By the sabermetric stat defensive runs saved, Piersall was nearly as good of a center fielder as Willie Mays. Mays’ 184.5 defensive runs saved ranked second-best among center fielders, behind Andruw Jones, while Piersall’s 174.2 rank fourth. Piersall’s remembered more overcoming bipolar disorder early in his career, even inspiring a film with Anthony Perkins.
Ron Santo, 1969 Topps: Santo may seem out of place on this list. The celebrated Chicago Cubs third baseman is here because he managed to hide having Type I diabetes for most of his career. Santo’s page on the Hall of Fame website notes that he was diagnosed just before beginning his minor league career, learned to give himself insulin injections, and kept his secret until 1971.
A handful of other active major leaguers, perhaps, have also been diabetics, including Jackie Robinson who might have played the second half of his career with the affliction.
Jim Eisenreich 1983 Topps: Tourette’s syndrome gets joked about as causing its sufferers to utter uncontrollable streams of profanity. In reality, most of the symptoms are non-verbal ticks, involuntary movements. For a baseball player up to bat, these movements would seemingly kill any chance of getting a hit. And for a time, Jim Eisenreich accepted defeat, retiring from baseball at 25 after finding that medication to control his twitches made him listless. The book Ninety Feet From Fame details how Eisenreich resumed his career after lowering his dose.
First appearing in the 1983 Topps set, Eisenreich went on to hit .290 for his career, including .361 at age 36 in 1997.
Jim Abbott, 1989 Fleer Update: Born without a right hand, Abbott became a pitcher as a youngster, quickly learning to move his glove to his pitching hand after tossing the ball homeward. Those who tried to bunt on him learned he could field as well as any other pitcher. After a stellar college career at Michigan, he became a 1988 first round draft pick, joining the Angels’ rotation in 1989, not once spending a day in the minors.
Pete Gray, 1977 Fritsch One Year Winners and Monty Stratton, Tri-Star Obak: Sometimes, disabled players aren’t around the majors long enough to get cards during their playing days but thanks to modern era tribute sets, they do.
Gray, a one-armed outfielder during World War II, and Stratton, who pitched in the minors after losing a leg, do have cards to collect, even if came out decades after they left baseball.
There are certainly are others who could be added to this list, most hiding quietly among the pages and stacks of cards that often have great stories to tell.