There are unlikely stories of perseverance in baseball, such as the ones that emerged in recent years concerning Ryan Vogelsong and Jose Bautista. Former starter Jim Abbott deserves to be in a league by himself though; at least Vogelsong and Bautista had two hands.
Abbott was born without a right hand, making his path to the big leagues all the more difficult. Nevertheless, his young but dedicated parents worked hard to support him, and his dedication to baseball eventually earned him a spot on the University of Michigan baseball team. He was surprisingly a fine hitter in high school, batting .427 with seven homers, but he was best on the mound. Abbot pitched to a 0.76 ERA in his senior year of high school, and then in college pitched to a 3.04 ERA in three seasons as a Wolverine (his number was later retired and he was elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame). He won the Golden Spikes Award as baseball's top amateur in '87 as well as the Sullivan Award for the best overall amateur regardless of sport.
Abbott also gained fame for beating incredible Cuban and Japanese baseball teams with the '88 U.S. Olympic squad on the way to a gold medal. Abbott's amateur success led to him becoming one of a select group of players to reach the majors without ever playing a game in the minors. The fact that he was able to accomplish these great feats without a right hand is simply mind-boggling.
Abbott was drafted by the California Angels as the eighth overall pick of the '88 draft and after spending most of that year negotiating with the Angels, made their starting rotation out of spring training in '89. The 21-year-old pitched to a 3.92 ERA and 98 ERA+, earning him a fifth-place finish in American League Rookie of the Year voting. A sophomore slump led to a decline in performance, but from '91-'92, Abbott was arguably one of the top ten pitchers in baseball. Among AL pitchers, only Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Juan Guzman had better ERAs during this two-season stretch than Abbott's 2.83 (his 142 ERA+ and 3.29 FIP were not shabby either).
New York Yankees general manager Gene "Stick" Michael knew how well southpaws fared in Yankee Stadium, so he decided to make a play for Abbott. The Yankees traded a trio of prospects, including first baseman J.T. Snow, for Abbott on December 6, 1992. Abbott was surprised, later saying, "It was strange to come to New York. I always thought I'd be an Angel... I loved being in New York; I know I didn't pitch as well as I wanted to, but to play for the Yankees is so different than any other experience you could have playing baseball that I'm thankful for it."
The results of the deal were underwhelming. Abbott was expected to team with fellow off-season acquisition Jimmy Key to give the Yankees a devastating one-two southpaw punch in the starting rotation, but while Key excelled, Abbott struggled through the end of August. Entering Labor Day weekend, his ERA was an uncharacteristic 4.31, and he faced the Cleveland Indians on September 4th having been blown out by the same club in Cleveland just five days prior. He threw only 3 2/3 innings, surrendering seven runs on ten hits and four walks, a season-worst Game Score of 12. Baseball's a funny game though--pitchers can look like Matt Young one day and Cy Young the next. That is exactly what happened to Abbott.
It was a damp afternoon that day, and a relatively small crowd of 27,225 came out that day due to the morning rain. With a revamped roster that included new right fielder Paul O'Neill and 24-year-old center fielder Bernie Williams, the Yankees were in the midst of their first playoff race in five years, just two games behind the defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East.
Cleveland was six games under .500 and not yet the offensive powerhouse that it would soon become. They were led by rising stars Albert Belle, who hit 38 homers with a 145 OPS+ and a league-leading 129 RBI, Kenny Lofton, who hit .325 with a .408 OBP and led the league in steals for a second straight year with 70, and Carlos Baerga, whose 405 hits over the previous two seasons trailed only Paul Molitor by one hit for the most in the league.
Also in the lineup that day for the Indians were two kids named Jim Thome and Washington Heights native Manny Ramirez. Although Thome had a 131 OPS+ in limited action in '93 and Ramirez went 3-for-4 with his first two major league home runs in just his second career game the day before, no one could have known that these two youngsters would one day combine for over 1,150 career home runs. If Sports Illustrated reenacted its infamous "Indian Uprising" cover with some of these young players, the magazine would have been prophetic.
Abbott certainly had a tough task ahead of him against this tough lineup that roughed him up in his last start. He threw his very first pitch wildly to the backstop, like fictional Indians pitcher Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn, then walked the speedy Lofton on five pitches. It was an inauspicious beginning, but Abbott's cutter got light-hitting shortstop Felix Fermin to bounce into a double play. Baerga flew out to left to end the inning.
The Yankees went down in order against the big righthander Bob Milacki, making one of only two starts that season. Milacki was not a fearsome foe for the Yankees' lineup, having pitched unsuccessfully for the Baltimore Orioles in the previous five seasons with a below-average 93 ERA+. Abbott looked sharp in the second despite a walk to first baseman Randy Milligan by striking out Belle and right fielder Candy Maldonado. Nothing really happened in the game until the bottom of the third.
Milacki walked second baseman Mike Gallego and though shortstop Randy Velarde failed to bunt him over, Milacki surrendered back-to-back singles to third baseman Wade Boggs and left fielder Dion James. On James's single, Gallego scored and Boggs did as well since Lofton fumbled it in center. With Boggs coming around, Thome took the throw from Lofton and threw home wildly, allowing James to score as well! It was a "little league home run" as two extra runs came around on the two Cleveland errors.
Abbott now had a solid 3-0 lead. He got three ground outs in the fourth and used another ground ball double play to work around another walk to Milligan in the fifth. Abbott felt stronger as the game progressed, as he later said "Slowly but surely, the ball started coming out of my hand a little bit better."
Velarde atoned for his botched sacrifice in the third with a solo homer to deep right-center leading off the fifth, giving the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Velarde faced a challenge when Thome hit a low liner toward him in the sixth, but he speared the "sinking seed" for the out. Abbott worked through the sixth inning with the no-hitter still intact. Baerga began the seventh with a slow ground ball to Mattingly at first. The Yankee Stadium crowd was starting to get very excited, jumping up and down with every out.
The biggest challenge for Abbott came up next with the slugger Belle. He smashed it on the ground toward the left side, but Velarde realized he would be too deep in the shortstop hole to cleanly field it and make a play. Just then, the underrated fielder Boggs dove far to his right and snared the ball. Boggs said, "I went as far as I could go. I stretched and made a desperate effort."
The third baseman got to his feet, fired, and nailed Belle at first by half a step. Defensive plays like those saved no-hitters, and Abbott knew it. "He made that play, and it was like we were invested in this. We were all caught up in the momentum."
Abbott had felt tired entering the inning; however, a second (easier) ground ball to third ended the inning and he no longer felt weary. In the eighth, Abbott struck out Ramirez for only his third K on the day. Coincidentally, September 4, 1993 was also the 70th anniversary of "Sad Sam" Jones throwing the second no-hitter in team history, accomplished against the Philadelphia Athletics. Jones had zero strikeouts in his no-hitter, so Abbott's reliance on the defense was not without precedence.
Earlier in the season on May 29th, Abbott was five outs from a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox; he lost it on a Bo Jackson single. By inducing a groundout from Maldonado though, he took his no-hit attempt further than that great effort. A walk to Thome brought pinch-hitter Sandy Alomar, Jr. to the plate. The catcher bounced out to Boggs at third base. The ninth inning beckoned. Yankees manager Buck Showalter kept his cool by playing a joke on bullpen coach Mark Connor. He called down and told Connor to get closer Lee Smith ready, then immediately hung up. The bench was roaring with laughter when Connor called back and cursed Showalter out.
Abbott barely had any feeling in his legs when he faced Lofton to begin the ninth. Perhaps Lofton sensed this nervousness and tried to capitalize on it by attempting a bunt. He fouled it back and the Yankee Stadium crowd was enraged. The attempt might not have worked anyway since Abbott was always a terrific-fielding pitcher despite his handicap. (Angels teammate Rich Monteleone recalled a fielding drill wherein pitching coach Mel Latzman hit ten comebackers in a row. If a player messed up, he would have to start over. Abbott rarely had to start over.)
Lofton made the point moot by grounding to second a few pitches later, the 14th Indian groundout of the game. Fermin came up next and worked the count to 2-2 before sending a long drive toward Death Valley in left-center field, 390 feet away. The center fielder Williams was playing the weak hitter shallow and had to run a long way before catching it on the warning track. That was a scary out, but Abbott had just one batter to retire for the Yankees' first no-hitter since Dave Righetti's Independence Day no-no in '83 (when his teammate Boggs struck out to end it).
Baerga took the first pitch he saw for a strike. Dewayne Staats had the call:
People were incredulous. The first thing that came to O'Neill's mind was "Jim Abbott had one arm, and here he is with the Yankees throwing a no-hitter. It couldn't be more amazing."
Abbott recognized the luck that went into pitching a no-hitter, and he didn't know "whether to be supremely confident of supremely thankful." He found his catcher, Matt Nokes, and brought him to the field to celebrate with him. "He deserved to be out there as much as I did."
It was an amazing day in Yankees history and for triumphant feats of mankind. One-handed Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter against a major league baseball team. It has to be one of the most unlikely no-hitters in the history of baseball.
Further sources: Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.