Former U-M pitcher Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, but he didn't let it dampen his illustrious baseball career or hamper his successful foray into public speaking.
"I've never felt as though I've had a disability," Abbott says. "I would probably say that I'm more blessed than not in terms of what I'm able to do physically. And I think that has to be your focus." That focus helped Abbott to a record of 26-8 for the Wolverines, with a career ERA of 3.04, followed by a 10-year Major League career with the Angels, Yankees, White Sox, and Brewers. And on Sept. 4, 1993, he pitched a no-hitter for the home team at Yankee Stadium, perhaps baseball's grandest stage.
We've compiled a list of nine other players from Michigan baseball history to join Abbott in our version of the U-M "Dream Team." Click through to see photos and stats about each player.
After professional baseball, Abbott began keynoting large corporate events for companies like Toshiba and Prudential. A career as a motivational speaker might seem like a natural progression for someone who has inspired so many, but it didn't look like a sure thing back when he started taking classes for his communications major.
Abbott still remembers that first presentation in public speaking class in the mid 1980s. "Just standing in front of that classroom itself was nerve-wracking," he says.
But the speech, titled "How to Break in a Baseball Mitt," ended up entertaining his classmates. Abbott had relied on the professor's guidance that students speak on topics they were comfortable with.
"And that's a lesson that sticks with me to this day," he says.
The advice of speaking on what you know was a key building block in his evolution from pitcher to speaker. "I think it's very important to be authentic, and to speak from a position that you're comfortable with, that you know about, and that people see as being true or real," Abbott says. "And I learned that starting in those days back at that public speaking class."
The route from mound to stage had many milestones along the way.
Back at U-M, Abbott helped Michigan to two Big Ten titles. He was given the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete in 1987 and the Jesse Owens Award as the top Big Ten Athlete of 1988. He also pitched for the United States on the ’87 Pan American and ’88 Olympic baseball teams. He was drafted by the Angels in 1988 and went straight to the major leagues after winning a gold medal for the United States in the Seoul Olympics.
When he got to the Angels, the Los Angeles-area media would usually send three newspaper reporters and three TV cameras to cover his starts. But the media attention reached a crescendo in New York, particularly after he pitched the no-hitter.
"You definitely play under a very strong microscope when you play for the Yankees, and I don't know if anything quite prepares you for that," he says. "But the communications background definitely helped me to understand how to deal with people and how to try to communicate in the right way."
During recent years, Abbott has continued to receive honors. In 2008, U-M awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and in 2009 the baseball team retired his jersey. In 2010, the Big Ten Network named Abbott the 36th best Big Ten athlete of all time.
Today, Abbott continues his studies in public speaking. He's a fan of the book On Speaking Well by Peggy Noonan.
"She talked a lot about how the very best speeches are very simple," he says. "Very simple words, very short sentences, and yet they convey a lot of meaning."
Abbott has a similar interest in writing styles.
"I really admire somebody like Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway to some degree, who can say very powerful and profound things very simply and precisely," he says.
Abbot uses his simple but effective communications style at about 20 keynotes every year, focusing on overcoming obstacles. "One of the aspects of speaking is that I enjoy getting out in the real world and seeing how hard people work,” he says. “I have been amazed at how much their pursuit of excellence is similar to that same pursuit on a baseball diamond."
From U-M to the Major League: A Glimpse at Jim Abbott's Stats
- Abbott became the first baseball player to win the Amateur Athletic Union's Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete of the year.
- On July 18, 1987, he was the first American pitcher to defeat Cuba in Cuba in 25 years.
- As a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic baseball team, Abbott pitched a complete game leading the U.S. to a gold medal victory over Japan.
- Abbot was drafted by the California Angels in the 1st round (8th pick) of the 1988 amateur draft. He was one of only three pitchers during the 1980s to win his first professional game at the major league level.
- As pitcher for the Yankees, Abbott pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in a game at Yankee Stadium in 1993. He was the first Yankee pitcher to throw a no-hitter in a decade.
- In 2004, he was inducted to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
- Not only did he pitch while attending Flint Central High School, Jim also played quarterback and led his team to the Michigan state semi-finals.
- Abbott was the flag-bearer for the United States at the 1987 Pan American Games, helping lead the U.S. to a first-place finish.
- On April 18, 2009, U-M retired Abbott’s jersey, No. 31, which he wore while pitching for the Wolverines from 1986 to 1988. He ranks fourth in school history with 26 wins in a single season, and he is the fifth person in program history to have his uniform retired.
- Abbott retired with a career record of 87 wins, with a 4.25 ERA.