You probably know the story of Jim Abbott, the congenitally one-handed pitcher who was chosen 8th overall in the 1988 major league draft, finished third in the 1991 Cy Young Award voting, and won 87 games over a 10-year career. Best limb-different baseball player ever, without question.
If you’re any kind of a baseball fan you’re also familiar with Bill Veeck (rhymes with “wreck”), the irrepressible St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox owner who lost a leg in World War II and famously had an ashtray carved into his wooden prosthesis. And if you’re a hopeless baseball nerd like we are, maybe you’ve heard of Pete Gray and Bert Shepard, upper- and lower-limb amputees (respectively) who played briefly in the big leagues during World War II.
We could write about one of those guys to celebrate this month’s return of major league baseball. But as the teams hustle to prepare for 2020’s belated Opening Day two weeks from tomorrow, we decided we’d focus on the amputee ballplayer that even we, over a lifetime of baseball junkiedom, had never heard of until the other day: Monty Stratton.
Immortalized by Jimmy Stewart in The Stratton Story, an Oscar-winning 1949 movie, Monty Stratton was a tall right-handed pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He made the American League All-Star team in 1937 (if you’re a stat geek, he led the majors that year in WHIP), and in 1938 he earned 15 votes in the Most Valuable Player balloting, the third-highest total among pitchers. He was 26 years old and seemingly headed for stardom. Then, in November 1938, Stratton shot himself in the right leg in a hunting accident, losing the limb below the knee and seemingly ending a career that had begun with great promise.
Letters of support poured in from around the country—more than 15,000 by one count. “It’s been tough knowing that my baseball career is over,” he told a reporter. ”But I am alive and have my wife and youngster and friends. What more could a man want?”
In truth, Stratton already was thinking of getting back out on the mound. The White Sox offered him a job in the team’s front office; he turned it down and returned to uniform as a coach and batting-practice pitcher. All season long he lobbied his manager, Jimmie Dykes, for the chance to get into a game. As the campaign wound down, he extracted a promise that he could pitch in the last game of the season if the final standings had been determined by then. But the White Sox entered the day half a game out of third place, with a chance to move up in the standings and earn some bonus money. Stratton stayed in the dugout; the Sox lost. Disappointment all around.
He returned as a coach in 1940, then went back to the family farm in Texas. After Pearl Harbor he attempted to enlist in the Army but was denied. Stratton spent the next four years farming and largely forgetting about baseball, except for the occasional game of catch with his wife. By the time the boys returned from the war in time for the 1946 season, Stratton was 34 years old and hadn’t appeared on a mound in eight years. Out of the blue, a team in the low minors gave him a tryout—they’d suspended operations during the war and were having a tough time building the roster back up. Stratton not only made the team (which included three former and one future major leaguers) but became its star pitcher, with 18 wins and over 200 innings pitched. An East Coast sportsman’s club named him the year’s Most Courageous Athlete.
That was enough to get Hollywood’s attention. Stratton pitched again in 1947 but spent 1948 in Hollywood working on The Stratton Story. MGM assembled a first-rate crew that included one of the industry’s biggest stars, Jimmy Stewart, in the title role; director Sam Wood, who’d co-directed Gone With the Wind and helmed the legendary baseball picture The Pride of the Yankees a few years earlier; and rising actress June Allyson. The film became a huge box-office hit and made Stratton more famous than he’d ever been as a ballplayer.
It also made him relatively wealthy, replacing nearly all the income he might have earned during his lost seasons as a major-leaguer. Ironically, the movie’s success made Stratton a highly sought player again. He no longer had anything to prove on the diamond and didn’t need the money, but he occasionally did toss a few innings (usually in Texas minor-league ballparks) and the grandstands were invariably packed. He hurled his last professional game in 1953, at the age of 41.
We doubt the 2020 season will produce anything as compelling as Stratton’s comeback, but to quote a wise baseball sage: Youneverknow.