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Before Jim Abbott…way before Jim Abbott…there was this kid I knew, also named Jim. We called him Jimmy.
I haven’t seen him since perhaps 1962. I have no idea what he did with his life after junior high school.
But for some years before 1962, I saw Jimmy a lot during the fall and spring, on the warm afternoons after school let out. That’s when he and I and a lot of other boys would head for the park a few long blocks from the school to play pick-up baseball.
This was not Little League. Later I’d play Little League ball, proudly wearing the uniform of the Commonwealth Club Cardinals. This was not even Cub Scout League, where we all played before we were old enough for Little League. Though, come to think of it, some of the Cub Scout League games were on the same dusty diamond in the park where Jimmy pitched. Tuers Park, it was called.
Pitching is what I remember him doing. Skinny, right-handed, sidearm delivery. Scary as it could be for a right-handed hitter, which I was, because Jimmy lunged toward third base before he released the ball, throwing across his body so that the ball seemed to be about to hit you in the back before it veered across the plate…except for the times when it didn’t veer and just hit you in the back.
What was also scary was that Jimmy grunted when he let go of the ball. He sounded like some of the tennis players do today. Loud.
I hated hitting against him. My guess is that a lot of other hitters – especially right-handed hitters – hated it, too. Nah, I don’t have to guess.
I suppose we all knew that Jimmy had had polio. I mean, "knew" in the sense that if anyone had asked us, we’d have said, "Yeah. He did."
The back brace he wore was too big and bulky to conceal, especially under summer clothes. But nobody did ask. And as far as I can remember, none of us ever mentioned it to him or to anybody else.
That has to be wrong, doesn’t it? I mean, we must have talked about it. But I don’t remember doing so.
And though I don’t remember thinking about it then, I guess the brace was the reason he didn’t throw overhand…unless he was just mean and understood the fear he could create by swooping across the mound and slinging the ball to the plate via the third base foul line.
In any case, I don’t remember him saying he couldn’t throw any other way. I don’t remember him making excuses. I also don’t remember ever seeing him play another position, and I don’t recall seeing him hit…which, come to think of it, if he didn’t, that maybe gave him an advantage over other pitchers. Nobody could throw at him.
All this was, as I’ve said, a long time ago. Nearly 60 years, so who knows what I’ve forgotten? But I remember that none of it seemed remarkable at the time. Chuckie at second base was being raised by his mom, because his dad had died. He had an older brother we thought was weird. Johnny, who played third, had a big brother, too, and he’d starred in football at Princeton. We’d seen the pictures and the tributes in his dad’s den. Ray, at first, also had an older brother, and soon that brother would die in a gruesome automobile accident.
And Jimmy had had polio. That’s all it was. And he was a ballplayer at the park, like Chuckie and Johnny and Ray and the rest of us.
It was only years later that I started to think about what it must have been like to pitch in a back brace.
I guess it was being reminded of what Jim Abbott did that got me thinking about what Jimmy had done at Tuers Park.
I hope he’s doing okay, too.
This segment aired on July 15, 2017.