Everyone loves a good underdog or comeback story, especially in sports. The downhill skier who suffered devastating injuries and later won an Olympic gold medal. The overmatched football team that beat the undefeated team to win the Super Bowl. Those stories are some of sports fans favorite memories. Baseball has had its share of these tales. The following are accounts of some baseball players that inspired fans with their perseverance and determination.
The Heart of the Comeback
John Hiller – Detroit Tigers
A six-year veteran of the Tigers’ bullpen, John Hiller won a World Series ring in 1968 and had his best season to-date in 1970. Tigers manager Billy Martin told Hiller he would continue to be a reliever and spot starter for the 1971 squad. In January, however, Hiller suffered multiple heart attacks, back-to-back. He described it as “Incredibly painful, incredibly frightening. I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack, first of all. A heart attack? I was 27 years old.”
Due to his heavy cigarette smoking, Hiller ended up with two blockages to one of his heart valves. He missed the entire 1971 season and his future in baseball was up in the air. Doctors gave him permission to work out lightly that spring, but the Tigers weren’t going to risk his health. The front office’s decision was thought be swayed by the death of Detroit Lions player Chuck Hughes. (The wide receiver had died on the field during an NFL game.)
So, Hiller worked as a spring training instructor and then as the pitching coach for the Tigers’ Single-A team in Lakeland. In 1972, the team somewhat reluctantly added Hiller to the Major League roster. He made 24 appearances, including three starts, and pitched well. A year later, Hiller was all the way back.
Two years removed from his heart attacks, Hiller led the AL in games (65) and broke the Major League record for saves with 38. He also struck out a career-best 8.9 K/9 IP and finished fourth in the AL MVP and Cy Young Award voting. Hiller followed up his outstanding ’72 performance with an All-Star appearance in 1974 and a seventh-place finish in that year’s Cy Young voting.
Hiller retired after the 1980 season, his 15th in the Major Leagues. All of them with the Detroit Tigers.
Eye of the Storm
Tony Conigliaro’s life was all at once amazing and tragic. When he arrived in Boston to play for the Red Sox in 1965, “Tony C” was one of the best young power hitters the game had ever seen. A native of Massachusetts, he quickly became a local folk hero. He homered in his first at-bat in Fenway Park and had 24 HR and 52 RBI in 111 games before injuries ended his season.
In his second full season in the Major Leagues, the Red Sox outfielder belted 32 home runs to lead the AL. Conigliaro hit his 100th career home run in 1967. At 22-years of age, he became the youngest player in AL history to reach the mark (The NY Giants’ Mel Ott holds the Major League record). It was another magical moment in what became known as the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” season. But, not everything was magical that year.
On August 18, 1967, Conigliaro was beaned in the face by the California Angels’ Jack Hamilton. The ball did serious damage to his cheekbone and the retina in his left eye and the surrounding orbital bones. He would miss the rest of the season and all of the 1968 season. Conigliaro unexpectedly returned in 1969 and came back with a bang.
On Opening Day in Baltimore, Conigliaro belted a tiebreaking two-run home run in the top of the 10th inning. Conigliaro rounded the bases and greeted his teammates with the joy and enthusiasm of a Little Leaguer. He finished the season with 20 HR and drove in 82 runs in 141 games. In 1969, he was even better – 36 HR and 112 RBI in 146 games. His production was remarkable given the damage to his left eye. He also got the chance to play that season with his younger brother, Billy.
Conigliario’s overall comeback was amazing, especially when you consider his eyesight had continued to deteriorate. He played one more sub-par season in 1971 (with the Angels) and had a brief return to Boston in 1975. Sadly, in 1982 Conigliaro suffered a heart attack and stroke and remained in a vegetative state until his death in 1990. He was just 45-years old. Major League Baseball began honoring him that year by giving the Tony Conigliaro Award to a player who “overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were trademarks of Conigliaro”.
One in a Million
The Detroit Tigers’ Ron LeFlore didn’t start out life on the right foot. He grew up in one of the worst areas of Detroit and eventually ended up in jail for dealing drugs. His father was an alcoholic, who was usually without a job and not involved in the family’s life. His Mom did her best as a nurse, but it’s hard to escape unscathed when you’ve lived in crime-ridden impoverished conditions.
Simply put, LeFlore’s life was a mess. He not only dealt drugs but was a heroin addict as well. He dropped out of school and took part in a string of robberies. Eventually, he was caught and sentenced to 5-15 years in state prison for armed robbery.
While in prison, LeFlore learned to play baseball and found he an affinity for it. He became very good and had tremendous running speed. (His fellow inmates nicknamed him “Twinkle Toes Bosco”.) One of the inmates was a former bartender who had gotten to know Billy Martin, then the Tigers’ manager. He convinced Martin to come take a look at LeFlore and the prison agreed to set it up.
LeFlore impressed Martin and received a day pass to try out for Detroit at Tiger Stadium. He eventually signed a deal that allowed him to play baseball as well as meet the conditions of his parole. LeFlore played 32 games in the Midwest League in 1973 and then played for the Lakeland Tigers in ’74. There, he hit .339 and stole 46 bases in 46 chances.
The Tigers recalled him to the Major Leagues and he made his debut on August 1st. He didn’t hit a ton, but LeFlore stole 23 bases and scored 37 runs in 59 games. He became a regular in 1975 and a year later was a member of the All-Star team. For the season, he hit .316, stole 58 bases and scored 93 runs. LeFlore finished in the top-25 in the AL MVP vote for the first of four times in his career.
In 1978, LeFlore led the AL with 126 runs scored and 68 stolen bases. He also had 198 hits, a year after he produced 212 hits and a .325 batting average. LeFlore was flourishing as a Tiger, but after a 78-steal year in 1979, Detroit dealt him to Montreal. It’s believed part of the reason for the trade was LeFlore’s propensity to hang out with a local drug lord. It was one of the many issues that caused problems for LeFlore well beyond his years in baseball.
The trade motivated LeFlore to prove the Tigers made a mistake. He stole an NL-leading, and career-high, 97 bases in 1980. As a free agent, LeFlore signed with the Chicago White Sox but his baseball career was over two years later at age 30. Except, he wasn’t 30. LeFlore later admitted he lied about his age by four years.
LeFlore’s life was the subject of a 1977 watered-down TV-movie (that starred LeVar Burton as LeFlore and Martin as himself) – “One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story” and later a book, “Breakout”.
“Your Name Here” Surgery
It’s pretty amazing to have something named after you. Although if it’s a disease, maybe not so much. In the case of a surgery, it’s probably a mixed blessing. Tommy John, he of the eponymously named arm surgery, fell into that group. His career would likely have been over after the 1974 season had John not had the (at the time) “new fangled” procedure.
John signed with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent in 1961 and made his MLB debut two years later. First used as a swingman between the pen and the starting rotation, John became a full-time starter in the latter part of 1965. That offseason, John was part of a three-team deal that sent him to the White Sox (the Kansas City A’s were the third team).
Between 1966 and 1974, John led the AL in shutouts twice and the NL in winning % twice. (The White Sox dealt John to the LA Dodgers in 1971 for Dick Allen.) The Dodgers made it to the 1974 World Series, but the 13-3 John wasn’t with them. The left-hander had suffered a major injury to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his left elbow. Thanks to Dr. Frank Jobe, baseball history changed forever.
The orthopedist had developed his own procedure for repairing a UCL injury. Jobe removed a tendon in John’s forearm and replaced the UCL in his elbow. John missed the entire 1975 season and it was unknown if he would ever be able to pitch again.
In addition to his normal rehab, John also worked with his teammate and fellow pitcher Mike Marshall, who had studied kinesiology. The ’74 NL Cy Young winner adjusted John’s delivery to take pressure off his knee and elbow. The surgery and rehab proved to be successful when John started 31 games in 1976. A year later, he won 20 games and finished second in the NL CY Young voting. He also pitched in the World Series for the first time.
John went on to win 20 games twice more with the Yankees and led the AL in shutouts in 1980. He would go on to pitch a total of 26 seasons and finish his career with 288 wins.
There are probably some people scratching their heads at the choice of Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter to ever play the game. But, “Teddy Ballgame” served in the United States military in two wars and missed about five years of playing time.
He was already a superstar when World War II broke out. Williams was drafted and classified as “1-A”, or “Available for military service”, but sought and received a reclassification of “3-A”, a hardship deferment.
With many “ordinary” families watching their sons go off to war, the public’s feelings towards Williams were not warm. He lost some of his sponsors as a result and probably the 1942 AL MVP Award despite hitting for the Triple Crown.
Eventually, Williams joined the Naval Reserve and was called up for active duty in 1943. Made a second Lieutenant, Williams trained as a fighter pilot in the Marines. With the war in the Pacific pretty much over, Williams didn’t see combat, but eventually became a flight trainer and played on the military baseball teams. Finally, summoned for combat duty in the summer of 1945, the war ended before Williams got the chance to fly any missions.
You would expect players returning from war to be rusty, but Williams had youth on his side. The 27-year old hit .342 with 38 HR and 123 RBI in his first year back. He also led the league in most batting categories and won the AL MVP Award. Teddy Ballgame continued to crush baseballs over the next few years.
He took home another MVP Award in ’49 and made six straight All-Star appearances (1946-1951) before war came calling again. This time it was the conflict between South and North Korea.
Though he wasn’t thrilled about being called up to active duty again, Williams knew the Navy was desperate for pilots. This time around Captain Williams saw plenty of action. Retrained in flying fighter jets, he flew 39 missions and his aircraft took on enemy fire three or more times. In 1953 he found himself forced to crash-land his badly damaged plane on its belly. He came away with minor injuries and a limp.
In June, the Navy sent Williams home with an ear infection and repeated viruses. He received his discharge papers in late July after a cease-fire ended the Korean War. Williams returned to the Red Sox in August and homered in his second at-bat. He only played in 37 games, but managed to hit 13 home runs and batted a ridiculous .407.
Despite injuries and age, Williams averaged 29 home runs and 85 RBI over the next five seasons. He hit no lower than .345 in four of the five years and the one year he did, he led the AL with a .328 mark. He was 39 at the time. One year earlier he hit .388 and narrowly lost the MVP race to Mickey Mantle.
Injuries limited Williams to 103 games in 1959 and he hit below .300 (.254) for the only time in his career. His final hurrah came in 1960. At age 41, he saw action in 113 games and hit .316/.451/.645 with 29 HR and 72 RBI. Williams, of course, homered in his last at-bat in the Major Leagues.
Had it not been for his time in the military, Williams likely would have broken Babe Ruth‘s career home run record and any number of other Major League records. His .482 career OBP is still number one on the all-time list.