The Jim Abbott of the Far West League

Jim Abbott

You surely remember Jim Abbott, the major league pitcher of the 1990s who was born without a right hand.  Rick Swaine, who wrote Abbott’s biography for SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, said Abbott “pitched with a righthander’s fielder’s glove perched pocket-down over the end of his stubbed right arm.  At the conclusion of his delivery, he would deftly slip his left hand into the glove and be ready to field the ball.  After catching the ball, he would cradle the glove against his chest in the crook of his right arm and extract the ball with his left hand, ready to make another throw.”  Abbott perfected his technique as a youth and went on to pitch for the University of Michigan and pitched the gold medal-winning game for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team before going on to win 87 games in the majors.

As remarkable as Abbott’s story is, he was not the first of his kind.  A young man named Bob Lightbody was a one-handed pitcher in the minor leagues in 1951, including four appearances with Eugene of the Far West League.

The photo above appeared in The Sporting News issue of June 6, 1951, in the aftermath of Lightbody’s 7-0 shutout of the Boise Pilots for the Great Falls Electrics of the Class C Pioneer League on May 22.  Lightbody allowed only three hits in the game.  Manager Buck Elliott, who was also the Electrics’ regular catcher, called Lightbody “the most courageous athlete I have ever known.

The Sporting News story by E.P. Furlong said Lightbody’s “right arm and wrist are fully developed, the hand is missing.”  The 19-year-old native of Helena, Montana, earned a spot on the Great Falls roster in spring training.  He struck out all three batters he faced in his regular season debut against Billings, which was managed by Larry Shepard, who in 1948 posted a 22-3 pitching record as player-manager for Medford in the Far West League (and eventually managed the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1968-69).

An Associated Press story about Lightbody’s shutout in the Ottawa (Ont.) Citizen said he was born with one hand and went on to describe his pitching as follows:

While delivering the ball, he tucks his glove under his right arm pit.  As soon as he lets the pitch go, he slips the glove on his left hand go field anything batted his way.

When batting, Lightbody uses the stub of his right arm to steady the bat.  Last year he led the Helena City League with a .419 average.

Here’s how Furlong characterized Lightbody’s pitching:

Capitalizing on a good curve and excellent control, Lightbody rarely throws a fast ball, preferring to make the hitter swing at his “soft” stuff.

Lightbody is a 180-pound six-footer.  He’s light on his feet and a creditable fielder despite his handicap.  He bats from the left side of the plate and steadies the bat with his right arm….

While fielding, Lightbody tucks his glove under the right arm, pulls the left hand free, grabs the ball and wings it to first.

Lightbody pitched two years for the Helena American Legion juniors, leading the capital city boys to a 16-5 record in 1949 and winning his only start in the state tournament that year.

Lightbody made three relief appearances before his shutout of Boise, after which he was sent down to Eugene in the Class D Far West League because the Pioneer League had roster cutdowns.  He joined Eugene during a road trip; a story in the Eugene Register-Guard on June 8 didn’t specify when Lightbody made his debut with the Larks, but the accompanying stats showed he had pitched a 10-inning victory, allowing five runs (two earned), and eight hits while walking six and striking out six.  He also went 1-for-4 at the plate with a run scored and an RBI and handled two chances in the field without an error.

Lightbody made his first appearance in Eugene on June 8 and lost to Redding, 7-4, although the Register-Guard said, “but for [Redding’s Rance] Rolfe’s sturdy pitching, Lighbody might have drawn a win.”  He went the distance in defeat, allowing four earned runs and eight hits, walking four and striking out five.  Redding slugger Ray Perry went 0-for-3.

Except for one bad throw to first base, the one-hander fielded his position flawlessly, making three difficult putouts after first baseman Don Boiggini had fielded ground balls and fired them to the Lark hurler.

So smoothly does Lightbody shift his glove from his hand to his arm, on throw-backs from the catcher, that it’s hardly noticeable.  And his “stuff” isn’t the easiest to hit either.

So to this point in his professional career Lightbody had made three starts, completed all of them, won two of them, and thrown a shutout.  But he made just one more appearance for Eugene, details of which I have not yet uncovered.  A note on page 360 of the 1952 Sporting News Baseball Guide simply says Lightbody “was returned to Great Falls in late June and released.”  I have not found any additional reference to him in The Sporting News after the June 6 feature.  What happened that caused him to leave the game when he was seeming to have some success?

Perhaps it was an injury.  Lightbody died on April 4, 2001, in his lifelong home, Helena, the day before his 69th birthday.  The obituary in the Helena Independent-Record says “an arm injury ended his professional career.”  Lightbody married in 1953, coached an American Legion team from 1954 through 1962, got a job with the Montana highway department…and then in his 40s took up trapshooting, eventually winning a state championship.  I can’t imagine that’s an easy sport to conquer one-handed either.

The 1952 Baseball Guide includes minor league pitching stats for only players who threw at least 45 innings in their league.  Thus Lightbody’s stats don’t appear in the book, and the stats on his Baseball-Reference.com page are scant and incomplete.  The June 6 Sporting News story has details of all four of his appearances with Great Falls, from which we can determine some of his stats:  4 GP, 1 GS, 1 CG, 1 ShO, 17-1/3 IP, 13 H, 8 R, 6 ER, 3.12 ERA, 1-0 record.  We can’t say for sure what his strikeout and walk totals were.  I hope by the time my Far West League research is completed we can have his complete FWL stats.

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