These baseball greats battled and won
Cancer can affect anyone at anytime, including sports figures. In our ongoing series Super Surivors, we look back at those who've battled cancer and survived. Here's a look at those in Major League Baseball.
Lester has won 159 big-league games in 12 seasons and has proved to be one of the most reliable big-game pitchers of his generation, winning two World Series rings with Boston and helping the Cubs to their curse-busting World Series win in 2016. But his most important victory came during his rookie season — in his fight against anaplastic large-cell lymphoma. Lester was 7–2 when, on Aug. 27, 2006, he was scratched from a scheduled start with back pain. It was the beginning of a medical odyssey that included a cancer diagnosis and offseason chemotherapy treatments at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Midway through the 2007 season, his cancer in remission, Lester rejoined the Red Sox rotation and led the Sox to a storybook finish, becoming the third pitcher in history to win a World Series-clinching game in his first postseason start.
Normally, a hard-thrown ball to the nether regions would be considered a bad break, but it just might have saved Kruk’s life. During spring training 1994, Kruk took a ball to the berries on an errant pickoff throw from teammate Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams that cracked his protective cup. In the subsequent examination, doctors discovered testicular cancer, catching it at a treatable stage. The fan favorite was able to return to the team later that season and would later embark on a second career as a successful and popular broadcaster for ESPN — all thanks to a fortuitous error.
With his 2007 World Series MVP award for the World Champion Boston Red Sox, Lowell reached heights that would have been unthinkable only a few years before. Prior to spring training 1999, a then-24-year-old Lowell was diagnosed with testicular cancer, undergoing surgery on Feb. 21 of that year. Remarkably, he returned to the field on May 29 and went on to establish himself as one of the top young third basemen in MLB. Traded to the Red Sox in late 2005, Lowell joined fellow cancer survivor Jon Lester in leading the Sox to their second World Series championship. In a four-game sweep of the Rockies, Lowell batted .400 with six runs scored to earn MVP honors. “I was very motivated after I was told that this was something that could be beat to not let cancer be the reason why I was not a Major League Baseball player,” Lowell said. Mission accomplished.
One of the game’s top sluggers in the power-mad mid-1990s, Galarraga proved that his power wasn’t merely a result of the thin Colorado air, smacking 44 homers in his first season in Atlanta in 1998. That offseason, though, persistent back pain gave way to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on his second lumbar vertebra. Chemotherapy treatment forced him to miss the entire 1999 season, but Galarraga and his infectious smile made a triumphant return to baseball in 2000, when he hit 28 homers and drove in 100 runs, earning his second National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. A relapse of his cancer hastened the end of his superb career at 43, although he successfully beat the disease a second time. By the time of his retirement, Galarraga had hit 399 career home runs.
The crack of a career-ending break of the humerus bone in Dave Dravecky’s arm could be heard throughout the stadium. But Dravecky will be remembered for far more than the gruesome way in which his career ended. Dravecky was diagnosed in 1988 with a cancerous desmoid tumor in his pitching arm and had surgery to remove half of the deltoid muscle. Determined not to let cancer derail his career, Dravecky made an unlikely and inspiring return to a major-league mound on Aug. 10, 1989, with his team headed toward a National League pennant and a World Series appearance. He pitched eight remarkable innings against Cincinnati to earn the win in his first start back in the majors. In his second start, though, his weakened humerus bone snapped on a pitch in the sixth inning, and Dravecky collapsed on the mound, his pitching career over. A second mass was discovered following another break (which he suffered during the Giants’ pennant-clinching celebration), and the decision was made to amputate his left arm at the shoulder. Undeterred, Dravecky embarked on a career as a motivational speaker and author, sharing the story of his cancer and his comeback.
A unique combination of speed and power, Davis in 1987 became the first player in MLB history to hit a least 30 home runs and steal at least 50 bases in the same season, a year after he joined Rickey Henderson as the only two players to hit 25 or more homers and steal 80 or more bases in the same season. He never scaled those dizzying heights again, but he was a rare talent whom teammate Paul O’Neill called “the best hitter, best runner, best outfielder, best everything” he ever saw. But perhaps Davis’ greatest impact came as a result of his inspiring comeback from colon cancer. Davis received the dreaded diagnosis in May 1997 while with the Orioles, but by September of that year, while he was still undergoing treatment, he returned to the field and even hit a game-winning home run in the 1997 American League Championship Series. In 1998, he hit .327 and smacked 28 home runs to complete his victory over the disease.