The odds of an aspiring ballplayer making it onto a Major League team are very slim. And these odds certainly don’t get any better if the ballplayer is deaf. When outfielder Curtis Pride made his MLB debut with the Montreal Expos on Sep. 14, 1993, he became the first deaf big leaguer in almost 50 years.
Pride has been deaf since his birth in Washington, DC, on Dec. 17, 1968. Around that time, the U.S. had suffered a series of outbreaks of rubella. Pride’s mother, a nurse, contracted the infection during her pregnancy, which can often lead to deafness in the child. Pride’s mother and father (who worked for the US Department of Health and Human Services) discovered their son’s impairment when, as an infant, he showed no reaction to loud noises.
Though Pride had a permanent disability, he was also abundantly gifted: Aside from maintaining a 3.6 GPA as the only deaf student at his high school, he was also a three-sport star. In fact, following his play at the 1985 FIFA U-16 World Championship, he was rated as one of the top-15 youth soccer players in the world. Pride has actually said that he was better at soccer, but he enjoyed baseball more.
He was also good enough as a point guard to receive a basketball scholarship to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, from where he graduated in 1990 with a degree in Finance. At that time, Pride—who had played professional baseball while he was a college student—felt that he had made enough progress to impress the coaches and scouts and was “fairly confident” that he was going to reach his dream of playing Major League Baseball.
That dream finally came true after 8 seasons in the minor leagues. And his favorite moment of his career came early, with his first Major League hit – a 2-run double to lead his Montreal Expos to a comeback win against the Philadelphia Phillies during a pennant race in 1993. He had only nine at-bats that year, but he made them count, recording four hits (a single, a double, a triple, and a home run).
“It is as if we have a sixth sense to make up for our lack of hearing.”
A muscular 205 pounds at a height of six feet, Pride was a strong-throwing outfielder and a basestealing threat as a runner. He firmly believes there’s something about body language that he (and other hearing-impaired persons) can pick up on – things that persons with full hearing typically fail to observe. “It is as if we have a sixth sense to make up for our lack of hearing.”
This extra ability served him well on the baseball diamond, particularly on the basepaths, where he could often sense when the pitcher might try to pick him off or do a pitchout. He says he had “always been watching” body language to help him “anticipate what their next moves might be.”
His best season came in 1996, when, playing for the Detroit Tigers, he recorded a batting average of .300 in 267 appearances at the plate. He also hit for considerable power and had success stealing bases. Such a performance would seem to prove that he could function at a high level as an everyday player. But the following year, the Tigers decided to assign his outfield position to a promising rookie.
Never again approaching his 1996 success, Pride served as a part-time player (pinch-hitting or substituting for injured starting players) for the remainder of his big-league career. His last MLB appearance occurred in 2006 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Like many journeymen players, Pride often changed teams, playing for a total of six different ball clubs during his 11-year Major League career. Including minor league teams, he played a total 23 years of professional baseball.
Over the course of his career, Pride had to contend with a few incidences of teammates being obnoxious towards him. Sometimes he might catch someone making foolish gestures behind his back. Even in the Major Leagues, such things would occur “every once in a while.”
He also recalls one time, while playing right field for the Atlanta Braves against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium, fans started throwing hot dogs at him. As nothing otherwise remarkable was taking place, he didn’t understand their motivation. “My only guess was that they thought I was a ‘hotdog’ because I didn’t respond to their yelling,” he says.
“My only guess was that they thought I was a ‘hotdog’ because I didn’t respond to their yelling,”
Despite such incidents, Pride had many good experiences at both the big-league and minor-league levels, and he admits it was tough for him to leave the game as a player.
In 2009, he became the head baseball coach at Gallaudet University, the nation’s most prominent university for the hearing-impaired. As Pride had learned to read lips and speak well enough to function in hearing society, he didn’t actually learn sign language until he became a coach.
Pride led the Gallaudet Bison to a school record 27 wins in 2014 and continues to coach there. He relates that he enjoys “working with the players, teaching them lifelong lessons, and helping them develop into the best baseball players they can be.”
In his view, there are some professional-caliber deaf baseball players but “unfortunately, they are just not getting the opportunity to play at the professional level.”
Though some barriers remain, he feels that, since the time of his youth, society has generally improved in the way it treats the hearing-impaired. Of course, a large part of the improved situation is due to advanced technologies that have enabled deaf and hard-of-hearing persons to interact more with the hearing community. That said, he wishes more members of the hearing community would take advantage of these technologies to communicate with the hearing-impaired.
For several years, Pride and his wife operated the Together With Pride Foundation, which worked on behalf of hearing-impaired children, providing them with items ranging from hearing aids to scholarships. The foundation is currently inactive, however, as he and his wife have been focusing on their careers and raising their two children.
Pride, who remains by far the most successful deaf ballplayer of the last 100 years, thinks baseball is “probably the easiest sport” for the deaf and hearing-impaired because there is, comparatively speaking, “not a whole lot of communication involved during the game.” He feels that, when he was on the field, his disability was “not really much of an obstacle.”