In 1999, the average life expectancy for someone diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, was three to five years. That’s when Mel Stottlemyre, Sr., a five-time Major League Baseball All-Star and a five-time World Series champion coach, received his devastating diagnosis. At the time, he was in Florida for spring training as the pitching coach for the New York Yankees.
“Neither of us had ever heard of the word myeloma before,” says Jean Stottlemyre, his wife of 56 years. “I remember that, to keep his spirits up, he would go to the ballpark early to be around the other coaches and players.”
Despite the diagnosis, Stottlemyre proceeded to live for the next 20 years, trying out and responding well to many different cancer treatments — some older and others recently approved by the FDA.
“Mel was really in uncharted territory,” says Janis Abkowitz, MD, head of the Division of Hematology and the Clement A. Finch, M.D. Endowed Professor in Hematology. “For each decision we made, there were a few other possibilities. So he was very much a partner with me in decision-making about therapeutic approaches.”
The admiration between the families was mutual. “Dr. Abkowitz is not only a great doctor, she’s just a very kind and caring person,” says Jean. “In fact, I probably wore her out. There were times I would call her at 2 a.m. not knowing what to do. Just hearing her voice would calm me down.”
Mel Stottlemyre died in January 2019 at 77 from cancer complications, and Jean and the boys decided to raise funds for a memorial gift to support Abkowitz’s work. In her turn, Abkowitz will use these gifts to research blood system cancers.
As valuable as these research contributions are, Abkowitz — who grew up cheering the Boston Red Sox and booing the Yankees at Fenway Park — has another gift that she treasures. It’s a baseball signed by her friend the ex-Yankee, and his two baseball-playing sons, Mel, Jr., and Todd.
“Mel was very down to earth, honest and straightforward,” says Abkowitz. “He was an excellent role model for baseball and for just being a wonderful human.”