A WWII hero with one leg wanted to pitch in the MLB. In 1945, he got his chance. – The Post
Seventy-five years ago today in Griffith Stadium, Bert Shepard pitching 5⅓ innings of 1 run ball for the Washington Senators.
Shepard’s only regular season major league appearance came six months after he left a German POW camp. It came about 14 months after he was wounded in aerial combat:
Shepard’s major league debut that afternoon in 1945 – 75 years ago this month – capped a remarkable tale of perseverance that began when his P-38 Lightning fighter was shot down in Germany on May 21, 1944. He was scheduled to pitch for his 55th Fighter Group baseball team in England later that day, but as his plane went down, the 24-year-old pilot radioed his fellow pilots: “Tell the boys I won’t be back for the game.”A WWII hero with one leg wanted to pitch in the MLB. In 1945, he got his chance. – The Post
A German Army doctor saved Shepard from angry farmers near the crash site. Shepard’s foot had been shot off and more of his leg would be amputated.
Shepard joins Nats
Convalescing at Walter Reed Hospital, an undersecretary of war asked Shepard what he wanted to do. “Play baseball.”
After several months in prisoner of war camps, Mr. Shepard returned to the United States in February 1945 and was fitted for an artificial leg at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When Secretary of War Robert Patterson asked what he wanted to do in life, Mr. Shepard said he wanted to play professional baseball. Patterson called Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Nationals, who arranged for a tryout at the team’s training facility in College Park. (The ball club, popularly known as the Senators, was officially called the Nationals at the time.)OBITUARY: Bert Shepard; Amputation Didn’t Stop MLB Pitcher – The Post
“This is the thing I dreamed about in that prison camp for months — the day I could get back on a diamond,” Mr. Shepard told The Washington Post.
After winning the first game of a doubleheader, Washington fell hopelessly behind the Boston Red Sox in the second game. In the top of the 4th with two outs, Shepard, wearing #34, entered and promptly struck out George “Catfish” Metkovich.
Shepard then pitched five more innings, striking out one more and giving up only one run.
BOXSCORE: Boston Red Sox at Washington Senators Box Score, August 4, 1945 – Baseball Reference
That would be the only regular season action Shepard would ever see. Ironically, the ’45 Nats were contenders. While had been impressive his debut and some exhibitions earlier in the year, he would not enter another game. Washington finished 1½ games from the pennant. It was the closest the nation’s capital would come to postseason baseball for another 67 years.
After the majors
Shepard’s offseason included an Army good will tour, but post-war baseball was no longer receptive to a pitcher with an artificial leg. He bounced around the minor leagues for several years while enduring additional surgeries. He managed teams and was also a scout for the Nats. Following baseball, he won the U.S. amputee golf championship twice.
READ MORE: Bert Shepard – SABR Biography
According to the Friends of Warren Ballpark, there was a brand of oranges called Peg Leg Pitcher with Shepard featured on the label.
“Who saved my life?”
In 1993, Shepard learned who had saved him . Forty-nine years to the day after being shot down, Shepard met Ladislaus Loidl in Parndorf, Austria.
“I prayed for this,” says the 72-year-old Shepard. “And after half a century my dream has incredibly come true.”AT LONG LAST, THANK YOU!
EX-MAJOR LEAGUER BERT SHEPARD FINALLY MET THE ENEMY WHO SAVED HIS LIFE IN ’44 – Sports Illustrated
Shepard lived until 2008.
Shepard was not the only major league amputee playing major league baseball. Pete Gray of the St. Louis Browns was a one-armed outfielder who appeared in 77 games and batted .218.
Bert Shepard: The Washington Senators’ “One Legged War Hero” – Boundary Stones (WETA)
Wounded Veteran gets a Try Out – D.C. Baseball History
Yanks Kidnap Shepard – D.C. Baseball History
The extraordinary story of Bert Shepard, prisoner of war turned one-legged pitcher – The Athletic (subscription required)
The writer of the Post piece, Frederic Frommer is also the author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals. My original copy from a few years back is obsolete!