Saturday, January 5, 2008


Bert Shepard walked slowly out of the bullpen to the pitcher's mound on a sunny August 4, 1945 to make his first appearance for the old Washington Nationals against the Boston Red Sox. It was the fourth inning, the bases were loaded, two outs, and veteran center fielder George "Catfish" Metkovich stood in the batter's box. He worked the count to 3 and 2 and, with all 3 runners on the move, Shepard threw a high inside fastball, and Metkovich swung and missed, striking out. Shepard, a southpaw, went on to pitch 5 more innings, giving up 3 hits and 1 run, a decent but unremarkable performance--except for the fact that Shepard had only one leg.

Here's the story, much of which is detailed in the 1998 book by Richard Tellis, "Once Around the Bases."

Robert Earl Shepard, 25 years old at the time, from Dana, Indiana, had pitched for a couple of years in the minor leagues, developed a sore arm, and appeared headed for baseball oblivion. It was 1942, World War II had started, and Shepard was drafted into the military. Although he had never seen an airplane up close, he applied for pilot training and was accepted. At flight school in Augusta, Georgia, he learned to fly P-38 fighter planes and eventually flew 34 combat missions in Germany. At the base, he agreed to manage the baseball team. On the morning of the first game, May 21, 1944, a mission was scheduled to bomb Berlin, Germany. Although he was not scheduled to fly until the following day, he volunteered for the mission because he expected to be back in time for the ball game. He didn't make it.

Shepard's plane was hit by a German shell, and crash landed. He lost his right leg and fractured his skull. The German civilians who found him were going to kill him, but a German doctor intervened and saved his life. He recovered and spent 8 months in a prisoner-of-war camp where a fellow POW crafted a crude artificial leg for him. He found that he could get around quite well and started playing catch with the other POW's and getting into shape. In February, 1945, he was released in a prisoner exchange and sailed back to the U.S.

Shepard went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to be fitted for a new artificial leg. There he met Secretary of War Robert Patterson who asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Shepard replied that if he couldn't fly in combat, he wanted to play professional baseball. Patterson then called his friend, Washington Nationals owner Clark Griffith and said, "We have a prisoner of war that just came back from Germany and lost his leg. He says he can play pro ball." Griffith, realizing an opportunity for good p.r. for his team said, "Sure, send him over."

On March 14th, soon after receiving his new leg, Shepard reported to the Nats spring training complex, and until he got undressed, nobody realized that he was an amputee. He pitched well and fielded his position flawlessly. The news media picked up on the story, and he was soon followed by a parade of reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen.

As a war hero, he was an inspiration to the American public. He pitched in several exhibition games against service teams which were usually better than the wartime major leaguers. In one game against the New London Naval Base, which included future Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, Shepard pitched 5 innings allowing only one run.

When the season started, the Nats hired him to pitch daily batting practice where he developed better control of his pitches. The team was in the midst of a pennant race, rare for the Washington franchise, and Manager Ossie Bluege was hesitant to put Shepard on the active roster. In July, the All-Star Game was cancelled because of wartime travel restrictions, and Washington scheduled an exhibition game for July 10th against the Brooklyn Dodgers, managed by Leo Durocher. The game was played to benefit the sale of War Bonds, and a huge crowd was expected. Two days before the game, Manager Bluege told Shepard that he would be the starting pitcher.

After the couple of sleepless nights, Shepard was nervous at the beginning of the game, and he walked the first two batters on 8 pitches. He then settled down and retired the side and went on to pitch 4 innings, giving up 2 runs and 5 hits. Washington won the game 4-3 and Shepard was declared the winning pitcher. After that performance, Shepard was placed on the active roster but didn't get a chance to pitch in a game until early August when the team, because of rain postponed games and travel restrictions, had 5 doubleheaders (10 games) scheduled in a 5 day period. Every pitcher on the team would be called upon to contribute.

He got his opportunity in the second game after rookie pitcher Joe Cleary got rocked by the Red Sox for 12 runs in the 4th inning, and Manager Bluege didn't want to use a starting pitcher in a hopeless cause. Boston won the game 15-4. Shepard didn't pitch in any more games the rest of the season because the team was locked in a tight pennant race, and Bluege went with his veteran pitchers, to no avail--they finished in second place behind the Detroit Tigers.

On August 31, 1945, on the field, between games of a New York doubleheader, Shepard was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal by General Omar Bradley.

When the 1946 season began, most major leaguers had returned from the War; and Shepard, although he played in exhibition games, knew he didn't have a chance to make the team. He agreed to go to the minor leagues to get an opportunity to play regularly. He went on to play minor league baseball until the early 1950's, both as a pitcher and a first baseman. A versatile player, he won quite a few games as a pitcher, and he even hit several home runs. On the field, he was faster than most two legged players and stole many bases.

After he retired from baseball, Shepard became a safety engineer in California and made motivational films for the Army. He bacame an outstanding golfer and won the 1968 and 1971 National Amputees Golf titles.

In 1993, he received a call from Dr. Ladislaus Loidl, the kindly German doctor who rescued him during the War. Later, accompanied by sportscaster Mel Allen and a television crew, Shepard flew to Austria for a tearful reunion with the good doctor.

Shepard, now in his late 80's, lives in Southern California and fondly remembers his brief stint in the big leagues during a time when most able bodied athletes were serving in the Armed Forces. This man had cojones; despite his handicap, he expected no sympathy from other players and received none. After crashing a plane and being a POW, he wasn't afraid of anything on the baseball diamond. He gave his best efforts on the field and was respected as a player.




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