ED: This was originally published in Gameday Vol. 7 Issue 5.
On a late afternoon in August 1945 at Griffith Stadium, manager Ossie Bluege signaled for a left-handed pitcher to come out of the bullpen. The Washington Senators, predecessors to today’s Minnesota Twins, were in the midst of the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. It was the fourth consecutive day of twin bills for the weary Nats, who had just watched as their starting pitcher, the debuting Joe Cleary, allowed 12 runs in the fourth inning.
With the game out of reach and his team still in the pennant hunt, Bluege was not interested in using one of the tired but more experienced relievers. No doubt frustrated by Cleary’s performance, Bluege called on a 25-year-old to make his major league debut in a mop-up role.
It was a scenario that had played itself out many times over the years in baseball, but Bluege’s move caused a stir in the Washington crowd that had started to lose interest as their team fell further behind. The fans immediately woke up and began to applaud when they saw that Bluege was waving Bert Shepard to the mound.
Just 15 months earlier, Shepard was preparing for another baseball game. After playing minor league ball for a few years, but was drafted into military service in May of 1942. He applied for pilot training and became a member of the 55th Fighter Group stationed in England.
Shepard, like many ballplayers, continued to play as part of his service. He was the manager and star pitcher of the base’s team, which was set to play its first game on May 21, 1944. That morning, Shepard learned of a mission scheduled to bomb Berlin. With 33 missions in his P38 Lightning already under his belt, Shepard volunteered to fly his 34th, the first daytime raid over Berlin. Shepard figured that he would probably be back in time for the game.
As Shepard sped his plane towards the target that day, he was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. A sharp pain in his right foot was followed by numbness. More fire caused Shepard to lose control of his plane. The last memory he later recalled was crashing his plane to the ground about a mile before reaching the target site.
He awoke in a German hospital several days later to find that his right leg had been amputated, cut off between the knee and the ankle. Shepard later recalled: “I had been an athlete all of my life, and I promised myself the day I found my leg was off that I would continue to be one.”
Just weeks after the crash, Shepard had recovered enough to be moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. It was there that he received his first artificial leg, a crude instrument crafted by a fellow prisoner.
Shepard started to work himself into shape on his new leg. At first he simply ran on it, but slowly started to add pitching moves to his routine, including throwing, pivoting, and fielding bunts. His workouts began to catch the eye of the hospital staff, who would sometimes gather to watch Shepard practice.
After eight months in the German camp, Shepard returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange. He arrived at New York harbor in February of 1945. Shortly after, while at Walter Reed Hospital waiting for a new artificial leg, Shepard was summoned to the office of the Secretary of War, Robert Patterson. Patterson wanted to talk to some of the men who had just returned from German prison camps, and Shepard was selected at random. When Patterson learned that Shepard wanted to play professional baseball, he immediately contacted his friend, the owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith.
Griffith, probably sensing a money-maker, invited Shepard to camp that spring. Three days after being fitted with a new leg, Bert Sheperd reported to the Nats’ spring training complex. Manager Ossie Bluege and the rest of the team found out that Shepard was an amputee only after seeing him getting dressed in the locker room before his first day on the field.
Regardless of how the rest of the team felt when they first saw the artificial leg, it became clear very quickly that Shepard was more than just a publicity stunt. He wowed players and media alike by showing his skills, most amazingly his ability to field sacrifice bunts. Shepard’s first appearance in an organized game came on April 1, when he pitched a scoreless inning against the Norfolk Naval Training Club.
Shepard started getting some interest from the New York Yankees, so Griffith eventually signed him as a baserunning coach and batting practice pitcher, but the owner made it clear that Shepard would have every opportunity to make the team as a player. He pitched several exhibition games in the spring and early summer, but hadn’t been called upon for a real major league game until Bluege signaled him into the game on August 4, 1945.
The rookie had little time to enjoy the moment because Cleary had left the bases loaded with two outs. The first batter he faced was George Metkovich, Boston’s center fielder. Metkovich worked the count full. With the runners on the move, Shepard threw a fastball by Metkovich to end the inning. The Washington crowd rewarded him with a standing ovation as he returned to the dugout.
Shepard lasted 5 1/3 innings that afternoon to finish the game. He held the Red Sox to just a single run on three hits with three strikeouts in the 15-4 Nats’ loss.
Though Shepard’s debut was a success, his time in the majors did not last long. With Washington still in the thick of a pennant race, Bluege relied on his veteran pitching staff down the stretch. When the pre-war stars began to return from service in 1946, it became clear that Shepard would not get his chance to play with Washington. He went on to have a decent career in the minors, and was a regular on the Army’s hospital visit circuit, but never again made a pitching appearance in the major leagues.
Bert Shepard passed away on June 16, 2008 at a California nursing home. He remains the only man to have pitched in the major leagues with an artificial leg.
Tellis, Richard Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors Triumph, 1998.
The Sporting News archives at Paper of Record (http://paperofrecord.com)
Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime website (http://www.garybed.co.uk/index.htm)