Dick Heller: On one leg, Shepard became pitching hero

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Despite winning just one World Series and three pennants in 60 years of existence, the original Washington Senators had their fair share of heroes like Walter Johnson, Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Cecil Travis, Joe Cronin, Mickey Vernon, et al.

Yet the most heroic of all Senators, and possibly all major leaguers, might have been a guy who pitched all too briefly 63 years ago.

On Aug. 4, 1945, two days before the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, golfer Byron Nelson won his 11th consecutive tournament and 18th of the year - surely records that will never be bettered, Tiger or no Tiger. And that same Saturday afternoon, Bert Shepard took the mound for the Senators in the second game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox - with one leg.

Had he merely thrown one pitch that day at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Shepard would deserve a belated salute and a place in baseball history. But, no, this 25-year-old left-hander tossed 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run and three hits while striking out three, in the only big league game he graced with his plucky presence.

And when Shepard died June 16 at age 87 in Highland, Calif., the obituaries reiterated his courage and tenacity to latter-day fans who never heard of him.

That was a strange season for the Senators and all of baseball. With most major league teams populated by players too old, too young or too feeble for military service, the Nats fielded a rotation featuring four knuckleballers and finished second by 1 1/2 games in the American League pennant race. They might have won it all, in fact, if an obscure outfielder named Bingo Banks hadn’t forgotten his sunglasses and allowed a fly ball to land on his head rather than in his glove during a crucial September game against the first-place Tigers.

None of this mattered much to Shepard, who several times was asked by thoughtless shutterbugs to pose for pictures with Pete Gray, the St. Louis Browns’ one-armed outfielder. Bert was simply glad to be around.

On May 21, 1944, during his 34th mission over Germany, Army Air Forces Lt. Shepard’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed at an estimated speed of 380 mph. A Luftwaffe doctor from Vienna, Austria, pulled him from the burning craft, held off a bunch of German farmers armed with pitchforks and murderous intent and got Bert to a hospital, where his right leg was amputated below the knee.

After languishing as a prisoner of war for nine months, Shepard was freed in a prisoner exchange in February 1945 and returned to the United States to be fitted for an artificial leg at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

When Secretary of War Robert Patterson asked what Shepard wanted to do in life, the pitcher said he planned to resume his baseball career after pitching in the minor leagues before the war. Patterson called Senators owner Clark Griffith and arranged for a spring training tryout (in College Park, of all places, because of wartime travel restrictions).

“This is the thing I dreamed about in that prison camp,” Shepard told The Washington Post. During the spring and early summer, he pitched in exhibition games and traveled extensively on public relations tours for the Army.

Finally, with the Senators trailing the Red Sox 14-2 in the third inning of that Aug. 4 nightcap, manager Ossie Bluege crooked his finger.

“I came in with the bases loaded and struck out George Metkovich to get us out of it,” Shepard recalled in 1993. “If I had failed, the manager would have said, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have put him in with that [artificial] leg.’ The leg was not a problem, and I didn’t want anybody saying it was.”

But Shepard never pitched again that season, subsequently enduring several operations on his leg, and when all the able-bodied players returned in 1946, his brief career in the bigs was toast. As you might expect, he accepted that reality, too.

“I don’t want sympathy - all I want is a chance to play,” Shepard said in 1947. And he did so as a pitcher and first baseman for several more years in the minor leagues (incredibly stealing five bases one season). After his retirement, he became an advocate for disabled workers, among other career pursuits, and won two national amputee golf championships.

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