Do you find it hard to believe there was a one legged Major League Baseball player? So did I but it is true. Before World War ll, prior to losing his leg, Bert Shepard pitched in the minor leagues.
In 1942, he joined the Army Air Forces. On May 21, 1944 flying just above tree level, he attacked a German truck convoy and his plane was ripped by antiaircraft fire. Among the rapid fire bullets searing his plane, Bert later said it felt like a “sledgehammer” hit his right foot, but he could recall little else.
When a bullet struck Bert’s chin, it knocked him unconscious and his plane hit the ground at a guesstimated 380 miles per hour. He somehow survived the crash, but it was a German military doctor, Ladislaus Loidl who saved his life on the spot, when at gun point Dr. Loidl backed-off the Germans who wanted to kill him.
Dr. Loidl rushed him to a German hospital and two weeks later, as Bert regained consciousness, he was shocked to discover his right leg below the knee had been amputated. Dr. Loidl did this to save his life as he also repaired the damage from his severe head wound.
How did Bert respond to the shock of losing his leg? “Thank you for saving my life,” he said to the doctors and the nurses in expressing his heartfelt gratitude.
After his recovery, Bert spent the next several months in German POW camps. Following a trade of POW’s, he returned to the U.S. and the military sent him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in February, 1945, where he was given an artificial leg.
Bert was lucky to be alive and his sports career seemed over. But during a tour of Walter Reed, Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson asked him what he hoped to do with his life. When the response from Bert was to play professional baseball, it was unbelievable. Yet Bert insisted he could do it.
The U.S. had huge numbers of soldiers severely injured in the war, and the Undersecretary knew if Bert actually could pitch, it would be a huge morale builder. He spoke to Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith and a tryout was arranged.
In the meantime, Bert ignored those who thought it was impossible for him to ever pitch again and he got into top physical condition and he worked on his pitches.
During the tryout, the team was impressed enough with Bert’s skills to allow him to informally join them. He pitched batting practice and played in some exhibitions, but at first they did not formally put him on the team. However with the war being fought sports teams in 1945 had few of their top players because they were in military service.
Bert was about to get his chance. He was added to the team’s roster in July, but never got into a game until August 4th when the Senators were playing the Boston Red Sox and in the 2nd game of a double header, were trailing the Red Sox, 14 – 2 in the 4th inning.
The bases were loaded with two outs when the call came to the bullpen, send Bert in. The crowd must have given him a huge ovation but at the same time was fearful he might embarrass himself or get hurt. But Bert struck out the batter to end the inning.
When the next inning came, would the manager have the nerve to leave him in the game? This was the Senator’s 4th of 5 doubleheaders in a row, and the game was lost anyway. But if Bert got hurt, the manager would be held responsible. None the less, he sent Bert back in.
For Bert, it was a dream come true. He pitched the rest of the game, 51/3 innings allowing just one run on three hits, as he struck out two batters. And he became a hero to millions of people, but especially to the severely injured war vets.
In 1946, with the war over, the top players returned to their teams and there was no place for Bert who went back to Walter Reed for more surgery. He would be on crutches for over two years, but when he was ready; he became a player/manager in the minor leagues and played until 1954.
When his baseball career ended, Bert worked for IBM selling typewriters, and later he became a safety engineer for Hughes Aircraft and for other large firms. He was also a strong advocate for the rights of the physically limited and encouraged employers to hire them.
And Bert designed an artificial ankle that allowed those with severe leg limitations like his, a great deal more mobility. In his case, so much mobility that he became an outstanding amateur golfer and played the game for most of the rest of his life, proudly able to play without a golf cart.
Earlier this year, at the age of 87, Bert Shepard passed away in his sleep. But he left us with the legacy and the inspiration of a person who overcame the seemingly “impossible,” not just on the baseball field, but in everything he got involved in.
For Bert lived a full life. He had a wife and four children, a successful career after baseball and he didn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself. As he told The Los Angeles Times, “The guys who get bitter after some tough luck were like that in the first place. They’re just making excuses.” * Bert made no excuses as he vigorously pursued his dreams.