August 4 marks the 65th anniversary of a great moment in baseball history. In 1945, lefty Bert Shepard, an amputee with an artificial leg, pitched five and a third effective innings in relief for the Washington Senators. A former minor leaguer, Shepard had lost his right leg below-knee just fifteen months earlier after being shot down flying a P-38 over Germany. He returned to America in a prisoner exchange.
He was fully recovered at Walter Reed Army Hospital when the Washington Senators desperately needed a fresh reliever during a brutal stretch of playing ten games in five days. His appearance against the Boston Red Sox that day would encourage and inspire thousands of post-war amputee veterans. He gave up only one run and three hits. Bert Shepard passed away in 2008.
Recently, I interviewed his 74-year-old brother, Martin Shepard of Clinton, Indiana. “If you didn’t know (he was an amputee), you couldn’t tell,” said Shepard over the telephone. “One time, Bert walked 36 holes of golf. He won the national amputee golf tournament twice and always walked it. He was a natural athlete. Nothing like (an amputation) was going to stop him. He was going to enjoy life.”
Shepard described his older brother as competitive, a good joker and storyteller, and a great pool player who once ran 75 straight balls against him.
“There was something special about Bert,” said Shepard. “After the war, he went to Walter Reed Hospital and gave the (disabled) soldiers pep talks about what they could accomplish.”
On August 31, General Omar Bradley awarded Bert Shepard the Distinguished Flying Cross during a Senators home game. He became a Senators batting practice pitcher and pitched in the minor leagues before having a career-ending injury.
His New York Times obituary said Shepard in 1946 toured the nation to visit hospitals treating war amputees. He later worked for IBM and Hughes Aircraft. The New York Times quoted his Senators teammate, George Case, as saying, “Bert was pretty damn good. It was amazing. Walter Reed was just up the road from Griffith Stadium. Bert was constantly going up there to show what he’d done. And we’d have a couple of amputees at every game. They’d see Bert throw batting practice.”
One interesting note: Fifty years after being shot down, Bert met the German surgeon who amputated his leg and literally saved his life.