Monday, June 23, 2008

Bert Shepard, WWII vet and MLB player, dies at 87

The Associated Press

HIGHLAND, Calif.—Bert Shepard, a left-handed pitcher who lost part of his right leg in World War II but went on to play one game in the major leagues, has died. He was 87.

Shepard died in his sleep Monday at a nursing home in Highland in San Bernardino County, his daughter Karen said.

Shepard, who was born in Dana, Ind., in 1920, joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 after playing in the minor leagues for the Chicago White Sox organization.

He was stationed in England and flew 33 missions in a P-38 fighter plane, but on his 34th mission on May 21, 1944, he was hit by enemy fire. He was taken prisoner by the Germans, who amputated his right leg several inches below the knee. A fellow captured soldier crafted him a crude prosthetic leg during his internment.

In early 1945, after being freed in a prisoner-of-war exchange, Shepard met Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Asked what he wanted to do next, Shepard said that if he couldn't fly combat missions, he wanted to play baseball again.

Patterson persuaded Clark Griffith, then owner of the Washington Senators, to arrange a tryout for Shepard. During his tryout, Shepard wore a prosthetic leg and impressed the club so much that the Senators signed him to the team.

He became somewhat of a post-war sports celebrity, touring hospitals, visiting wounded veterans and pitching batting practices and exhibition games.

"I could move around real gracefully. One of the sportswriters said, 'There's a hell of a story,' and in about two hours, the newsreels were out there along with 25 reporters," Shepard told The Associated Press in 1990.

"I got an awful lot of publicity right away. That sort of helped me to stay with the ballclub until I could prove myself. I pitched several exhibition games and got 'em out each time."

Shepard's big moment, however, came on Aug. 4, 1945, when he was called to the mound in the fourth inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the visiting Boston Red Sox. The Senators were trailing 14-2, but Shepard struck out George "Catfish" Metkovich with bases loaded and ended the inning before finishing the game.

The Red Sox won 15-4.

His line for that one day of pitching was 5 1-3 innings, one run, three hits, one walk and two strikeouts, with an earned-run average of 1.69.

Two days later, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ending the war. The major league players returned from military service and Shepard eventually lost his place on the roster.

He went on to play with a team of traveling all-stars in 1946 and played and managed in the minor leagues and semipro baseball until his career ended in his late 20s.

Shepard turned to selling typewriters for IBM, then became a safety engineer. He and his wife, Betty, married in 1953 and moved to Southern California. They lived in Hesperia and divorced a few years ago.

Shepard is also survived by sons Preston and Justin, both of Hesperia; daughter Penny Shepard, of Oklahoma City; nine grandchildren and three brothers.

No comments: