Grave Story: Bert Shepard (1920-2008)

Bert Shepard only pitched in one major league game. The fact that he ever made it that far – the fact that he lived to make it to a pitcher’s mound – is one of baseball’s most inspiring stories. Shepard played his one game with the Washington Senators in 1945, after being shot down in World War II, having his right leg amputated and surviving a German prisoner of war camp.

Bert Robert Shepard was born in Dana, Ind., on June 28, 1920, the son of John and Lura (Cooke) Shepard. According to Bert’s birth certificate, John was employed as a drayman – a beer deliveryman. Bert had one older brother named Harlan (1918) and three younger brothers, Wayne (1925), John (1930) and Gene (1932). He went to Clinton High School in Clinton, Ind. Shepard also pitched for a local semipro team, the Clinton Dianas. He was a left-handed pitcher, and while he didn’t have the best control, he could reach high strikeout totals against the local competition. His pitching drew the attention of major-league scouts, and he was signed by the Chicago White Sox in early 1939.

Shepard spent part of the winter of 1939 playing semipro ball in Los Angeles. He then went off to Texas for training. He was to have pitched for the Jeanerette Blues of the Louisiana-based Evangeline League in ’39, but he developed a sore arm and went back to Indiana. He recovered to pitch for the Dianas, which won the state championship that year. Shepard moved to the Wisconsin Rapids White Sox of the Wisconsin State League in 1940. When he was named the team’s Opening Day starter, the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune pointed out that he finished his senior year at Clinton High School a month ahead of the rest of his class so that he could join the team.

Shepard didn’t pick up a win in that game, which the LaCrosse won 3-2. However, he and reliever Alex Bentley allowed just 3 hits before the Blackhawks rallied in the ninth inning. The Tribune praised his “cool-headed” work on the mound.

“He possesses a well-breaking curve and a nice change of pitching pace,” the paper added. However, it seems as though he struggled most of the season. The partial statistics on Baseball Reference show that he walked 48 batters in 43 innings and had a 3-2 record and 6.07 ERA in 9 appearances. He was released with a sore arm that summer.

In 1941, Shepard pitched briefly for the Anaheim Aces of the Class-C California League and then the Bisbee Bees of the Arizona-Texas League. While his pitching stats are not available, it doesn’t sound as if he had recovered from his control problems. One recollection of his work in Bisbee was the time he walked 11 batters in 3-1/3 innings, but only one run scored because he and his catcher kept picking off baserunners or catching them trying to steal. (Some sources attribute that performance to his time with Wisconsin Rapids.) He also spent some time at first base and was a .213 hitter.

It’s worth noting that, as of this writing, Baseball Reference lists Shepard as a starting pitcher for the LaCrosse Blackhawks of the Wisconsin State League. Box scores and game recaps do not support this, and I believe that Bert Shepard’s statistics from LaCrosse in 1942 should actually go to Robert Shepard, a left-handed pitcher in the Cardinals organization. The LaCrosse game recaps mention a Bob Shepard, and the only references to Bert Shepard found in newspaper archives indicate that he and some others from the Arizona-Texas League had formed a semi-pro team in Bisbee. He was the team’s first baseman.

Shepard entered the military in 1942 and was initially stationed at Daniel Field in Augusta, Ga. He was transferred to California to begin aviation cadet training, initially at the Santa Ana Air Base in California. According to the Pasadena Post, the jovial cadet started a rumor that the company that showed the best marching form would perform during halftime at the 1943 Rose Bowl. “But Shepard’s laugh turned into sorrow because his leave, and that of six other cadets who had tickets to the game, were canceled, although nobody knows of his gag – until now,” the paper reported. When he wasn’t playing pranks, Shepard completed his basic flying training at the flight school at Gardner Field, Calif. He was then sent to advanced school to complete his pilot training.

Bert Shepard, left, with catcher Earl Knuteson before making his professional pitching debut. Source: Wisconsin Rapids Daily Journal, May 8, 1940.

Lieutenant Bert Shepard was stationed in England for much of the war, and he was awarded the Air Medal and Oak Leaf Clusters for “meritorious achievement” in his flights over Europe. According to The Daily Clintonian, Shepard was part of the first group of American fighter pilots to make a combat flight over Berlin. The fighters, in twin-engine Lockheed Lighting fighters, flew over the city at 25,000 feet but experienced neither anti-aircraft fire nor an appearance by the Luftwaffe. Shepard and his Lightning group had been making long-range flights over Germany since October of 1943. They also accompanied bombers on attacks on cities like Frankfort and Leipzing, protecting the big bombers from enemy aircraft.

John and Lura Shepard were notified via telegram in the summer of 1944 that their son Bert had been missing in action since May 21, during a flight over Germany. Unlike so many other parents who received similar telegrams, their son returned home in February of 1945, with an incredible tale of survival.

May 21, 1944, was to be a busy day for Lt. Shepard. His 55th Fighter Group baseball team was scheduled to have its season opener later that day. He was the manager and star pitcher, so he was surely slated to be the starting pitcher. But first, he had a mission in Germany – his 34th mission of the war. The D-Day invasion was happening soon, and his group was assigned the task of strafing anything they could find that would hurt the German defenses. Shepard was piloting his P-38 and strafing a truck convoy on a road northwest of Berlin, when he ran into anti-aircraft fire. He was flying low – less than 10 feet off the ground, he estimated. A shell tore through the floor of the cockpit, destroying his right leg, and he was thrown forward into the gun sight, busting open his forehead. The plane lost attitude, and before he blacked out, Shepard saw a turnip field whizzing past his left wingtip. He was unconscious before the plane crashed.

Shepard awoke in a German hospital and discovered that his right leg had been amputated about halfway between the knee and ankle. He was sent to a prison camp, where a Canadian prisoner of war fashioned an artificial leg for him out of scrap iron and felt. As soon as his stump had healed, Shepard began learning how to walk. Within a month he was running and playing softball, and the German doctor who had performed the amputation had the hospital personnel gather to watch Shepard work out.

Shepard returned home in February of 1945 on the Gripsholm prisoner exchange ship, after eight months in Germany. He was sent to Walter Reed Hospital, and that’s where Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson discovered him and learned of his goal of returning to baseball. One of Patterson’s subordinates during the war was Col. Larry MacPhail, president and partial owner of the New York Yankees. He asked MacPhail to help Shepard out. MacPhail connected Shepard with Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators. Griffith had Shepard – who was still being treated at Walter Reed for a skull fracture he had suffered in his plane crash – work out with the team.

Walter Haight of the Washington Post covered his visit. Shepard got a uniform from manager Ossie Bluege and began undressing. To that point, everybody on the Senators assumed that the convalescing soldier had two legs. Then they saw his artificial leg – a proper one from Walter Reed and not a jury-rigged one. Haight takes it from there:

“There was hardly a dry eye around the Maryland University diamond when Shepard, walking so that his handicap was hardly noticeable, came on the field. John Niggeling, the pitcher, stepped up and asked, ‘Want to throw some?’

“He did throw some, this air hero. He not only threw, but later he burned in a few ‘just to see if the old arm would work,’ and what’s more he took his turn in batting practice and cracked out two line drives – hits in any league – and sent another smash over the head of an outfielder.

“Manager Bluege and his players stood around watching and shaking their heads slowly as if to say, ‘It can’t be.’ This fellow with a leg off won’t be able to play ball. But darned if he isn’t doing things.”

Later on, some cameramen who were filming the scene asked if he could field a bunt. Al Evans, who was hitting against him, laid down a bunt along the third base line. The southpaw came off the mound grabbed it and fired a strike to first baseman Joe Kuhel. “Manager Bluege grunted in a choked voice, ‘Thata boy, Shep,’” Haight wrote.

If you were going to script that scene for a movie, you’d write it exactly that way. Maybe Haight took some liberties with the scene, but Shepard was doing something special. Thousands of soldiers would be coming home from the war, with serious physical or psychological injuries. They were expected to carry on, to put the horrors of war behind them and adjust to life without all their limbs. If they needed inspiration, they just had to look at Major League Baseball where Pete Gray, the outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, was hitting, fielding and throwing with one arm. Or they could see Bert Shepard pitching with one leg.

The chance to use Shepard as a role model was too much for baseball and the Army to resist. MacPhail and Patterson had Shepard board a plane at the Senators camp, fly to the Yankees training camp in Atlantic City and work out with the team, as recovering veterans from Thomas England General Hospital looked on. The stunt didn’t please Griffith, who didn’t appreciate the Yankees making off with one of his ballplayers.

“That snatch of Shepard was a lousy trick” Griffith fumed. “It’s against the ethics of baseball to snatch a player from another team’s training camp — especially when I gave the boy a chance to get on his feet.” (Maybe not the best choice of words from Griffith, considering.) He quickly changed his tune when he was informed that the War Department organized the whole affair. Technically, Shepard was neither a Senator nor a Yankee. He was still an active member of the U.S. Army.

Shepard returned to the Senators and was given leave from the Army so that he could pursue baseball in 1945. He signed a coaching contract, but he would be made an active player if he proved himself. In the meantime, he was given permission to continue his morale work for the War Department. Shepard threw 2 scoreless innings against a team from Fort Story on April 3 and drew a good crowd. “I can still take a good cut at the ball, throw well, and when I get a special leg instead of this temporary one, I’ll do OK,” he said.

Shepard, left, prepares his prosthetic leg while Senators manager Ossie Bluege looks on.

While he was with the Senators, visited military hospitals when he wasn’t throwing batting practice or working out in the infield. He had a chance to fly to Europe to attend the dedication of a ballfield that was being named in his honor, but he turned it town to pitch in an exhibition game between the Senators and visiting Brooklyn Dodgers on July 10. It wasn’t as competitive as an official game, as managers Bluege and Leo Durocher both played, but it was Shepard’s first chance to face real opposition. Over the first three innings, the only hit he allowed was a double by Eddie Basinski. He was touched for a couple of runs in the fourth inning but still picked up the victory in the 4-3 win. His control, which had long been his biggest problem in the minors, was fine, as he only walked Durocher once.

Shepard relished his role as a coach, as he got back into playing condition. He worked on his running until he was able to circle the bases in 20 seconds.

“It’s important that I be successful in my first showing,” Shepard said. “There are lots of guys more busted up than I was, and it’s important to the hospitals that with my artificial leg, I still hold my own under professional competition.”

His uniform number, incidentally, was 34 – the number of missions he flew during the war.

The Senators spent the first part of the 1945 season struggling, but they got hot in July and moved up to second place. Then August came along, and the team made up several rained-out games. As a result, Washington had to play a doubleheader each day from August 1 through August 5 – 10 games in five days. Incredibly, they won nine of them.

Dutch Leonard and Roger Wolff threw complete game wins over Philadelphia on August 1. Mickey Haefner and Marino Pieretti did the same against the A’s on August 2. Alex Carrasquel and Niggeling went the distance in a sweep of Boston on August 3. Rookie Wally Holborow made an emergency start in the first game of the doubleheader against the Red Sox on August 4 and threw a 2-hit, 4-0 shutout.

The streak couldn’t last in the second game. The Red Sox scored in the first and third innings and then exploded for 12 runs in the fourth. Boston’s Tom McBride drove in 6 runs by himself, with a bases-loaded triple and a bases-loaded double. All the damage came off starter Sandy Ullrich and reliever Joe Cleary, who was making his major-league debut. Cleary retired one batter, allowed 7 runs and was removed from the game with a 189.00 ERA. It was his only major-league appearance. With Washington’s pitching staff depleted, Bluege brought in the freshest arm he had left — Shepard. The lefty struck out George Metkovich to end the fourth-inning carnage. And he just kept going. McBride had an RBI single off him in the top of the sixth inning, but outside of that, Shepard was effective. He gave up 3 hits, a walk and hit a batter, but he induced a couple of double plays to stay out of trouble. He threw 5-1/3 innings, struck out 2 and allowed just the 1 run for a 1.69 ERA. Shepard was 0-for-3 at the plate with one strikeout, an inning-ending double play and a game-ending grounder to the pitcher. It was a fine performance, and the only one he would have in the major leagues.

Later that August, Shepard was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross between games of a doubleheader at Griffith Stadium. He never played in the majors again, but he had inspired, and would continue to inspire, amputees coming home from Europe.

Capt. Donald Charles Pence, a former athlete at West Point, lost his right foot to gangrene. In an article he penned for The Richmond News Leader, he wrote about going to Griffith Stadium to see Shepard shagging fly balls in the outfield before the game. It helped Pence get over his negative feelings about his own artificial leg. “I’ve tried dancing, running, basketball and anything else I wanted to try. And if I ever have any doubts about doing something, I always remember Bert Shepard and say to myself, ‘Well, if Shepard can play with the Senators, you sure can do this, young fellow.’ And I expect a lot of amputees feel the same way,” Pence wrote.

Shepard is awarded a trophy for winning an amputee golf championship. Source: The Sacramento Bee, June 29, 1970.

Shepard wanted to pitch regularly again, so the Senators sent him to the Chattanooga Lookouts in July of 1946. In one of his first games, he pitched into the seventh inning and laid down a squeeze bunt that scored the first run of the 6-2 win. Shepard had a 2-2 record for the Lookouts in 7 games, with a 7.45 ERA. His control problems returned, as he walked 27 batters in 29 innings, against just 8 strikeouts.

Shepard worked in the minor leagues into 1955, sometimes as a pitcher, sometimes as a first baseman, and sometimes as a manager — and sometimes all three. He never hit or pitched particularly well; his best season came as a player/manager with the Waterbury Timers of the Colonial League in 1949. He pitched in 20 games, including 9 starts, and he had a 5-6 record and a 6.16 ERA. He threw 73 innings, fanned 21 hitters and walked 44. He also batted .229 with 4 doubles, 4 home runs, and 5 stolen bases while playing as a pitcher and first baseman. “At the beginning of this season, the other teams in the league all figured they could bunt me dizzy,” he said. “They quit when I threw out the first seven who tried it. Matter of fact, they haven’t beat one out on me yet, but I’ve beat out two on them so far this year.” Shepard was released from the team in August because the management couldn’t afford his salary. The rest of the team tried to form a committee to raise funds to pay him, and they nearly went on strike to protest his release.

During his time as a ballplayer, Shepard went through at least six additional surgeries on his leg. He hoped that each re-amputation and improved prosthetic would leave him in a better situation to play in the majors again. It never happened, and while being an advocate for amputees wasn’t his calling (he was a welder before the war), he used his celebrity for a good cause.

In 1949, he pitched at the Polo Grounds with a group of leg amputees, called the “Flat Tires,” against a team of arm amputees called the “Broken Wings.” Yes, the names are terrible, but he brought up the fact that amputees had difficult time finding work, even though they wanted jobs. He pointed out not only his story, but those of his teammates.

“Bob Anderson, the shortstop and captain of the arm amputees, owns a trucking business. He loads and unloads as many as 1,200 heavy cases of liquor a day,” Shepard pointed out. “Tom Gaffney, our third baseman, is a production man in one of the biggest advertising agencies. Lou Boivin, who lost his left arm in Holland, is a Grumman Aircraft inspector. Al Nelles, our shortstop, is an accountant. That ought to give you an idea.”

In his times where he wasn’t active in the minors, Shepard sold typewriters in New York City. After getting back into baseball in the 1950s, he pitched his final professional games for the Modesto Reds in 1955, when he was 34 years old. He stayed in California and became an aircraft plant safety engineer in Los Angeles. He played semipro ball for several years, and he won multiple golf tournaments held for amputees. He and his wife, Betty, had four children.

Shepard never knew just how he got out of the plane after it crashed. He found out in 1993, when he was reunited with Dr. Ladislaus Loidl, the German doctor who had amputated his ruined leg. He had done a lot more than that, as it turned out. Loidl had pulled Shepard out of the plane against the wishes of a crowd of German civilians who would have killed Shepard on the spot. He then forced a nearby hospital to admit the pilot and tended to him himself. The two met in Austria; Loidl had spent almost 50 years wondering about the American pilot he had saved and never knew that Shepard had lived such a distinguished life.

“When he hugged me, I said, ‘These are the arms that pulled me out of that plane,’” Shepard recalled. “People forget there were good people on both sides of the war. He was one of them.”

Bert Shepard died in his sleep on June 16, 2008, in a nursing home in Highland, Calif. He was 87 years old. His ashes are interred at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif.

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