Bert Shepard, 87, an Inspirational Amputee, Dies
The New York Times, June 20, 2008
His death, at a nursing home, was announced by his son Justin.
Shepard pitched in only one major league game, but his impressive relief appearance against the Boston Red Sox at Washingtons Griffith Stadium transcended the world of baseball.
When Shepard entered that game on Aug. 4, 1945, he was still a lieutenant in the Army Air Forces, commuting to the ball park from Walter Reed Army Hospital. A native of Dana, Ind., Shepard had pitched and played first base in the low minor leagues for the Chicago White Sox organization before becoming a pilot.
In May 1944, Shepard was strafing a truck convoy north of Berlin when his P-38 Lightning fighter was downed by antiaircraft fire. A German military doctor pulled him from the wreckage and, at gunpoint, held back farmers threatening Shepard with pitchforks.
Shepard awoke in a hospital as a prisoner of war, his mangled right leg amputated below the knee. In February 1945, he returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange ship with an artificial leg fashioned by a Canadian at his prisoner of war camp.
In March, Robert Patterson, the undersecretary of war, visiting Shepard, learned of his ambitions to play baseball again and arranged for a tryout with the Senators, who were conducting spring training at the University of Maryland. Using a new artificial leg, and officially listed as a coach, Shepard pitched effectively in exhibition games against the Norfolk Naval Training Station team and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On Aug. 4, he was summoned from the bullpen against the Red Sox in the fourth inning with the Senators trailing, 14-2.
I came in with the bases loaded, and I struck out George Metkovich to get us out of it," Shepard told The International Herald Tribune in 1993. Though the score gave the Senators little chance of winning, there was much more pressure on me than it seemed, Shepard said.
If I would have failed, he told the newspaper, then the manager says, I knew I shouldnt have put him in with that leg. But the leg was not a problem, and I didnt want anyone saying it was.
As a left-handed pitcher, Shepard relied on his left leg, the rear one, for balance and for driving off in his delivery.
He pitched five and a third innings against the Red Sox, giving up one run and three hits.
Although the Senators did not use Shepard again, he was back in the public eye Aug. 31 when Secretary Patterson, accompanied by General Omar Bradley, awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross in a ceremony at Griffith Stadium.
Bert was pretty damn good, his former teammate, outfielder George Case, once said. It was amazing. Walter Reed was just up the road from Griffith Stadium.
Bert was constantly going up there to show what hed done. And wed have a couple of amputees at every game. Theyd see Bert throw batting practice.
In the winter of 1946, Shepard made a national tour of centers for the treatment of war amputees.
Shepard pitched in the minor leagues for several years after the war but had a series of operations on what remained of his right leg and never got another chance at the major leagues.
He later worked as a salesman for IBM and a safety engineer and a specialist in employing the handicapped for Hughes Aircraft. He won the national amputee golf championship in 1968 and 1971.
In addition to his son Justin, of Hesperia, Calif., Shepard is survived by his wife, Betty, of Los Angeles; his son Preston, of Hesperia; his daughters Penny Shepard, of Oklahoma City, and Karen Shepard, of Los Angeles; his brothers Martin, Gene and John, all of Indiana; and nine grandchildren.
Shepard remained intrigued by how he had come to survive his fighter-plane crash. In 1992, he learned that the German military doctor who had saved him was an Austrian named Ladislaus Loidl.
This Week in Baseball, produced by Major League Baseball Productions, arranged for Shepard to meet Loidl at his home in Vienna, and it took along tapes of Shepards pitching days.
In interviews, Shepard always discounted his handicap. I was the type of person who never overrated my opponents, he told The Associated Press in 1990. Theyve got two legs and two hands, the same as me.