Dec. 1, 2020:
Thanks to the 1949 film starring Jimmy Stewart, Monty Stratton remains the most famous ballplayer who came back after a leg amputation to play professionally again. Yet longtime Washington baseball fans know that an even more inspiring story is that of a man who pitched for the Senators.
On August 4, 1945, with Washington getting blown out by the Red Sox at Griffith Stadium, a rookie left-hander named Bert Shepard came in to pitch for Washington. It was the second game of a doubleheader, the fourth of five straight twin bills for the Nats.
With the Senators in a pennant race with the Tigers and Boston having scored 12 runs in the top of the fourth, Washington manager Ossie Bluege did not want to wear out another regular on his pitching staff. So he called on Shepard, who had thrown batting practice all season but recently had been added to the active roster, to make his big league debut.
With the bases loaded, Shepard struck out his first batter on 3-2 pitch to end the inning. He went on to pitch the last five innings in a game the Nats lost, 15-4. The 25-year-old lefty gave up a run on three hits, walked one, hit a batter and fanned two.
Shepard pitched as well as he did despite having lost his right leg below the knee after his P-38 fighter plane was shot down over Germany in 1944. He spent eight months in a German prisoner-of-war camp, where fellow prisoners managed to fashion an artificial limb for him. Surprised at how well he could move with his prosthesis, Shepard began thinking about playing baseball again. He had pitched in the low minors before the war, although without much success.
Released as part of prisoner exchange and returned to the states, Lt. Shepard told his superiors he still hoped to pitch professionally. At the urging of Robert P. Patterson, soon to be the Secretary of War, Senators owner Clark Griffith gave Shepard a spring tryout. Griffith was impressed enough to hire the veteran as a coach and batting practice pitcher. Shepard honed his control in that role and was named to start in a July exhibition between the Senators and a military all-star team full of pro players, one of two such exhibitions in which he pitched well.
Had Washington not been in a pennant race with the Tigers, Shepard likely would have been given another opportunity after the Boston game. But the Senators got back pitchers Walt Masterson and Pete Appleton from the service later in August, strengthening what already was a solid mound staff.
Still, Shepard kept at it, coaching, managing (1949, ’52 and ’54) and pitching (1946, ’49 and ’55) in the minors until he retired from pro ball after the 1955 season.
He died at age 87 in 2008. His life story is told by Terry Bohn as part of SABR’s BioProject.
Shepard, a true American hero, achieved his goal of pitching in the majors and served as an inspiration for other amputee veterans.