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Shot Down in the Prime of Life : Bert Shepard, Who Pitched One Major League Game With One Leg, Searched for Years to Find Out Who Saved His Life

October 06, 1995|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bert Shepard fell 2,129 games short of tying Lou Gehrig's previous record for consecutive baseball games played.

He never won a game as a major league pitcher. He even took a back seat to Pete Gray as a wartime baseball oddity.

Shepard is a record-book blip. On Aug. 4, 1945, more than a year after his right foot had been shot off while he was flying a mission over Germany, Shepard took the mound for the Washington Senators.

Boston had a lopsided lead over Washington when Shepard, fitted with an artificial leg below the knee, came in with the bases loaded. The left-hander from Dana, Ind., struck out George (Catfish) Metkovich and completed the last five innings, giving up one run and three hits.

He never pitched again in the big leagues.

"A very important 5 1/3 innings," says Shepard, 75, now retired and living in Hesperia, Calif. "I got my name in the box score. Walter Alston got to bat once. That's his history in baseball [as a player], batting once."

It disappointed Shepard that he was denied another opportunity and that his place in baseball lore was overshadowed by a more famous amputee, Gray, also in 1945. But that disappointment paled in comparison to the question Shepard expected to carry to his grave.

Why was he still alive?

"This had been bothering me all my life," Shepard says.

Everything after May 21, 1944, the day his low-flying P-38 fighter was shot down over farmland near Ludwigslust, Shepard considered borrowed time.

His life was always a puzzle, with one key piece missing.

U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Shepard soared off that May day on his 34th mission, an all-out strafing prelude to the pending Normandy invasion. A good enough left-hander to have been signed by the White Sox before he was drafted, Shepard was also manager of his camp baseball team.

"That day was our opening game," Shepard recalls. "I wasn't scheduled to fly, but I said, 'Hell, I can be back in time for the game.' "

The Germans had other plans.

After shooting up a few ground targets--a locomotive, a train, an oil tank--Shepard was headed home, flying about 70 miles northwest of Berlin, when he heard radio reports of enemy fire.

Shepard dropped his P-38 to 20 feet above ground and was vacating the area when he passed over a cluster of trees and felt something terrible, "like a sledgehammer," pounding his right foot.

"I could tell it was off because I picked up my foot and felt it coming loose at the ankle," he says. "I must have passed right over the gun."

Shepard radioed headquarters. "There goes the ballgame," he remembers saying just before another bullet clipped his chin, leaving him unconscious.

He woke up two weeks later, in a German hospital, with orderlies staring in stone silence as they awaited his reaction to a cruel discovery.

But Shepard already knew about his foot.

"So I pull the sheet back and there's the leg," he says. "I looked up at them and said, 'Thank you for saving my life.' "

Shepard could not ascertain, though, who had saved it, or why.

American P-38 fighters were despised in the region where Shepard's plane went down. Civilians were fed Nazi propaganda--some of it true, Shepard says--accusing American pilots of strafing civilians.

When your plane went down, if the crash didn't kill you, a mob of angry farmers probably would.

Yet Shepard lived to spend the next eight months in prisoner-of-war camps. Not until he reached Meiningen, Stalag 9-C, did he consider baseball again. Dr. Don Erry, a Canadian prisoner, constructed Shepard's first prosthesis out of scrap metal found around the prison camp.

Shepard started throwing.

"I was surprised how well I could get around on it," he said of the leg.

Shepard says he was not abused as a prisoner, possibly because the commanding officer had a son who was being treated well at a prison camp in Canada.

In February 1945, after a prisoner exchange, Shepard sailed into New York Harbor. He remembers laughing at the song that blared from the docks.

"We're coming back from prison camp and the song is 'Don't Fence Me In,' " Shepard says. "Funny as hell."

It was good to be home. Home meant baseball. Summers in Indiana for Shepard meant shagging balls for the local semipro team and impressing anyone he could with his formidable curveball.

While awaiting a new artificial leg at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, Shepard was one of four servicemen summoned for commendation by Robert Patterson, then undersecretary of war.

Patterson asked Shepard what he wanted to do with his life.

"I'd like to play professional baseball," Shepard said.

"You can't do it with a leg off, can you?" Patterson asked.

"I think I can," Shepard answered.

Patterson called his good friend, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators.

Shepard had his tryout.

"Well, Mr. Griffith was not going to say no to the undersecretary of war," Shepard recalls.

Shepard received his "new" leg on March 10, and was in a Senator uniform March 14. Washington Post sportswriter Walter Haight drove him to the stadium.

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