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OBITUARIES | Bert Shepard, 1920 - 2008

WWII pilot lost leg, made the big leagues

June 20, 2008|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Bert Shepard, a pilot who lost part of his right leg in a World War II mission over Germany but returned home to pitch 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.

A minor league baseball player who was born in Dana, Ind., in 1920, Shepard joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 and was stationed in England. On May 21, 1944, having flown 33 missions in P-38 fighter planes, Lt. Shepard took off for another, hoping to be back in time to pitch for his air base team that afternoon. He never made it.

On his way back from a strafing run about 70 miles northwest of Berlin, Shepard heard radio chatter warning of enemy fire. Flying low, just above a clump of trees, he felt the first shot hit his right foot -- "like a sledgehammer," he said later -- and the plane soon crashed into a field.

Shepard woke up in a German hospital, where doctors had amputated his right leg several inches below the knee and treated a serious head wound.

"I pull the sheet back and there's the leg," he told The Times in 1995. "I looked up at them and said, 'Thank you for saving my life.' "

He spent several months in a prisoner-of-war camp, where a fellow detainee made him a crude artificial leg from scrap metal.

In early 1945, back in the States after a POW 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, an undeterred Shepard said that if he couldn't fly combat missions, he wanted to play baseball again.

"Being a left-handed pitcher and a left-handed hitter," Shepard told The Times years later, "the right leg was the ideal one to lose."

Patterson persuaded Clark Griffith, then owner of the Washington Senators, to arrange a tryout for Shepard.

"I think Mr. Clark Griffith did it out of sympathy more than anything," Shepard told The Times in 1973. "You know, 'Give him a uniform and a ball to play with over in the corner.' "

Shepard had played in the minors with the Chicago White Sox organization. Now, wearing a prosthetic device, he impressed the Senators enough that they signed him to the team. In between touring hospitals and visiting wounded veterans, he pitched batting practice and exhibitions and coached with the Senators.

On Aug. 4, 1945, with Washington trailing the visiting Boston Red Sox, 14-2, in the fourth inning of the second game of a doubleheader, Shepard was summoned to the mound. With the bases loaded, he struck out George "Catfish" Metkovich to end the inning, then he finished the game.

Two days later, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The war would soon be over, the regular major leaguers would return from service to reclaim their roster spots, and Shepard would lose his place with the Senators, who were locked in a pennant race with the Detroit Tigers.

For the record, his line for one day of pitching in the major leagues was 5 1/3 innings, one run, three hits, one walk and two strikeouts, with an earned-run average of 1.69.

His parents, back in Indiana and unable to afford a train ticket to Washington, saw him pitch only by watching newsreels in the hometown theater.

The Senators released Shepard, and he went on to play with a team of traveling all-stars in 1946. He returned to Walter Reed for follow-up surgery on his leg, and the recovery period stretched to 2 1/2 years. He played and managed in the minor leagues and semipro baseball, but his career was essentially over by his late 20s.

Shepard is believed to be the only amputee to pitch in the major leagues. Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder who lost his limb in a childhood accident, played for the St. Louis Browns, also in 1945.

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 for many years and divorced a few years ago.

He pressed for opportunities for the disabled, saying, "A handicapped person's biggest problem is a prospective employer who's made up his mind that you can't do something."

Something else Shepard did well was play golf. He made a point of saying he always walked the course instead of riding a cart, and he won the National Amputee Golf Championship tournament in 1968 and '71.

Shepard maintained his optimistic view on life, telling a Times reporter, "The guys who get bitter after some tough luck were like that in the first place. They're just making excuses."

Shepard is survived by daughters Karen of Los Angeles and Penny of Tulsa, Okla.; sons Justin and Preston of Hesperia; nine grandchildren; and brothers John, Gene and Martin of Clinton, Ind.

Services are pending.

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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