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Lou Brissie dies at 89; WWII vet became All-Star major league pitcher

Lou Brissie was hit during WWII by a shell that injured his legs. After recovering, he rose in the baseball leagues, playing with greats including Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon.

November 29, 2013|By Bill Kirby
  • Pitcher Lou Brissie, shown in 1952, played for the Cleveland Indians after being traded by the Philadelphia A's.
Pitcher Lou Brissie, shown in 1952, played for the Cleveland Indians after… (Kidwiler Collection, Diamond…)

Lou Brissie, a decorated World War II veteran who overcame serious combat injuries to become an All-Star pitcher in the major leagues, has died. He was 89.

Brissie, a longtime resident of North Augusta, S.C., died Monday at a veterans hospital in Augusta, Ga., his family announced. The cause was not given.

Born June 5, 1924, in Anderson, S.C., and raised in nearby Ware Shoals, Leland Victor Brissie Jr. began playing baseball in a textile mill league as a 14-year-old, 6-foot-4 pitcher and first baseman.

By the time he was 16, he had more than a dozen pro offers. One of them was from Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A's. Mack signed Brissie to a contract in 1941 and sent him to play at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

But World War II intervened. Brissie twice tried to enlist before he was 18, but his parents refused to sign the papers. Finally in 1942, he enlisted, went through infantry basic training and by 1943 was deployed to Italy with the 88th Infantry Division.

On Dec. 7, 1944, Brissie's unit advancing in northern Italy was hit by a German artillery barrage. A 170 mm shell exploded directly at Brissie's feet, breaking his ankles and shattering the bones in his lower left leg into 30 pieces.

"I tried to crawl into a creek bed and up against a bank to get some kind of protection," he told the Augusta Chronicle in a 2009 interview. "I was kind of halfway out on the other side from the waist up and I rolled over. I looked down and could see one boot sticking out of the water and see the blood coming out at the instep where that foot was hit. On the other side I couldn't see my foot and at that point I thought I lost my leg. But the bones had been messed up so bad that the foot had just flopped over."

The 10-minute attack killed three officers and eight soldiers. Brissie was taken to two field hospitals where the doctors believed amputation was the only option, but he talked them out of it.

"I just told them I wouldn't be able to play baseball without a leg," he said. "I can't tell you what they were thinking, but in any event they didn't do it and that was my good fortune."

His better fortune came at the third hospital he'd been to in three days — the 300th General in Naples, Italy, where Dr. Wilbur Brubaker saved his leg with what would become the first of 23 surgeries that involved removing bone and shell fragments and eventually reconstruction. For the five or six surgeries Brubaker performed on Brissie, he received a Surgeon General commendation for revolutionary techniques.

Brissie left the military with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry Award.

It took more than a year before he could even walk with a cane. When he was strong enough, in 1946, he strapped a metal brace onto his leg and started pitching again for a textile mill team.

"Somebody said one time that great goals are not achieved over a period of time, it's every day," he later said in an interview. "You just have little small victories each day that help you. It was one of those victories, but it was a pretty good-sized one, because a lot of folks never thought I would get that far."

Encouraged, he went to Philadelphia to work out for Mack and signed again with the Athletics.

He was sent to the minor league team in Savannah, Ga., and became a star.

Brissie started the season 13-0 and continued to dominate in leading the team to a title. He finished the year 23-5, leading the league in earned-run average (1.91) and strikeouts (278). The day after clinching the pennant, Mack called him up to Philadelphia.

On Sept. 28, 1947, Brissie took the mound in Yankee Stadium as the Philadelphia starter against the team that would go on to win the World Series. But that was only half the thrill.

That was the day the Yankees had chosen to honor Babe Ruth, who was in bad shape recovering from throat surgery.

For the occasion, an old-timers exhibition was played before the regular game. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville and Dizzy Dean all participated.

Brissie lost the game to the eventual World Series champs 5-2, but the next season he was the A's opening day pitcher. In the sixth inning of that game against Boston, Ted Williams, one of baseball's all-time greatest hitters, lined a shot that struck Brissie directly on his reconstructed left leg and knocked him down.

"The only thing that I recalled thinking was that I might be right back where I started," he said.

After a few minutes on the ground, Brissie realized his leg wasn't broken and he felt he could continue.

Brissie went 14-10 in 1948 as the A's nearly rallied to win the American League pennant. He went 16-11 the next year and went to the 1949 All-Star Game. He pitched three innings in that midsummer game in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.

In 1951, he was traded to Cleveland, where he became a reliever behind one of the greatest starting rotations in baseball — Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.

After retiring in 1953 with a 44-48 record, 29 saves and 4.07 ERA, Brissie served as the national director for American Legion Baseball. He was also a scout for the Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves.

His survivors include his second wife, Diana; two daughters; a son; a stepdaughter; a stepson; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

Brissie's story and modesty earned the admiration of his peers.

"Lou Brissie's accomplishments in life and baseball reflect the very best of the 'Greatest Generation,'" Lamar Garrard, a baseball historian and friend, once said. "When you realize the insurmountable adversity that he overcame to become an All-Star major league pitcher, you see greatness."

But Brissie always shook his head when someone called him a hero.

"I don't think I am," he said. "I knew some."

Kirby writes for the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and McClatchy Newspapers.

news.obits@latimes.com

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