BASEBALL'S PURPLE HEART GAME
“Hero” is a term that has lost a lot of its true meaning in recent decades because it is often applied indiscriminately to those who are simply talented or hard-working. Lou Brissie, who suffered devastating leg wounds in World War II and who went on to become an All-Star pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics, was a true hero. He died on November 25 at a veteran’s hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, at 89.
Despite suffering a serious leg injury during World War II, Lou Brissie went on to become a star pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics.
National Pastime Museum executive director Frank Ceresi knew Brissie as well other baseball players who defended the nation in combat, such as Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and Bob Feller. Shortly after Brissie’s death Ceresi said, “These were giants of their day — warriors on the ball field and the battlefield. Real men. Of all these heroes, I must say that Lou Brissie was one of the real special ones, with a ferocious spirit that helped him survive but gentle as can be. A gentleman and real hero but never ever one to brag.” Ceresi added, “I would like to thank Paul for letting me express my feeling toward my friend Lou Brissie. He may be in a better place now, but his influence and spirit will be with us forever.”
Perhaps the best way to honor Brissie’s memory and the memory of those in the most elite baseball league of all — disabled, determined and courageous players — is to flash back to a game played May 18, 1948, when Cleveland Indians rookie pitcher Gene Bearden was scheduled to make his third start of the season. He was set to pitch against the Philadelphia Athletics at Cleveland Stadium in the first night game of the year for the Indians. The opposing pitcher would be Brissie. The two had never met before.
On May 18, 1948, Cleveland’s rookie pitcher Gene Bearden faced Lou Brissie of the Athletics. Like Brissie, Bearden was wounded during World War II and had been awarded the Purple Heart.
Bearden and Brissie were both large, tall (6-foot-3 and 6-4, respectively) southpaws with a strong common bond: Both had been awarded the Purple Heart, a medal given to those wounded in combat. Both had struggled mightily to overcome the injuries they sustained half a world apart during World War II.
Ten days before the match-up, Bearden had pitched his first major league game, a masterful three-hit 6-1 victory against the Washington Senators fueled by his devastating knuckleball. This was also the day on which Bearden revealed publicly for the first time that he had been severely wounded in the war. He told his story to Harry Jones of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Bearden had been a crewman on the cruiser USS Helena, one of the few lucky ships anchored at Pearl Harbor that had survived when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. His luck held until the early morning of July 6, 1943, when his ship was in the Kula Gulf in the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands as part of an American task force battling the Japanese. Bearden was in the engine room when the first torpedo hit and the order was given to abandon ship. As he scrambled up the ladder leading out of the engine room, a second torpedo hit and the ladder crumbled, hurling him to the deck. With his knee twisted and crushed and his head split open by flying shards of metal, he lay unconscious in the pit of a sinking ship.
“Someone pulled me out,” he told Jones, “They told me later that it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.”
In a semiconscious state, he spent the next two days in a rubber life raft until he was finally rescued by an American destroyer and shipped back to the United States. He was operated on at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, in August.
For the better part of the next two years, Bearden was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out, and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Bearden had been told he would never play baseball again. It certainly seemed out of the question, a conclusion held by everyone but Bearden. He still wore an aluminum plate and screw in his knee and an aluminum plate in the back of his head but had kept this to himself until after his first big game “because they might get the idea that I’m not strong enough to pitch.”
Brissie’s story was no less compelling. He had been wounded on December 2, 1944, when his infantry unit suffered an artillery barrage while fighting in Italy, and he was hit with 21 shell fragments that shattered his left shinbone. Army doctors wanted to amputate his leg but Brissie refused.
After two painful years and 23 major operations, he was able to return to baseball with a metal brace on what remained of his leg, having been signed by the A’s on December 15, 1946. His comeback began with Savannah in the Southern League, where he won 25 games in 1947. Later that year the A’s called him up, and on September 28, he realized his “life’s ambition to pitch in the major leagues.”
So on the unseasonably cold night of May 18, 1948, the game got under way. In the crowd of 44,231 was Dr. William Brubaker, who had performed the first batch of the 33 operations on Brissie’s left leg. Meanwhile, Indians owner Bill Veeck was recovering at the Cleveland Clinic from a second amputation on an infected leg wounded in a combat zone in the South Pacific where he served as a volunteer member of the United States Marine Corps.
Injuries sustained while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II eventually cost Cleveland owner Bill Veeck his leg.
Brubaker, who had received a surgeon general’s commendation for revolutionary techniques in saving Brissie’s leg, was there to cheer for his former patient, but to no avail. Bearden pitched the full nine innings, giving up only six hits, and won 6-1 putting the Indians in first place with a .004 margin over the A’s to regain the lead they had lost two weeks earlier. Brissie faced only 10 batters before being relieved.
The reliever was Bob Savage, who himself had three Purple Hearts. The first was for a shrapnel wound in the back in Italy on November 5, 1943, making him the first major league player wounded in the war. The second was for wounds on his leg, wrist and face from artillery shells fired during the invasion of the South of France in 1944 that put him in the hospital for eight weeks before he returned to his unit, which was involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He was awarded a third Purple Heart for a minor injury he received in a victory celebration at the end of the war when a spent bullet knocked his helmet off.
Savage came into the game that night with a hunk of shrapnel still in his shoulder. He was relieved, in turn, by Charles “Bubba” Harris, who had served in the U.S. Navy at the end of the war — the only pitcher in the game without a Purple Heart.
Bearden, Brissie, Savage — and Veeck for that matter — were not alone in prevailing over their war injuries and disabilities. Indians first baseman Eddie Robinson was in the Navy when, in 1945, a bone tumor paralyzed his right leg. He was operated on and wore a brace that he tossed away on the first day of spring training in 1946. Like Bearden and Brissie, he was told at one point that he would never play baseball again.
Unlike Savage, whose baseball career had actually peaked earlier, Bearden and Brissie went on to greater fame after the game.
The 1948 season was a complete success for Bearden, who had a 20-7 record, a league-leading 2.43 ERA, six shutouts and 15 complete games. Bearden led the Indians to the world championship by beating the Boston Red Sox in a one-game American League playoff, then won a World Series game and protected the lead as a relief pitcher in another win against the Boston Braves.
Brissie went on to post a 14-10 record for Philadelphia in 1948, followed by a 16-11 season in 1949 when he was named to the American League All-Star team. He was traded to the Indians in 1951 and retired two years later. He had a career record of 44-48, with a 4.07 ERA.
But as with so many others, the level of service and courage was not unusual for players from what Tom Brokaw has termed “the Greatest Generation.” Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, and Leon Day took part in the D-Day invasion of Europe, and Monte Irvin went in after the initial assault. That assault at Normandy also claimed the lives of five minor leaguers: Lefty Brewer, Sylvester Sturges, Elmer Wright, Ordway “Hal” Cisgen, and Joe Pinder.
Unlike Bert Shepard, Yogi Berra, Leon Day and Monte Irvin returned from military service to the major leagues and went on to have Hall of Fame careers. Shepard, who had hoped to resume his pitching career after the war, lost a leg after being shot down over Germany. In 1945 with the Washington Senators, he became the first player to pitch in the majors with an artificial leg.
Although he was out of baseball by the time of the Purple Heart game, one cannot write about this generation of wounded warriors without mentioning Bert Shepard, a World War II fighter pilot who lost his right leg when he was shot down over Germany. Nonetheless, he went on to pitch in relief in a single game on August 4, 1945, for the Washington Senators against the Boston Red Sox, becoming an inspiration for the most seriously wounded veterans and for the nation as a whole.
Shepard actually pitched when he was still a lieutenant in the Army Air Forces, commuting to Griffith Stadium from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. Summoned in the fourth inning with the Senators trailing 14-2, he pitched 5 1/3 innings against the Red Sox, giving up one run and three hits.
The powerful symbolism of the May 18, 1948. game matching Brissie and Bearden was barely noted at the time and almost immediately forgotten, but the Purple Heart veterans who played on that cold night so many years ago were heroic in the truest sense of the word — and that should never be forgotten.
They Also Served
Other veterans who were at Cleveland Stadium that night in Cleveland who had also been in the war included Cleveland’s Bob Feller, Ken Keltner and Larry Doby and Philadelphia’s Sam Chapman, and Barney McCosky. Hall of Fame pitcher Feller had been a gun captain on the USS Alabama involved in a number of combat operations.
A Philadelphia A’s pitcher who did not start that night was Canadian-born Phil Marchildon, a former Canadian Air Force gunner whose plane was shot down over Germany in August 1944. He was captured and imprisoned as a POW in Stalag Luft III — an infamous Nazi hellhole said to have been the camp portrayed in the film The Great Escape — until he was liberated nine months later. Marchildon’s scars were not physical but psychological; as Ralph Berger put it in his Society for American Baseball Research profile of the man: “Marchildon survived the war, [but] like many others he didn’t recover from it.”
Several other veterans were at the Purple Heart Game of 1948 including Bob Feller, Ken Keltner and Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians and Sam Chapman and Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Author’s Note: Former U.S. Navy officer Paul Dickson is proud to write about America’s veterans. His most recent baseball book is Bill Veeck—Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.