Lou Brissie, who pitched in the majors after severe wounds in World War II, dies at 89

Lou Brissie, who made an inspiring recovery from severe leg wounds during World War II to become an all-star pitcher in the major leagues, died Nov. 25 at a veterans hospital in Augusta, Ga. He was 89.

The cause was cardiopulmonary failure, his wife, Diana Brissie, said.

(AP) - Leland “Lou” Brissie rears back on his war-shattered left leg as he limbers up his arm at the A's spring training camp at West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 4, 1948.

**CORRECTS LAST NAME TO ROPER ** ** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 4 **Pastor Fred Phelps, right, holds his great-granddaughter, Zion Phelps-Roper, as he sings happy birthday to family members during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. Phelps and his tight-knit congregation travel the country preaching damnation to a nation of sinners. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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In 1940, Mr. Brissie was a lanky 16-year-old left-hander pitching in an industrial league in South Carolina when he began to attract the attention of baseball scouts. He agreed to join the Philadelphia Athletics after the team owner and manager, Connie Mack, said he would pay Mr. Brissie’s college tuition for three years.

But with the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Brissie left Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., after a year to join the Army. He was a corporal serving in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy when his unit was attacked by German artillery on Dec. 7, 1944.

Eleven soldiers were killed. A shell exploded at Mr. Brissie’s feet, and he was struck by shrapnel. Both feet were broken, and his lower left leg was shattered. A gaping wound was filled with mud and debris as he tried to crawl to safety across a creek.

Field doctors told him the leg could not be saved and would have to be amputated.

“You can’t take my leg off. I’m a ballplayer,” Mr. Brissie said, according to a 2009 biography by Ira Berkow.

“You will die if you don’t,” a doctor said.

“Doc,” Mr. Brissie replied, “I’ll take my chances.”

He was taken to a military hospital in Naples for the first of 23 operations on his leg.

It took a year before Mr. Brissie was able to walk with crutches. By 1946, he was pitching in his old textile-mill league in South Carolina.

Mack, who had stayed in touch with Mr. Brissie, offered him a chance to pitch in the minor leagues. His left leg was more than an inch shorter than his right, and he had to wear a bulky protective brace, but Mr. Brissie reported in 1947 to the Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League.

He finished the season with a stellar record of 23-5, a league-leading earned run average of 1.91 and 278 strikeouts — 107 more than his closest competitor. At the end of the year, he was called up to pitch for the Athletics. His first game was in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1947, facing Hall of Fame greats Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio.

Mr. Brissie lost the game, but he began the next season on Philadelphia’s big-league roster as his recovery captivated people throughout the country.

“There have been many stories about servicemen who barely escaped death and returned to play ball again,” sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote. “Lou Brissie’s case puts him on top.”

The 6-foot-4 Mr. Brissie seldom spoke about his injured leg, which was painful and often infected.

“I would put olive oil on the leg, wrap it in an ace bandage,” he said in a 2005 interview with Baseball Digest magazine, “then cover it with a sanitary sock before finally putting a magnesium plate, that had holes in it so the leg could breathe, over it for protection.”

His first start of the 1948 season came in the second game of an opening-day doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. In the sixth inning, a line drive off the bat of Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams struck Mr. Brissie in his left leg, causing him to fall. As players rushed to the mound, Mr. Brissie looked up and jokingly asked Williams why he didn’t pull the ball to right field instead of hitting it up the middle.

He stood and pitched a complete game, beating the Red Sox, 4-2. In a dramatic act of vindication, he struck out Williams in the ninth inning.

Leland Victor Brissie Jr. was born June 5, 1924, in Anderson, S.C., and grew up in Ware Shoals, S.C. His father was a mechanic and drove motorcycles in daredevil shows.

In 1948, Mr. Brissie was 14-10 for Philadelphia, followed by a 16-11 season in 1949, when he was named to the American League all-star team, alongside Williams and DiMaggio. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 1951 and retired two years later. He had a career record of 44-48, with a 4.07 ERA.

Later, Mr. Brissie was national coordinator of the American Legion baseball program and served on the president’s physical fitness council. He was a baseball scout in the 1960s, then worked in employee relations for private companies and later for a South Carolina state worker-training agency. He retired in 2000.

His first wife, Dorothy “Dot” Morgan, died in 1967 after 23 years of marriage. Their son, Ronald Brissie, died in 2002.

Survivors include his wife of 38 years, the former Diana Ingate Smith of North Augusta, S.C.; two children from his first marriage, Vicki Bishop of Kingstree, S.C., and Rob Brissie of Greenville, S.C.; a daughter from his second marriage, Jennifer Brissie of London; two stepchildren, Charlotte Klein of Aiken, S.C., and Aaron Smith of Grovetown, Ga.; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

For the last 20 years of his life, Mr. Brissie used crutches but refused pain medicine. He often spoke to veterans wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It was painful, and it was hard,” he told an ESPN writer in 2007 about the recovery from his wartime wounds. “I believe in my heart that I’m probably the luckiest guy ever to get to the big leagues.”

 
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