Obituaries

Bert Shepard; Amputation Didn't Stop MLB Pitcher

World War II pilot Bert Shepard's right leg below the knee was amputated after his fighter was shot down in 1944.
World War II pilot Bert Shepard's right leg below the knee was amputated after his fighter was shot down in 1944. (By Lori Shepler -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bert Shepard, 87, a World War II aviator who became an inspirational figure to the country when he recovered from the partial amputation of one leg and pitched for the original Washington Nationals in 1945, died June 16 at a nursing home in Highland, Calif. A brother in Indiana said Mr. Shepard had been in relatively good health and that the cause of death was not immediately apparent.

Mr. Shepard had been a minor league baseball player before he was drafted into the Army in 1942. He signed up for flight training with the Army Air Forces and was shipped to England to pilot P-38 Lightning fighters.

During his 34th mission over Germany on May 21, 1944, Mr. Shepard's plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. He later said he felt a sledgehammer-like blow to his right ankle. He lost consciousness when a bullet struck his chin. His airplane crashed at an estimated speed of 380 mph.

He was taken to a German hospital, where his right leg was amputated below the knee. Part of a bone over his right eye was removed as a result of injuries from striking the airplane's controls.

After several months in prisoner of war camps, Mr. Shepard returned to the United States in February 1945 and was fitted for an artificial leg at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When Secretary of War Robert Patterson asked what he wanted to do in life, Mr. Shepard said he wanted to play professional baseball. Patterson called Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Nationals, who arranged for a tryout at the team's training facility in College Park. (The ball club, popularly known as the Senators, was officially called the Nationals at the time.)

"This is the thing I dreamed about in that prison camp for months -- the day I could get back on a diamond," Mr. Shepard told The Washington Post.

As he tried to make the Nats as a left-handed pitcher and first baseman, he became an instant celebrity.

"Seldom has any athlete received so much publicity in so short a time," Post sports columnist Walter Haight wrote.

The military recognized Mr. Shepard's value as a morale builder and had him make well-publicized visits to veterans' and children's hospitals. He pitched batting for the Nationals and appeared in several exhibition games before being named to the team's active roster in July 1945.

Because so many ballplayers were in the military that year, he was one of several unlikely players in the big leagues. When the Nats played the St. Louis Browns, Mr. Shepard posed for photographs with the Browns' one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray.

On Aug. 4, 1945, Mr. Shepard finally got his chance to prove himself on the field. In the second game of a double-header with the Boston Red Sox, the Nationals were trailing 14-2 in the third inning. Manager Ossie Bluege called Mr. Shepard in from the bullpen.

He struck out the first batter he faced, George Metkovich, and pitched the rest of the game for the Nats. In 5 1/3 innings, he allowed one run on three hits. He had two strikeouts, as the Nats lost, 15-4.


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