“Well, that’s a big moment in your life – it’s a chance to get your name in a major league box score,” he recalled years later. “What’s going to happen? A person’s gotta go out there and find out, that’s all he can do. You have to face it. I didn’t want to let the people down that had the faith in me, because they’re sticking their neck out to put me in.”
Shepard’s major league debut that afternoon in 1945 – 75 years ago this month – capped a remarkable tale of perseverance that began when his P-38 Lightning fighter was shot down in Germany on May 21, 1944. He was scheduled to pitch for his 55th Fighter Group baseball team in England later that day, but as his plane went down, the 24-year-old pilot radioed his fellow pilots: “Tell the boys I won’t be back for the game.”
Shepard was flying 380 mph northeast of Berlin when he was hit; his right foot was shot off and he fractured his head. Shepard’s plane crashed into a field, and furious pitchfork-wielding German farmers surrounded him, but a German military doctor came to the young pilot’s rescue – keeping the farmers back at gunpoint.
Shepard didn’t see any of this. He was unconscious and woke up in a German hospital a few days later, his right leg amputated below the knee. After his transfer to a wounded POW camp, a Canadian medic fashioned a crude metal artificial leg, allowing Shepard to run, and throw with fellow prisoners.
He returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange ship in February 1945, and while recuperating at Walter Reed General Hospital, Shepard received a visit from the undersecretary of war, Robert P. Patterson, who asked him what he wanted to do. Shepard, a former minor league pitcher and first baseman, said he wanted to pitch again.
“Well you can’t do that, can you?” Patterson asked.
“Yes I can,” Shepard replied.
Patterson reached out to Senators owner Clark Griffith, a D.C. institution who in his long tenure in Washington had befriended presidents, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members. Griffith told Patterson to send Shepard to the ballpark – “just to be kind,” Shepard thought – with a chance to make the team.
The young pitcher joined the Senators in College Park that March, where the team was training because a wartime ban on unnecessary travel prevented them from going south for spring training. Working out with the Senators — who were also known as the Nationals — Shepard became an instant media sensation. Newspaper reporters, magazine writers, newsreel cameramen and photographers were all there to document the story.
“Hero of European Bombing, One Leg Off, Seeks Baseball Fame With Nats,” The Post blared in an eight-column headline above photos of Shepard hitting, fielding and pitching.
The 25-year-old lefty told reporters that the military had suggested he do special service visiting wounded veterans. “But the way I figure it,” Shepard said, “it’ll do the boys – and me – more good if they just hear about me when I’m playing with some professional team.”
That 1945 season was the final year of wartime baseball, an unusual era when many of the game’s best players were fighting overseas, forcing teams to use some men who were either too old to serve or designated 4-F — unfit for service. The St. Louis Browns, for instance, had a one-armed outfielder that year named Pete Gray, who was an inspiration to Shepard: “If Gray can do it, why can’t I?”
Shepard impressed reporters and fans at the workout.
“This is the thing I dreamed about over there for months,” he said. “Sure I’m serious about playing ball and I believe that I can.” Washington wound up signing him as a coach with a chance to make the team as a player.
He had a sense of humor about his disability, joking with Washington Post reporter Walter Haight, who had been assigned to cover him: “Haight, they tell me you have been writing about three-legged horses all your life and now you are going in for one-legged ballplayers.”
Shepard pitched batting practice (with several Senators raving about his curveball), and appeared in a few exhibition games against non-MLB teams. In July, he started an interleague war relief exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Griffith Stadium in Washington.
Billed as a “special attraction” for the fundraiser, Shepard gave up two runs in four innings and was the winning pitcher in front of 24,000 fans — a huge crowd for that time. After the game, a beaming Shepard signed autographs for wounded veterans who made the trip down Walter Reed.
The Senators rewarded him by putting him on the active roster, but it would be a couple more weeks before he got in a game. In a typical Senators season — like the previous one, when they finished in last place — Shepard might have seen more action. But in 1945 Washington was mounting a surprising bid for the pennant, and Shepard’s chance didn’t come until an overtaxed pitching staff wilted in its eighth game in four days.
On Aug. 4, the Senators won the first game of a doubleheader, their seventh victory in a row, but things unraveled in the second game. In the top of the fourth, the Boston Red Sox tattooed two Washington pitchers for a dozen runs, and the Senators just couldn’t get the final out. So Manager Ossie Bluege summoned Shepard from the bullpen to face George “Catfish” Metkovich, who had already hit an RBI single earlier in the inning. Striding and landing on his artificial leg, Shepard struck out Metkovich to end the rally, receiving a standing ovation from the 13,000 Senators fans at the ballpark.
Shepard came back to pitch the final five innings, giving up just one run on three hits and one walk in what turned out to be his only major league appearance, his ERA frozen at a svelte 1.69. His feat became an inspiration to wounded veterans across the country.
Ironically, the pitcher that Shepard relieved, Joe Cleary, also made his only major league appearance that afternoon, but it didn’t work out so well for him. Cleary gave up seven earned runs in one-third of an inning for an unsightly 189.00 ERA.
The Senators nearly won the pennant that year, finishing just 1½ games out of first place, the closest Washington would get to the World Series until last year. After the season, Shepard toured the nation for the Army, visiting amputees with the message “that a fellow with one leg or one arm isn’t necessarily relegated to the sedentary life,” as Post columnist Shirley Povich put it. Flying his own plane to the hospitals, Shepard put on displays such as running the 60-yard dash and dribbling a basketball down the court.
Shepard tried to make the team again the next year, but with the best players returning from war, Washington only offered him a coaching job. Shepard chose instead to pitch in the minors, where he would toil for several seasons.
He always wondered who had saved him from the angry German farmers, and about 50 years after the crash, Shepard finally discovered it was an Austrian named Ladislaus Loidl. In 1993 the MLB show “This Week in Baseball” arranged for Shepard to meet Loidl in Vienna for a reunion.
“I prayed for this,” said Shepard, who died in 2008. “And, after half a century my dream has incredibly come true.”
But another dream had remained out of reach for Shepard, which he blamed on teams not giving him a fair shake because of his disability.
“I’d like to sneak into some small town, get a job playing ball and conceal the fact that I have an artificial leg,” he once said during his struggle to get more pitching opportunities in the ’40s. “Then I’d show you how to make good. I don’t want sympathy.”
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals], and head of Sport PR at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm in Washington.
Read more Retropolis: