In honor of Veterans Day, here is an inspiring story about a major league vet.
Originally signed by the Chicago White Sox, Bert Shepard played in the minor leagues before the United States entered World War II. Drafted in 1942, Shepard flew 33 missions in a P-38 over Germany. He was shot down on a flight near Berlin in May of 1944. Farmers wanted to kill him with pitchforks, but a German officer drove them away, pulled Shepard from the plane and had him taken to a hospital, where his shot-up right leg was amputated 11 inches below the knee.
Shepard was imprisoned in a POW camp where he was given a crude artificial leg. Despite all this, he remained positive. "I had the right leg off," Shepard told me 20 years ago, "but that's the best leg to have [amputated] if you're a left-handed pitcher because you don't push off on it."
After returning to America in a prisoner exchange the winter of 1944-45, Shepard signed with the Washington Senators that spring. He worked with them as a coach and threw batting practice. And then on Aug. 4, 1945, two days before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Shepard achieved his dream by pitching in a major league game. He threw 5 1/3 innings of relief, allowing just one run and three hits.
He never pitched in the majors again, but he did pitch in the minors. He also won the national amputee golf championship several times, always making sure to walk the course. Shepard passed away at age 87 in 2008, but his determination and success in life should be an inspiration for all of us and future generations.
He is by no means alone. Here is an All-Star roster (with a four-man rotation) of other major league war veterans with remarkable stories:
C: Yogi Berra
Before his Hall of Fame career began, Berra was a seaman in the U.S. Navy and served on a landing craft support ship on D-Day, as well as in the days after. "A lot of our guys wanted to get off to go on the beach," Berra told Keith Olbermann in 2004. "I said, 'No, I'm staying on the boat.' And so I didn't go on the beach. We lost one guy. He went on the beach and lost his life." Fortunately, Berra did not lose his. Two years later, Yogi was in the majors and on his way to 15 consecutive All-Star appearances and 14 World Series.
1B: Hank Greenberg
The Hall of Famer was drafted into the U.S. peacetime military in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He homered twice in his final game before leaving. He was honorably discharged that December because he was already 30 years old. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor though, Greenberg re-enlisted and served part of his duty overseas in Burma and India. He was discharged and returned to baseball in the summer of 1945 after serving longer than almost any other major leaguer. He homered in his first game back.
2B: Wayne Terwilliger
A Marine, Terwilliger was part of the first assault wave on Iwo Jima, as well as Tinian and Saipan. A few days after one of the islands was finally secure, Terwilliger told me, he and other Marines chose sides and started playing baseball. "We didn't have any spikes so we played in the boots the Marines issued us,'' he said. "You would have an air-raid sound during the game, you would scatter and then come back later to finish." Twig went on to play nine years in the majors, then coach until he was 85 years old, spending more than 60 years in pro baseball.
3B: Jackie Robinson
While an Army lieutenant at segregated Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was court-martialed after he refused to move to the back of an Army bus. The charges were eventually dropped and Robinson continued fighting for black rights after the war when he ended baseball's color barrier in 1947 and became a hero for all Americans.
SS: Cecil Travis
The Washington Senators shortstop was a three-time All-Star and career .327 hitter when he was drafted into the Army in December of 1941. He served three-plus years and suffered severe frostbite in both feet during the Battle of the Bulge. He returned at the end of the war, but partly because of the issues stemming from the frostbite, hit just. 241 and was forced to retire after the 1947 season.
OF: Ted Williams
Teddy Ballgame not only served three years as a Marine pilot in World War II, he also served two more years in the Korean War, where he flew 37 missions. He nearly was killed on one mission when he was forced to return and crash-land his plane while it was on fire and had almost no fuel left. He homered in his final at-bat before leaving for Korea in 1952, then homered in his second at-bat after returning in 1953.
OF: Elmer Gedeon
He played five games for the Washington Senators in 1939 and then returned to the minors before serving in the Army Air Corps. He survived one crash during training stateside but was killed when his plane was shot down over Europe in 1944. He and Harry O'Neill, who played one game in the majors, were the only big leaguers killed in WWII.
OF: Garry Maddox
Known for replacing Willie Mays in center field for the Giants, Maddox served two years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, where chemical exposures resulted in painful skin rashes, worrying bumps and flesh so sensitive it became painful just to shave. Thus, in addition to his defensive skills, he also became known for his beard, long before they were the thing in baseball.
Utility: Chuck Goggin
As Hall of Fame researcher Bruce Markusen points out here, Goggin had served 13 months as a rifleman in Vietnam when he stepped on a landmine. He was blown into the air and suffered severe wounds in his legs and back. Yet he persevered, recovered and eventually reached the majors as a catcher, infielder and outfielder.
SP: Grover Cleveland Alexander
A three-time 30-game winner before World War I, "Old Pete" served in France, where mustard gas and an exploding shell caused some hearing loss as well as epilepsy issues. Nonetheless, he went 181-119 with a 2.97 ERA after the war.
SP: Warren Spahn
The winningest left-hander in baseball history, Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he later recalled how baseball trivia questions were used as passwords when Germans tried disguising themselves as American soldiers. He won 363 games in the majors, pitched to age 44, and at age 42, pitched all 16 innings of a game against Juan Marichal. "After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work," he once said. "You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy-threatened territory."
SP: Christy Mathewson
While serving in the Chemical War Service branch during WWI (and after his pitching career), Mathewson was accidentally exposed to gas in a training exercise, which weakened his immune system. (Interestingly, Ty Cobb was there as well, though he escaped unharmed.) Due to this, he later developed tuberculosis and died at age 45.
SP: Bob Feller
Feller reportedly was the first American athlete to enlist in the war, volunteering two days after Pearl Harbor. He served in the Navy aboard the USS Alabama, earning eight battle stars to go along with his eventual three no-hitters, 266 wins and world championship with Cleveland. "I'm as proud of my military record as my baseball record," Feller said. "I'm no hero. The heroes are the ones who didn't come back, the ones at the bottom of the Pacific or the beaches of Normandy."
Reliever: Hoyt Wilhelm
Nicknamed "Old Sarge" for his military service, Wilhelm fought in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. He also received a Purple Heart for taking shrapnel in his back and right hand. He pitched the rest of his career with pieces of that shrapnel still in his back. The knuckleballer's final game was July 10, 1972 -- three weeks shy of his 50th birthday -- in what would be the final appearance by a WWII veteran in the majors. (If you're interested in major league veterans, go to Gary Bedingfield's website, baseballinwartime.com.)