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A True American Hero

Those of us who grew up when television was considered kosher in its black and white days remember “The Stratton Story,” a 1949 movie that aired often on TV in the ’50s starring Jimmy Stewart as Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, who lost a leg in an off-season hunting accident in 1938 near his Greenville, Texas home.


Stratton’s right leg was amputated eight inches above the knee and he tried a comeback equipped with an artificial limb. June Allyson played Stratton’s wife, urging and helping him get back on the baseball field.


Stratton eventually pitched and won 18 games in the low minors in Texas, and even though it wasn’t the big leagues, it was good enough for a happy ending. (Stratton went on to operate a 52-acre Greenville, Texas, ranch until his passing in 1982.)


A much more interesting movie would have been “The Shepard Story.” Unlike Stratton, who accidentally shot himself, Bert Shepard was shot by Nazi pilots, lost a leg, and pitched in a big league game.


Here’s the story.


In 1941, Robert Earl “Bert” Shepard was a 20-year-old pitcher who also played first base and the outfield in the minor leagues. After Pear Harbor, he volunteered for military service with the Army Air Force. By 1944 he was piloting air strikes against Nazi positions.


Shepard was scheduled for his 34th bombing mission on May 22, 1944. But he was scheduled to pitch and manage his air force base team on May 21. Shepard volunteered for another mission that day, figuring he could strafe an enemy airfield 70 miles northwest of Berlin and return in time for the game.


Mission accomplished, Shepard began his return. The plan was to quickly exit the plane and change from his army uniform to his baseball togs. While flying at 380 miles per hour, Shepard was warned of enemy fire in the area. He nosed downward and leveled off above a clump of trees when the first shot tore through both the plane and his leg. Despite losing consciousness and control of the plane, he somehow managed to land.


He woke up three days later in a German hospital with a serious head wound and his right leg amputated several inches below the knee.


The details of the previous 72 hours were soon made clear to Lt. Shepard. After he crash-landed in a German field, local farmers ran to the scene and were about to beat the downed American pilot to death with pitchforks and other farm tools. But an Austrian doctor serving with the Luftwaffe happened to be driving by with two soldiers and stopped the farmers.


The doctor quickly determined that the unconscious airman’s mangled leg was almost severed and would have to be amputated and that his other injuries would also have to be quickly addressed. The doctor and soldiers carefully placed Shepard in their vehicle and rushed him to the local hospital.


A colonel in charge of the hospital refused to admit an enemy combatant. The Austrian doctor called a general in charge of the German Air Ministry in Berlin to overrule the colonel. Permission was granted and Shepard was operated on. A two-inch square of the frontal sinus bone over the right eye was also removed.


Shepard spent the next few months recovering in the German hospital before being sent to a prisoner of war camp in central Germany. A Canadian prisoner who happened to be a medic familiar with amputees fashioned an artificial limb made of scrap metal.


Shepard was able to navigate without a crutch and began to play catch and participate in makeshift ballgames at the camp.


An international prisoner-of-war trade of brought Lt. Shepard back to the U.S., where he received a new prosthesis while hospitalized at Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital. Missing leg or not, Shepard had the same goal before he was shot down —  to pitch in the major leagues.


Assistant Secretary of War Robert Patterson paid Shepard a visit and learned of his desire to return to the baseball field. Patterson felt Shepard could inspire other injured servicemen.  He called Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, urging him to offer Shepard a tryout.


The patriotic Griffith bought the idea and called Senators manager Ossie Bluege. A tryout was arranged for March 14, 1945.


The team’s top brass, along with players, reporters and photographers, were on hand and watched in awe as Shepard pitched, hit, worked out at first base, fielded bunts and even slid into a base.


The amazed Griffith signed Shepard as a coach and batting practice pitcher. Shepard pitched a bit in spring training games and kept his control sharp by throwing batting practice as the season wore on. He started a war-relief exhibition game on July 10 against the Brooklyn Dodgers, giving up only five hits while winning 4-3. His performance made him an even bigger celebrity.


Rainouts forced a couple of doubleheaders, resulting in a tired pitching staff. On August 4, the Senators were on the wrong end of a 14-2 score against the Boston Red Sox. With two outs in the fourth inning and the bases loaded, Shepard was brought in to face Red Sox slugger George Metkovich. Shepard struck him out and pitched the rest of the game, allowing one run and four hits.


That’s where I would have ended the movie — with a great big league debut and congrats from teammates. Goal reached, happy ending.


But there was more to the story. The stars serving in the military began returning to their teams for the 1946 season and Shepard resumed his coaching and batting practice duties. He went on to be a popular player-manager in the minor leagues; in 1949 for Waterbury (Connecticut) he hit four home runs and even stole four bases. He stayed in the minors until 1954, married and moved to California where he began a long career with IBM selling typewriters and as a safety engineer with Hughes Aircraft. He raised a family and lived a suburban, small town quiet life.


In 1992, a British businessman met an Austrian physician while on a trip to Hungary. When the topic of conversation turned to World War II, the doctor told of having saved a downed American pilot named Bert Shepard. He remembered the name from the pilot’s dog tags had often wondered what had happened to this Bert Shepard.


The British businessman contacted the U.S. military inquiring about a “Bert Shepard.” He finally located him in Hesperia, California.


On December 24, 1992, Shepard received a surprise overseas phone call from the doctor who’d rescued him. Major League Baseball heard about it, found the doctor and arranged a 1993 reunion for the weekly television highlight program “This Week in Baseball.”


Shepard died this past summer, twelve days shy of his 88th birthday. America and baseball lost a real hero.


Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author: Author, columnist, and public speaker Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before working for a major league team and becoming the first Orthodox Jew to receive a World Series ring. His column appears the second week of each month and he can be reached in his suburban Detroit dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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