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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 21 2013

Eriksmoen: One-legged player made baseball history

It has been speculated that a person with only one leg was the best baseball pitcher in North Dakota in 1947.

On Aug. 7, Bert Shepard, the ace hurler of the Williston, N.D., semi-pro team, threw a three-hitter against the powerful Ligon All-Stars at an international tournament in Indian Head, Sask.

Less than two years earlier, Shepard made national headlines when he became the only one-legged player in major league history.

Robert “Bert” Earl Shepard was born June 28, 1920, in Dana, Ind., to John and Lura Shepard.

John was a farmer in Indiana and Illinois. To obtain stability during his school years, Bert went to live with his grandmother in Clinton, Ind. According to Time magazine, it was there that he first heard the radio broadcast of a baseball game and immediately “knew he’d found his passion.”

As a teen, Shepard was “a fine sandlot ball player.” After his junior year, he believed that he had the talent to make it as a professional. He hopped on a freight train and headed to California, where he found a job at a tire retread plant. He also played baseball, and word soon got out about the young lefty who possessed a “formidable curveball.”

A scout for the Chicago White Sox offered Shepard a minor league contract for $60/month, and he spent the 1939 season with Tiffin in the Ohio State League and Jeanerette in the Evangeline League.

In 1940, Shepard pitched for Wisconsin Rapids, compiling a winning record, but he experienced control problems. The White Sox released him, and he returned to Clinton to finish high school.

In 1941, Shepard rekindled his baseball dream and was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to play for Anaheim in the California League. In 1942, he pitched for La Crosse in the Wisconsin League and Bisbee in the Arizona-Texas League, where he finally proved he had his wild pitching under control.

With World War II raging, Shepard enlisted at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana on March 18, 1943. He was sent to Daniel Field, Ga., where he attended flight school and earned his pilot’s wings.

In early 1944, Shepard arrived at Wormingford, England, and joined the 55th Fighter Group, flying P-38 Lightning fighters. He made frequent flights escorting bombing raids into Nazi-occupied Europe.

On May 21, a massive assault on an airfield east of Hamburg, Germany, was planned. Shepard was not scheduled to take part in this mission, but he volunteered. This was Shepard’s 34th mission over Germany, and he believed he would return in time for a baseball game he had scheduled for that evening.

After destroying a train and an oil tank, he was headed for home when he encountered anti-aircraft fire. One of the shells tore through “his right leg and foot,” and another clipped Shepard’s chin, knocking him unconscious. His low-flying plane crashed into the ground “at an estimated speed of 380 mph.”

Shepard was first found by German farmers who wanted to kill him. Fortunately, Ladislaus Loidl, a Luftwaffe physician, and two soldiers arrived at the scene and dismissed the farmers. Loidl said, “I recognized that the man could be saved with an urgent operation. ... I drove the wounded man to the local hospital that was headed by a colonel. When he refused to admit the ‘terror flyer,’ I telephoned the general on duty and reported the case. Whereupon the general called the colonel and settled the matter.”

The doctors amputated Shepard’s leg 11 inches below the knee, and after recovery, he was transferred to a prison camp in central Germany.

Also at the camp was Dr. Errey, a Canadian medic, who fashioned an artificial leg “out of scrap metal found around the prison.” After becoming familiar with his crude prosthesis, Shepard began playing catch and then resumed pitching the ball.

In February 1945, Shepard was involved in a prisoner exchange and returned to Clinton, where he began practicing baseball with some players from a local semipro team. Realizing that he was still able to throw his familiar pitches, Shepard became determined to resume his professional baseball career.

Shepard went to Washington, D.C., to be fitted with a new prosthesis. While there, he was visited by Robert Patterson, the undersecretary of war, who presented him with a commendation for his service, valor and courage. Patterson asked Shepard what his goal was, and the former flier replied, “I’d like to play professional baseball.” The astonished undersecretary asked if that was possible without a leg. Shepard assured him that he could do it.

When Patterson returned to his office, he called his good friend Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, and Griffith offered Shepard a tryout. On March 10, Shepard received his new leg, and four days later, he reported to the Senators’ training facility in College Park.

When Shepard received the opportunity to pitch, he “proved to be a surprisingly good ballplayer.

“He could throw hard and he moved around so well that it was difficult to tell he wore an artificial leg.” Griffith was impressed, and on March 29, he signed Shepard to a major league contract.

Shepard hadn’t pitched in a game situation for many months and was still getting used to his new leg. The only problem he demonstrated was the need to work on his control. Griffith believed that would be solved through work in real-game situations and scheduled Shepard to pitch in a couple of exhibition games.

Later that season, Shepard would achieve baseball immortality, as well as prove to be an inspiration for thousands of disabled Americans.

(Next week, we will conclude the remarkable story of Bert Shepard.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen, of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net