Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 29 2013
Eriksmoen: Baseball player Shepard broke barriers for disabled
On March 29, 1945, Shepard signed a major league contract with the Washington Senators to serve as coach and batting practice pitcher. However, once he regained command and control of his pitches, he would be placed on the roster as a pitcher.
To gain the experience of pitching active games, Shepard appeared in “several exhibition games against armed forces teams, whose rosters included veteran professional players.” One of those was the Navy team stationed in New London, Conn., that included four former major league players and a number of promising youngsters. One of the young players, Yogi Berra, was impressed after Shepard allowed only three hits in five innings.
On July 10, Senators’ manager Ozzie Bluege named Shepard the starting pitcher when they played the Brooklyn Dodgers in an exhibition game for the War Relief effort.
Before the game, Shepard was met at home plate by Gen. Omar Bradley, who pinned the Airman’s Medal on Shepard’s baseball uniform.
Bluege planned on using Shepard for only three innings but let him pitch into the fourth after Shepard only gave up one hit.
On Aug. 4, 1945, in a game against the Boston Red Sox, the Senators found themselves down 14-2 in the fourth inning, and Boston had the bases loaded with two men out. Bluege brought Shepard in to try to stop the damage. For the remaining five innings, he gave up only one run on three hits.
Shepard’s only other on-field highlight occurred Aug. 31, when Shepard received the Distinguished Flying Cross between games of a doubleheader.
At the conclusion of the season, Shepard visited veterans’ hospitals, offering encouragement to other amputees. He also played in exhibition games, competed in races where it was reported he “ran 100 yards in 12 seconds,” and made a training film for amputees returning from the war.
Shepard reported for training camp with the Senators in the spring of 1946 and was again signed as a coach. During the 1946 season, Shepard became restless, wanting to get out on the field as a player. He requested to be sent to Chattanooga, in the Southern League. His request was granted, but because of the stretch of time he had been inactive, Shepard once again struggled with control. He was demoted to Decatur in the Illinois League, ending the season with Duluth in the Northern League.
Shepard struggled in 1946 with soreness in his amputated leg. At the conclusion of the season, he went to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and “had several more inches amputated from his injured leg.” Having been released by the Senators, Shepard signed a contract with the St. Louis Browns in April 1947 and reported to Elmira in the Eastern League.
After being released by the Browns later that year, Shepard received an offer to play for the semi-pro team in Williston. When the first Western Canada Baseball Tournament was held, two teams from the U.S. were invited to compete, Williston and the Ligon Colored All-Stars out of Brawley, Calif. Ligon was a “traveling professional baseball team that played at a very high level.”
More than 10,000 fans attended the tournament at Indian Head, Sask., and both Ligon and Williston easily won their early games to get to the semi-finals. On the morning of Aug. 7, 1947, Ligon and Williston faced off, with Shepard on the mound for Williston. Ligon scored a run in the first inning on a pair of singles. Shepard would only give up one more hit the rest of the game, but Williston lost 1-0. The next day, Ligon won the championship with a 13-0 victory.
Later that year, Shepard returned to Walter Reed for more surgery and, during 1948, was confined to crutches much of the time.
In 1949, Shepard was signed to manage the team at Waterbury in the Colonial League. As a player, he divided his time between pitching and playing first base. His win-loss record as a pitcher was 5-6, and, as a batter, he hit four home runs and stole five bases in less than 50 games.
Shepard was out of baseball for two years while he worked for IBM. In 1952, he played for four different teams in the low minor leagues and then spent the 1953 season with Tampa. In 1954, the Williston Oilers replaced the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the ManDak League, and Shepard was named player-manager. When the Oilers got off to a slow start, he was let go.
After retiring from baseball, Shepard became a safety engineer for Hughes Aircraft. In his later years, he served as an advocate for the rights of disabled workers.
On April 13, 2008, the Fox Sports Network debuted the show “Amazing Sports Stories” by profiling the life of Bert Shepard. Two months later, on June 16, Shepard died.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen, of Fargo. Contact the Eriksmoens at email@example.com