Earlier this week, Lou Brissie died. Who was Lou Brissie? He was a U.S. Army corporal who would later become one of baseball's all-time unlikeliest All-Stars. From Richard Goldstein's obituary in the Times:
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1944, he was slogging through the Apennines in northern Italy with his platoon when a German shell exploded beside him. Fragments broke his right foot, injured his right shoulder and shattered the shinbone of his left leg into more than 30 pieces.
As he recalled it long afterward, “My leg had been split open like a ripe watermelon.”
Brissie was evacuated to a hospital in Naples, where an Army surgeon, Dr. Wilbur K. Brubaker, told him he would probably have to amputate his leg, which had become infected.
Brissie explained that he hoped to pitch in the major leagues. Dr. Brubaker wired the shattered bone fragments together and put Brissie on the new “wonder drug” penicillin. His leg was saved, but over the next two years he underwent 23 operations.
To that point, Brissie hadn't pitched a single inning in Organized Baseball. Just some mill teams back home. Which shouldn't be a surprise; when the Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Brissie was only 17 years old. Like a lot of great young baseball players, he found himself serving his country before he'd even gotten a chance to play professional baseball. And we can only try to figure out how many great baseball players were lost to the war.*
* I tried, but I'm afraid the math was probably beyond my ken.
Somehow, Brissie recovered well enough to get back on the mound. In 1947, he signed his first professional contract, went 23-5 with the Savannah Indians in the Class A South Atlantic League ... and never pitched in the minor leagues again. Philadelphia Athletics manager (and owner) Connie Mack, who'd encouraged Brissie before the war, brought Brissie all the way to the majors that September. The A's were pretty lousy in that era, but Brissie was essentially a league-average pitcher for six seasons, first with the A's and later the Indians. In 1949, he pitched three innings in the All-Star Game.
Here's my favorite Lou Brissie story:
Brissie pitched a complete-game four-hitter to defeat the Boston Red Sox, 4-2, in a doubleheader at Fenway Park opening the 1948 season. But he endured a frightening moment when Ted Williams hit a line drive that caromed off his brace.
“I hit a ball back to the box, a real shot, whack, like a rifle clap,” Williams recalled in his memoir “My Turn at Bat” (1969), written with John Underwood. “Down he goes, and everybody rushes out there, and I go over from first base with this awful feeling I’ve really hurt him. Here’s this war hero, pitching a great game. He sees me in the crowd, looking down at him, my face like a haunt. He says, ‘For chrissakes, Williams, pull the damn ball.’ ”
What we remember about Lou Brissie, of course, is his baseball life. But he lived for another 60 years, and sometimes it's worth remembering that our heroes do walk among us for some decades. Especially if they didn't earn millions of dollars during their baseball careers. For much more about Lou Brissie and his against-the-odds life, please visit Bill Nowlin's article for SABR's BioProject or (if you're really ambitious) read Ira Berkow's biography of Brissie. It's one hell of a story.