Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Field of Gimps

By the time WW II was in full swing, teams found themselves scrambling for replacements as hundreds of players were shipped overseas to serve in the armed forces. Two of the most publicized players to appear in "The Show" during the '45 slate were Pete Gray and Bert Shepard. Gray is perhaps better remembered because he played a full season while Shepard made just one appearance.

 Gray, an outfielder, lost his right arm above the elbow in a grisly childhood mishap. Showing courage and determination, he forged a a brief career as a professional ballplayer, tearing up the Southern Association with the Memphis Chicks in 1944. He batted .333 and stole 68 bases while capturing the circuit's MVP award. The following season, he was signed by the St. Louis Browns. He was more than just a novelty gate attraction, playing in 77 games and compiling a .218 batting average. In the outfield, he made 162 catches and threw out 3 runners using a deft maneuver in which he simultaneously fielded the ball with his gloved hand then flipped it in the air while tossing the mitt aside. Snaring the ball with his bare-hand, he would then relay to the infield. Gray had quite a bit of speed and was accustomed to legging out bunts in the minors. But major league infielders quickly caught on to the fact that Gray's one-handed swing gave him little power. They began playing him shallow to guard against the bunt. Additionally, Gray had trouble adjusting to curveballs and his hitting suffered. He never played in another big league game after 1945. He was active in the minors until 1949.

Bert Shepard was a minor league pitcher before the war. He had served in the Air Force and was shot down over Germany in a fighter plane. The crash destroyed his right leg below the knee. He also sustained a fractured skull after being shot in the face. Captured by Nazis and taken to a prison camp, his leg was amputated by German doctors. A fellow POW made him an artificial leg and he began playing baseball on it, polishing his windup and delivery. He was liberated by allied forces and taken to a medical center in Washington. Senators' owner Clark Griffith had heard Shepard's story and, moved by it, offered him a tryout. Shepard was signed as a player/coach in 1945. After starting an exhibition game against the Dodgers during the spring, he entered a regular season game later in the season. In front of a relatively sparse crowd at Griffith Stadium, he took the mound in relief against the Red Sox, going 5.1 innings and giving up 1 run on 3 hits. Sadly, he would never pitch in another big league contest as multiple operations were required to  fix his leg over the next several seasons.

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