The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:
You’ve heard about the heroes of baseball who put the game aside to join America’s armed forces during World War II: Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and the rest. Some enlisted, others were drafted; some saw combat, others were spared. All of them, though, gave up one priceless commodity that their country had no way of replacing: the years that the war took from their playing careers. No one knows what further baseball heights they might have reached; their country needed them and that was that. That’s why they’re part of the Greatest Generation, and always will be.
But let me ask you this: have you ever heard about Lou Brissie? Yep, Lou Brissie. You really should, because in a way it’s the best story about baseball and World War II that I’ve come across in a long time–a story in the finest Christopher tradition, one of grit and determination and the will to succeed. I heard it from a report in The New York Times by Benjamin Hoffman, and now seems a perfect time to tell it again.
Lou Brissie was that most typical of prospects, the high-school phenom. A pitcher, he dazzled opposing batters in the years before the war, and had a signed, sealed and delivered agreement to join the Philadelphia Athletics. But then came Pearl Harbor and Brissie, along with countless other young Americans, enlisted in the Army.
He wound up with the 88th Infantry Division in Italy, and in December, 1944, an artillery shell all but ended Brissie’s baseball hopes. It exploded at his feet, as Hoffman tells the story, “shattering his left shin bones into 30 pieces.” He dragged himself to safety for a while, but eventually fellow GI’s had to rescue him. At a military hospital things looked grim. The doctors wanted to amputate the leg, but Brissie would have none of it. “I pled my case every place I stopped,” he said.
Eventually 23 surgical procedures would be performed on the leg, but Brissie’s persistence paid off. The leg appeared to be saved, and so was his baseball career. The Athletics had stayed in touch throughout his ordeal, assuring him that he’d have a chance. And just when he had returned to civilian life and signed a contract, in 1946, came a major setback. The leg became infected and sent Brissie to a hospital for three months. Only hope kept him going, and sure enough, before the season was out, he compiled a winning record for an Athletics’ farm team. He was ready for the majors.
His career was quite impressive, including an All-Star appearance in 1949. But leg problems finally cost him, a bone marrow infection ending his baseball work after six seasons. Major League Baseball finally recognized him last year with a World Series ceremony–which Brissie, 88, was not able to attend because of health reasons. But he has no regrets.
“I have never thought of what might have been,” he said at the time. “I got out with my life. I had great surgeons who did magnificent work who got me to the point where I could play. I got the opportunity to play, and I was lucky enough to be there a little while and to do it against the best the world had to offer. I did it. Maybe not greatly, but I did it.”
He sure did.
(Photos via PhiladelphiaAthletics.org)