Before Eddie Gaedel came along, Bert Shepard was probably the most publicized one-game major-leaguer in history, when he became the only man ever to pitch in the major leagues with an artificial leg.
Shepard, the second oldest of six sons, had been born healthy on June 28, 1920, in Dana, Indiana.
His father had a "delivery business" -- a horse and a wagon -- until the Depression forced him to become a farmhand for $50 a month plus housing for his family. It was a transient existence, and the Shepard family resided in a number of different communities in the area as Bert was growing up. He played a little football and basketball in high school, but the school didn't have a baseball team.
In 1930, the first full year of the Depression, Shepard went to live with his grandmother in Clinton, Indiana, and learned about baseball and baseball players by listening to her radio. He especially recalls listening to the 1931 World Series when Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals got 12 hits in 24 times up and stole five bases against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Soon Shepard began playing pickup baseball with boys his own age and shagging flies for the neighborhood teams. As he moved into his teens, he became a fairly good player and starred in the local sandlot games in and around Clinton.
Shepard loved the game and heard that California was the place to go if you wanted to be a baseball player, so at the end of his junior year in high school in 1937, he and a friend hopped some freight trains and hitchhiked out to the West Coast, working as busboys along the way to get their meals and enough money to finance the next leg of their journey.
In California, Shepard supported himself by working in a tire retread plant while playing baseball on every playground and in every league he could find. In 1938, he came across a copy of Life magazine that featured pictures of Cincinnati's Johnny Vander Meer who, that year, had become the only man ever to pitch two consecutive no-hitters. From the pictures of Vander Meer in action, Shepard taught himself the elements of a left-handed windup in front of the mirror in his room.
At eighteen, Shepard began playing semipro baseball and, in 1939, was spotted by Chicago White Sox scout Doug Minor, who signed him to a contract for $60 a month. Shepard was sent to the White Sox minor-league spring training center in Longview, Texas, but in his eagerness to make an impression, he threw too often and developed a sore arm.
"It's amazing the lack of coaching they had then," he says. "Shoot, they'd let you just pitch every day if you wanted to. Then, after you were injured, they'd say, 'Well, he said he was all right.'"
The White Sox released him and Shepard returned home to let his arm recover. In 1940, the following year, he played for Wisconsin Rapids in the Wisconsin State League, where he appeared in nine games, winning three and losing two before being released. He was having control problems; in 43 innings, he walked 48 batters.
"I walked a lot of batters because I didn't have the right coaching and theory," he says. "Everybody said, 'Pitch to the corners.' The corner's what, three inches wide? So you're throwing a ball three inches outside. That's still accurate throwing, but it caused me to walk a lot of people. As I look back now, I wasn't wild. My problem was where I was trying to throw the ball."
After going back to Clinton to get his high school diploma in the summer of 1940, Shepard answered a newspaper ad the following February to drive a new car across the country to Seattle, Washington. He got the job and then worked his way down the Pacific Coast to Anaheim, California, where the Philadelphia Athletics were training for the upcoming 1941 season. Shepard talked his way into a tryout with the A's and got to meet their legendary owner-manager, Connie Mack. He pitched well enough to be offered a contract to pitch for the A's minor-league team in Anaheim.
But the same problem with control plagued him there, and he was quickly released. Shepard then traveled to Bisbee, Arizona, where he hooked on with the Arizona-Texas League team.
After an undistinguished summer, he was released again, but Shepard was encouraged by his performance that year. Although his pitching wasn't what he would have liked it to be, he felt his control was getting a little better. Furthermore, his hitting also continued to improve. It was good enough, in fact, to keep him in the lineup at first base on days when he wasn't pitching. Since he always was a fast man on the bases, Shepard thought he might be able to make it professionally as a first baseman instead of as a pitcher.
From Once Around the Bases by Richard Tellis.
Copyright © 1998 by Triumph Books and Richard Tellis. Reprinted with permission.