In 1945 there was no major-league All-Star game because of wartime travel restrictions. Instead, a series of exhibitions between different American and National League teams was set up across the country to benefit the war-relief effort. On July 10, Washington was matched with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Griffith Stadium.
Two days before the game, Bluege told Shepard he would start. "Having not started a game in almost four years, I felt the pressure, and I knew there were an awful lot of people who thought I couldn't do it," he remembers. "And there were things that could happen out on the field -- if I messed up a bunt or slipped like any other pitcher fielding a ground ball, they'd say it was because of the leg. If that happened to me, it would be lights out. Mr. Griffith gave me a chance, but there was much more pressure on me because everybody else was afraid I'd fail.
"But I was willing to give it a good try and see what the hell happened," he continues. "Like your first mission in combat. It's what you've trained for."
Shepard tossed and turned the night before, but expected he would. "I don't think anybody sleeps good in situations like that," he says. "If you sleep good, you're in trouble. I don't think anybody going into an important game has ever felt really good. You don't sleep too good, you warm up very carefully, you can't wait for the game to get started, and then you settle down."
More than 23,000 fans showed up that night. In the pregame festivities, Shepard met with the press and kibitzed with Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher. "Leo and I were standing there talking while the press was taking pictures and interviewing both of us," Shepard says. "A reporter asked Leo if they were gonna bunt against me. Leo says, 'I'll fine anybody $500 that bunts tonight 'cause we need the batting practice.' But the sportswriters wrote it up as, 'Leo Durocher, the Good-Hearted Manager, Agrees Not to Bunt Against Shepard.' So everybody thought I couldn't field bunts."
The pressure took a toll right away. Shepard walked Durocher to lead off the game. "I think I walked the first two batters on eight pitches," he says. "I said to myself, 'Oh, my God. You've got a house full of people here, and you'd better get this straightened out pretty soon.'" He knew another walk or two could spell disaster and admits he "was pretty concerned." His catcher, Ferrell, resisted the temptation to go to the mound to talk, which might have made Shepard even more nervous. "My pitches were close," Shepard says. "I told myself, 'Damn it! I know I can get it over the plate.'"
And he did. He retired the side without further problems and then shut out the Dodgers on just one base hit through the first three innings. Shepard asked Bluege if he could pitch another inning. In the fourth, he gave up two runs on four successive singles, but left with the Nats leading 3-2 and was eventually declared the winning pitcher.
How did Shepard feel about it? "I was just happy as hell that it turned out that way," he says. Following the game, Shepard was rewarded by being placed on the team's active roster, which made it possible for the one-legged pitcher to appear in a real major-league game a few weeks later.
The day was August 4, 1945, the second game of the doubleheader against the Red Sox. In front of 13,035 fans, Bluege waved Joe Cleary off the mound and into the dugout. The Red Sox had just scored 12 runs in the top of the fourth inning.
From the way the game was going, Shepard thought he might get called in. "When we fell way behind, Bluege told me to get ready," he says. "They were fighting for the pennant," he says of his team, "and they had used up all their pitchers." Soon he was the only one warming up.
Washington's pitching staff was depleted from a heavy dose of doubleheaders, the game was out of reach, and Bluege, fuming from Joe Cleary's poor performance, was not about to use another pitcher he felt might help him down the pennant stretch. So he waved in the one-legged Bert Shepard from the Nats' bullpen down the right field line.
After almost being put to sleep by Boston's marathon inning, the fans stirred awake and applauded as Shepard walked from the bullpen in foul territory, down the right field line, across the foul line, and to the mound. Shepard does not recall Bluege or anyone else being there to greet him, and says he was unaware of the near-fight in the dugout between Bluege and Cleary (see Chapter 14). "I can understand Bluege being upset about how that inning went, though," he says.
Shepard took his warm-up pitches, throwing to Senators' catcher Mike Guerra. When Shepard was ready, Guerra didn't talk to him, except to go over the signs, and none of the infielders came over to help him relax with a few reassuring words. "I guess they figured I could handle it," he said. "Besides, there's not a hell of a lot you can say in a situation like that."
Unlike his exhibition game against the Dodgers, Shepard didn't have the night before to get nervous. So how did he feel?
"I'm a competitor," he says. "I was pitching a lot of batting practice and had developed a lot of confidence. I said, 'Here's my chance.' I was awful glad about it. I said, 'Goddamn it, I'm in the ball game!'"
From Once Around the Bases by Richard Tellis.
Copyright © 1998 by Triumph Books and Richard Tellis. Reprinted with permission.