Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors
by Richard Tellis
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ROBERT EARL "BERT" SHEPARD
During the off-season, Shepard visited veterans' and children's hospitals and made a training film for leg amputees back from the war. He also barnstormed with the American League All-Stars and then reported for spring training with the Nats in 1946. Though he pitched in a couple of exhibition games and threw well, he wasn't given a serious chance of making the team, since the prewar stars were returning en masse. "There were so many good pitchers in that camp," he says, "that the handwriting was an the wall for me. There was no way I was going to make that staff, with Dutch Leonard, Sid Hudson, Walter Masterson, Bobo Newsom, Mickey Haefner, Roger Wolff, and Rae Scarborough. They even had a future Hall of Famer, Early Wynn." So Shepard remained with the team as a coach.
He remembers his roommate, Jeff Heath, who joined the club that year. "He was a lot of fun, and we did a lot of kidding around. I remember one time feeling his muscle and telling him he was as strong as a bull and thinking to myself, 'And damn near as smart,'" Shepard laughs. "When he broke his ankle so badly later on [in 1948], I sent him a note and said that if he needed one, I had a spare."
Later in the year, however, at Shepard's request, Griffith assigned him to the Chattanooga Lookouts, Washington's top farm team in the Southern Association, so he could get to pitch once in a while. "I wasn't getting to play, and I didn't get on the regular active list, so I asked to go down to Chattanooga and finish the season," he says. Shepard won two and lost two on the mound there, and surprised everyone one time by hitting a double and scoring from second on a single to left field.
He barnstormed again during the winter of 1946 with the American League All-Stars, playing in the Pacific Northwest. He pitched occasionally (once striking out Stan Musial), but actually preferred playing first base so he could play every day. He was having a successful tour and looked forward to playing against Bob Feller's All-Stars, probably the top barnstorming team that winter.
"We were playing Feller's All-Stars in Seattle," he recalls, "and I saw I wasn't in the lineup. I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. How come I'm not playing tonight?' They said, 'Well, Feller's out there and he has to bear down and we're afraid you might get hurt.'
"I said, 'Look, you guys, I've done everything I'm supposed to do up 'til now and, by God, I'm playing!' So I played first base, made a couple of pretty good plays, and I got 1 for 2 off of Feller and I got 1 for 2 off of Johnny Sain."
In November 1946, Shepard checked into Walter Reed Hospital for additional reconstructive surgery on his leg. The doctors in the German hospital had done the preliminary work, leaving the remaining surgery to be completed on Shepard's return to the States. The reamputation should have had a recovery time of six weeks, but there were complications that led to four more operations.
Shepard was on crutches for two and a half years before receiving medical clearance to play again, and by that time, his shoulder muscles had tightened so much that his arm never fully recovered. As a major-league pitcher, he was finished. In 1949, Shepard took a job as a player-manager with the Class-B team in Waterbury, Connecticut.
In addition to pitching and managing, Shepard also played nearly fifty games at first base, hitting four home runs, and driving in 21 in 131 times at bat. Two of his home runs came in one game on July 6 against Bristol. He also stole five bases during the year and excited the crowd by beating out a bunt for a base hit. "I had an advantage," he says, "because not only was I pretty fast, but nobody expected me to run. Even when pitchers were looking over at me when I was on first, I often could tell they were concentrating on the hitter and not on me." On the mound that year, he won five and lost six.
Shepard remained in Waterbury for only one season before deciding to retire. "The team was not winning, and when you're not winning, the board of directors gives you a lot of advice," he says. "One day we got back home from a road trip at three in the morning, and I was told to schedule a workout for the next morning. I asked why, and was told it would impress the fans. I said no. I wouldn't do it because it wouldn't help the team. So I left after that year." He spent two years selling typewriters for IBM.
From Once Around the Bases by Richard Tellis.
Copyright © 1998 by Triumph Books and Richard Tellis. Reprinted with permission.