Day 9: 30 baseball books in 30 days of April, ’09: A punished corporal who managed to pull a ‘Ripley’s’ and still play big-league ball

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Lou Brissie visits patients at a VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., in 2007, from a story by ESPN.com’s Elizabeth Merrill (linked here)

The book: “The Corporal Was a Pitcher: The Courage of Lou Brissie”

The author: Ira Berkow (forward by Tom Brokaw)

How to find it: Triumph Books, $24,95. 253 pages

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Where we’d go looking for it: Here it is on Barnes And Noble (linked here) and our favorite place, Powell’s (linked here).

The scoop: The book is inspired by a Red Smith column that Berkow included in a 1960 anthology of his work from the New York Herald Tribune.

But any kid who read the backs of baseball cards must have known something about this left-handed pitcher. The book’s back cover actually shows a Topps baseball card from ’52, when Brissie was with Cleveland, and it reads: “When Lou pitches, he wears a steel brace and a shin guard on his left leg – the result of a serious wound while serving in the Army in Italy.”

Roll the story back a couple years, and there’s a 16-year-old pitching in the textile baseball leagues in Ware Shoals. He was impressive enough to attract an offer from the Dodgers, but his father urged him to turn it down and work out in front of Connie Mack. Later, he pitched for two years at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.

At age 20, Brissie had his leg shattered in Dec. ’44 during a German attack. Doctors suggested amputation.

“I’m a ballplayer. I can’t play on one leg,” he said.

Brissie had a “deal” with Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack – he paid for Brissie’s three years of college and he’d join the A’s in 1945. Then, the war happened.

“Our club is still in need of a left-handed pitcher, only hope you will be where you can still do a little work when you join our club,” Mack sent him a telegram during the war. “The fans will forget such pitchers as Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank and (Lefty) Grove.”

And Brissie ended up pitching in the 1949 All-Star game. He managed to finish his career with a 44-48 record in 897 2/3 innings pitched. He also had 436 strikeouts and a 4.07 career earned run average. In that ’49 season, he was 16-11 with 118 strikeouts and a 4.28 ERA.

Fortunately, Berkow was able to interview Brissie many times in South Carolina to get his story directly, rather than research it through newspaper clips or magazine stories.

An excerpt from page 21:

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On the evening after the operation, Dr. Brubaker returned to Brissie’s bedside to reiterate the precarious state of injury to the leg, and that he would be given regular doses of penicillin. But he reassured him that every possible medical support would be given to try to avoid amputation. Brubaker said that although there was no solid bone in more than four inches of his left leg, he wired together te torn bone and stitched together the ripped muscles and severed tendons. “It went pretty well,” Brubaker said. “But let’s see how it goes in the next few weeks.”
Brossie brimmed with emotion. “Thank you doctor,” said Brissie. “Thank you.” That was all he could muster.

Sounds like an ESPN movie waiting to happen.

One more clip, from Brokaw’s forward:

“Read about the remarkable life of this modest patriot and remember him, as I will, the next time you hear about an overpaid, undertalented and self-absorbed athlete complaining he’s not getting a fair shake.”

How it goes down in the scorebook: 1U — a line-drive back through the box, only to be snared by the pitcher in perfect fielding position.

Where to read more: Brissie’s career stats on BaseballReference.com (linked here) show he actually hit a triple in 1949.

One other thing of note: In 1948, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote about Brissie in a Sport magazine story about the stars of the former Textile League: “Venerable Connie Mack came up with one of the real finds of the year. Lou Brissie, a 215-pound southpaw, has captured the hearts of baseball fans everywhere by his courageous triumph over a severe leg injury and by his performance on the mound. There have been many stories of servicemen who barely escaped death and returned to play ball again. Lou Brissie’s case puts him on top. Brissie’s left leg was all but torn away by shell fragments in the Italian campaign. Only his great determination to play baseball again saved Brissie from losing the the leg. With the help of a heavy protective brace, Lou returned to the mound, winning 23 and losing only 5 in the Sally League last year.”

Other books by Ira Berkow:

“Beyond the Dream: Occasional Heroes of Sports” (2008)
“Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer’s Life” (2007)
“Court Vision: Unexpected Views on the Lure of Basketball” (2004)
“To the Hoop:The Seasons of a Basketball Life” (2004)
“Carew” (1979)
“The Gospel According to Casey” (1992)
“Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus” (2006)
“Oscar Robertson: The Golden Year, 1964 (1971)

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