500 Major League Baseball players served in World War II. The war impacted MLB record books in ways we can only speculate now. Ted Williams and Willie Mays could have challenged Babe Ruth’s home runs record. Bob Feller could have been a 300-game winner; something we may never see again. For all the potential records the war prevented, we have to remember that there was a lot more at stake for those that served.
Before enlisting to fight in World War II, Lou Brissie was close to joining the Philadelphia Athletics. “I had signed an agreement that they would send me through the first three years of college and at the end of the third year I would report to the ball club.” Brissie told the New York Times in 2012. “Then after my first year with the team I’d go back and finish college. But ol’ WWII nipped that in the bud.”
Brissie pitched while at Camp Croft for basic training. In June of 1943, he pitched for a semi-pro textile team, losing 1-0 on a home run but striking out 22 Easley mill team batters. A week before this performance, the 6’4″ southpaw struck out 19 batters while pitching for Camp Croft. Later that year, Corporal Brissie was deployed to northern Italy with the 88th Infantry Division.
On the morning of December 7th, 1944, Brissie’s squad was hit with an artillery attack in the Apennine Mountains. Brissie himself was seriously injured. His shinbone was shattered in over 30 places, and he suffered broken bones in his left ankle and right foot. After crawling through mud for cover, Brissie fell unconscious and remained that way until he was found several hours later.
He was immediately rushed to a field hospital, but at his persuasion, Brissie was then transferred to a military hospital in Naples where the doctors had a better chance at saving his left leg. After 23 operations and 40 blood transfusions, Brissie’s leg was saved. “They had to reconstruct my leg with wire,” he once explained. “I wound up going to hospitals all over. I was the first guy in the Mediterranean Theater who was put on penicillin therapy.”
While Brissie was recovering, he received a letter from Connie Mack, the manager of the Athletics. The legendary manager assured the war veteran that when he was ready, he’d get his shot to pitch in Philadelphia. To his credit, Brissie never let go of his Major League dream. “I’ll play ball again,” he told a sports editor from the Greenville News, “but it will be quite a while. I want to play ball. If God lets me, I’ll play it, too. That’s my ambition.”
In 1945, Brissie set out to Philadelphia, but he was not ready to play quite yet. An infection in his leg caused a setback in 1946, but Brissie received a contract from Mack in 1947. He reported to the Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League, and showed no signs of his injury hindering his abilities. He went 23-5 with a sparkling 1.91 ERA, striking out 278 in 254 innings. On September 28th, 1947, Brissie made his Major League debut.
Brissie, after nearly losing his leg and receiving two Purple Hearts, threw seven innings against the New York Yankees in a 5-3 loss. It was a rocky start for the southpaw hurler. He gave up nine hits, walked five, and allowed five runs. However, it was a moment that Brissie cherished forever. “I thought I had gone to heaven. I lost the game, but it was still a great experience.”
Brissie was named one of the starters for Philadelphia’s Patriots Day double-header on Opening Day 1948 against the Boston Red Sox. The A’s other starter, Phil Marchildon, was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and was captured as a POW by the Germans in 1944. Both starters went the distance in their respective games. Marchildon threw 11 innings in his game while Brissie struck out seven on just four hits.
In the sixth inning, Ted Williams drilled a line drive that struck the plate in Brissie’s left leg. Instead of taking the easy double, Williams pulled up at first, called for time, and went to check on the fellow war veteran on the mound. “When Ted leaned down, I said, ‘Damn it, Ted! Why don’t you pull the ball?’” Brissie recalled. The southpaw won the game, in part due to his two-RBI single in the fourth inning. Williams got Brissie back on May 31st with a two-run homer at Shibe Park. “Over the light tower in right field,” Brissie remembered. “On his way around the bases, I said, ‘I didn’t mean pull it that much!’”
Brissie finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1948. He finished 14-10 with a 4.13 ERA and 11 complete games. It was 1949 where Brissie was selected for the All-Star Game, finishing 16-11 with a 4.28 ERA and 18 complete games. He gave up two runs in the game on a Ralph Kiner homer, but it didn’t matter to the man who nearly lost his leg five years prior. “I was like a kid in a candy shop, just sitting on the bench with all those guys like Williams, Lou Boudreau, and Joe DiMaggio,” he recalled. “To pitch in the game was an added thrill.”
Brissie was a part of the trade that sent Minne Minoso to the Chicago White Sox in 1951. Although he was dealt to the pennant contending Cleveland Indians, Brissie was not too pleased about leaving Philadelphia. He worked mainly as a reliever in Cleveland until his contract was sold to their minor league club in Indianapolis in 1953. Instead of reporting to Indianapolis, Brissie decided to call it a career.
Brissie passed away in 2013, but he left behind an inspirational story. This story is one a lot of people aren’t familiar with, but need to be. The ambition and determination of one man allowed him to overcome the odds and not only play at the highest level, but be recognized as one of the best in the game as an All-Star. Corporal Brissie’s heart and passion for his dream is awe inspiring, and his story holds moments we can all learn from.
Featured Image: Triumph Books