Lou Brissie, an All-Star and War Hero, Dies at 89
Brett Flashnick/Assocaited Press
Published: November 26, 2013
Lou Brissie, who suffered devastating leg wounds in World War II but went on to become an All-Star pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics and a symbol of perseverance for the disabled, died on Monday in Augusta, Ga. He was 89.
Major League Baseball
The cause was cardiopulmonary failure, his wife, Diana, said.
The major leagues lost scores of players to the armed forces during World War II, but many were assigned to military ball clubs to entertain fellow servicemen.
Minor leaguers and college and semipro ballplayers often found a far different war. These were men like Corporal Brissie of the 88th Infantry Division, a 6-foot-4 South Carolinian whose blazing fastballs as a left-handed pitcher in textile mill leagues had drawn the notice of Connie Mack, the Athletics’ owner and manager, in June 1941.
After watching Brissie work out, Mack encouraged him to go to college, saying that he would pay for his education and that in a couple of years he could go to spring training with the Athletics.
But Brissie entered the Army in December 1942 after one year playing at Presbyterian College in South Carolina and became a combat infantryman.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1944, he was slogging through the Apennines in northern Italy with his platoon when a German shell exploded beside him. Fragments broke his right foot, injured his right shoulder and shattered the shinbone of his left leg into more than 30 pieces.
As he recalled it long afterward, “My leg had been split open like a ripe watermelon.”
Brissie was evacuated to a hospital in Naples, where an Army surgeon, Dr. Wilbur K. Brubaker, told him he would probably have to amputate his leg, which had become infected.
Brissie explained that he hoped to pitch in the major leagues. Dr. Brubaker wired the shattered bone fragments together and put Brissie on the new “wonder drug” penicillin. His leg was saved, but over the next two years he underwent 23 operations.
Mack encouraged Brissie to hold on to his dream, and in the spring of 1947 he sent him to the Athletics’ minor league team in Savannah, Ga. Brissie wore a metal brace to protect his leg, but he was a sensation, winning 23 games and losing 5.
In September, Brissie made his major league debut for the Athletics, starting for them at Yankee Stadium. He was beaten, 5-3, but he had achieved an ambition that hardly seemed imaginable.
Brissie pitched a complete-game four-hitter to defeat the Boston Red Sox, 4-2, in a doubleheader at Fenway Park opening the 1948 season. But he endured a frightening moment when Ted Williams hit a line drive that caromed off his brace.
“I hit a ball back to the box, a real shot, whack, like a rifle clap,” Williams recalled in his memoir “My Turn at Bat” (1969), written with John Underwood. “Down he goes, and everybody rushes out there, and I go over from first base with this awful feeling I’ve really hurt him. Here’s this war hero, pitching a great game. He sees me in the crowd, looking down at him, my face like a haunt. He says, ‘For chrissakes, Williams, pull the damn ball.’ ”
Brissie had a 14-10 record in 1948. He was 16-11 in 1949, his best season, and pitched three innings in the All-Star Game at Ebbets Field.
“I knew I was a symbol to many veterans trying to overcome problems,” he once said. “I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Leland Victor Brissie was born June 5, 1924, in Anderson, S.C. He pitched for six full seasons in the major leagues. After three years with the Athletics, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in April 1951 and appeared with them mostly in relief. He retired after the 1953 season with a 44-48 career record.
Some batters tried to take advantage of Brissie’s limited mobility coming off the mound by bunting, among them Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto.
But as Brissie put it: “Rizzuto was a great competitor. I always liked him.”
After retiring from the major leagues, Brissie, who lived in North Augusta, S.C., near the Georgia border, directed the American Legion baseball program and worked for a South Carolina state board that trained workers for newly created businesses in the state.
In addition to Diana Brissie, his second wife, he is survived by their daughter, Jennifer Brissie; a son, Rob, and a daughter, Vicki Bishop, from his marriage to his first wife, Dorothy, who died in the 1960s; his stepchildren, Charlotte Klein and Aaron Smith; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1985, Brissie said he had been hesitant to speak about his war wounds, but had begun to offer encouragement to the disabled.
“People with disabilities have told me, ‘Because of you I decided to try,’ ” he said. “That changes you.”
In his later years, walking with crutches, his left leg scarred and misshapen and still prone to infections, Brissie visited the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Augusta to speak with those wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Hospitalized there since July, he watched a ceremony on the Internet in which a high school baseball field in Ware Shoals, S.C., where he once pitched textile league baseball, was named for him on Veterans Day.
Brissie kept a stainless steel watch he had picked up at an Army PX. It was frozen at 10:57:53 a.m., the moment he was hit by that German shell. It served as a reminder of bad luck, but ultimately of his good fortune.
“The thing that I got out of all this,” he told The Augusta Chronicle in 2001, “is even the things that look impossible aren’t.”