Lou Brissie, the decorated World War II hero who overcame terrible combat injuries to become a major league baseball all-star, died Monday at the Augusta VA hospital. He was 89.
Although Brissies’s heroic achievement inspired scores of media articles over the years, along with a biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Ira Berkow, it was the gracious way the longtime North Augustan lived his life after baseball that continued to generate respect and admiration in the community.
“He was a great inspiration to me and countless others over his lifetime,” said local baseball historian Lamar Garrard, who inspired the renaming of Brissie’s high school baseball field in his honor on Veterans Day. “Lou was the embodiment of an American hero ... A great man, a gentleman who always thought of others first. His accomplishments and achievements overcoming adversity will be remembered as the ultimate in courage and sacrifice. What a wonderful example he set for everyone. He will be greatly missed.”
Longtime friend Milledge Murray, also of North Augusta, said: “Lou Brissie lived the life of a true American patriot. He spent many, many years going to the VA, talking to the wounded and giving them encouragement.
The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church. The Rev. James D. Dennis Jr. and Dr. T. Joseph Lusk will officiate. Burial with veterans honors will be in Pineview Memorial Park.
Born in Anderson, S.C., and raised in Ware Shoals, Leland Victor Brissie Jr. began playing textile baseball as a 14-year-old, 6-foot-4 pitcher and first baseman.
By the time he was 16, he had more than a dozen pro offers. One of them was from Connie Mack and the then-Philadelphia A’s. Mack signed him to a contract in 1941 and sent him to play at Presbyterian College.
But World War II intervened. Brissie twice tried to enlist before he was 18, but his parents refused to sign the papers. Finally, in 1942, he enlisted and went through infantry basic training and by 1943 was deployed to Italy with the 88th Infantry Division.
On Dec. 7, 1944, Brissie’s unit, advancing in northern Italy, was hit by a German artillery barrage. A 170 mm shell exploded directly at Brissie’s feet, breaking both his ankles and shattering the bones in his lower left leg into 30 pieces.
“I tried to crawl into a creek bed and up against a bank to get some kind of protection,” he told The Augusta Chronicle in a 2007 interview. “I was kind of halfway out on the other side from the waist up and I rolled over. I looked down and could see one boot sticking out of the water and see the blood coming out at the instep where that foot was hit. On the other side I couldn’t see my foot and at that point I thought I lost my leg. But the bones had been messed up so bad that the foot had just flopped over.”
The 10-minute attack killed three officers and eight more soldiers. Brissie was taken to two field hospitals, where the doctors believed amputation was the only option, but he talked them out of it.
“I just told them I wouldn’t be able to play baseball without a leg,” he said. “I can’t tell you what they were thinking, but in any event they didn’t do it and that was my good fortune.”
His better fortune came at the third hospital he had been to in three days – the 300th General in Naples, where Dr. Wilbur Brubaker saved his leg with what would become the first of 23 surgeries that involved everything from removing bone and shell fragments to reconstruction. For the five or six surgeries Brubaker performed on Brissie, he received a surgeon general’s commendation for revolutionary techniques.
Brissie left the military with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Combat Infantry Award and a reconstructed leg.
It took more than a year before he could even walk with a cane. When he was strong enough, he started pitching again in textile ball for the Ware Shoals mill team in 1946.
“Somebody said one time that great goals are not achieved over a period of time; it’s every day,” he later told The Chronicle. “You just have little small victories each day that help you. It was one of those victories, but it was a pretty good-size one, because a lot of folks never thought I would get that far.”
Encouraged, he went to Philadelphia to work out for Mack and signed again with the Athletics.
He was sent to the minor league team in Savannah, Ga., and became a star.
Brissie started the season 13-0 and continued to dominate in leading the team to a title. He finished the year 23-5, leading the league in ERA (1.91) and strikeouts (278). The day after the team clinched the pennant, Mack called him up to Philadelphia.
On Sept. 28, 1947, Brissie took the mound in Yankee Stadium as the Philadelphia starter against the team that would go on to win the World Series. But that was only half the thrill. That was the day the Yankees had chosen to honor Babe Ruth, who was in bad shape, recovering from throat surgery.
For the occasion, an old-timers exhibition was played before the regular game. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville and Dizzy Dean all participated.
Brissie lost the game to the eventual World Series champs, 5-2, but the next season he was the A’s Opening Day pitcher. In the sixth inning of that game against Boston, one of baseball’s all-time greatest hitters, Ted Williams, lined a shot that struck him directly on his reconstructed left leg and knocked him down.
“The only thing that I recalled thinking was that I might be right back where I started,” he said.
After a few minutes on the ground, Brissie realized his leg wasn’t broken and he felt he could continue. As he started to get up he saw Williams – himself a war veteran – standing over him, concerned.
“Why the hell don’t you pull the ball?” Brissie asked.
That became an inside joke between them, he recalled, and Brissie is one of only three pitchers who ever struck Williams out twice in a game.
Brissie went 14-10 his rookie season as the A’s nearly rallied to win the American League pennant. He went 16-11 the next year and became an All-Star. He pitched three innings in that midsummer game in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
In 1951, he was traded to Cleveland, where he became a reliever behind one of the greatest starting rotations in baseball – Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.
Since retiring in 1953 with a 44-48 record, 29 saves and 4.07 career ERA, Brissie did numerous things, from serving as the national director for American Legion Baseball to supporting the effort to enshrine “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His story and modesty certainly earned the admiration of his peers.
“Lou Brissie’s accomplishments in life and baseball reflect the very best of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ ” Garrard said. “When you realize the insurmountable adversity that he overcame to become an all-star major league pitcher, you see greatness.”
Despite everything he did, Brissie always shook his head when someone called him a hero.
“I don’t think I am,” he said. “I knew some.”