North Augusta had a dilemma, and it figured out the perfect solution.
The border city’s sports commission created a hall of fame for local athletes of distinction. Since 2005 it has inducted 27 people and one football team, and on Saturday night it will add three more individuals and another championship team to its honor roll.
That hall, however, doesn’t include perhaps the city’s most famous and distinguished athlete who has been a gem of the community since 1974. A decorated war hero who beat outlandish odds to become a Major League Baseball all-star. A tireless advocate for American Legion baseball as its former national director and one of the pioneers of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
Lou Brissie’s athletic achievements were fulfilled long before he moved to his modest home on White Pine Drive nearly 40 years ago. Thus the dilemma.
“Lou didn’t fit into our parameters for the hall of fame because he didn’t do anything while in North Augusta,” said John Felak, the chairman of the North Augusta Sports Commission. “His career was long over. But such a renowned sports name who has been such a joy to our community, a group proposed to somehow honor Lou.”
That group, spearheaded by local sports historians Milledge Murray and Lamar Garrard, came up with an inspired idea. The commission created the Lou Brissie Award to recognize contributions to the community with a focus on athletics.
The first recipient at Saturday night’s banquet will be Brissie himself.
“It’s overwhelming really,” said Brissie, now 87 and still recovering from neck and rib injuries sustained in a recent traffic accident. “I’m really at kind of a loss to explain how it makes me feel. It’s just so surprising. It’s very thoughtful and I’m really excited about it. Overwhelmed is the best word I can come up with.”
Modesty is an abundant trait in a man who by all rights should have lost his left leg in World War II after a 170mm shell exploded directly at his feet on the front lines of northern Italy on Dec. 7, 1944.
Grantland Rice – a sports writing giant and a founding member at Augusta National – once wrote, “There have been many stories about servicemen who barely escaped death and returned to play ball again. Lou Brissie’s case puts him on top.”
A brief retelling of Brissie’s tale is in order. The Anderson, S.C., native played textile ball for Ware Shoals and pitched for Presbyterian College after the Philadelphia A’s Connie Mack signed him to a contract in 1941. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Italy with the 88th Infantry Division.
During an assault on his squad that killed three officers and eight more soldiers, an explosion broke both of Brissie’s ankles, severed an artery and shattered the bones in his lower left leg into 30 pieces. He pleaded with field hospital doctors not to amputate.
He left the military with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Combat Infantry Award and a reconstructed leg that required 23 operations and countless hours of rehabilitation over the next three years,
He returned to baseball, signing another contract with the A’s in 1947. He went 23-5 with a league-leading 1.91 ERA and 278 strikeouts for Savannah in the South Atlantic League that season and was called up in September to the majors.
He went 14-10 as a rookie in 1948 and 16-11 the next season, earning a spot in the All-Star Game. He finished his career as a reliever in Cleveland, retiring in 1953 with a 44-48 record, 29 saves, 436 strikeouts and a 4.07 career ERA.
“I’m probably the most fortunate ballplayer who ever played, in a lot of ways,” he said in 2007.
His story is still inspiring wounded veterans today, as Brissie frequently spends time with the young men who remind him so much of his peers during WWII.
“They are a marvelous group, all volunteers,” he said. “It’s encouraging to be around them. I think when I visit with them it does a lot more for me than it does for them.”
One wounded vet asked Brissie what he should tell his mother who was pushing him to talk about things he wasn’t ready to talk about.
“I can only tell you what worked for me,” Brissie said. “I said, ‘Mom, I love you more than anything. You’ve done so much for me. I can never thank you enough. I’ll make you this promise. When I can, I’ll talk to you first.’
He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I think that will work with my mom, too.’”
It’s no wonder North Augusta figured out a way to recognize him.
“He definitely deserves this type of honor,” said Lee Sheridan, who retired in 1991 after a 37-year career in radio and television in the Augusta area and will introduce Brissie at Saturday’s banquet. “He’s been a credit to this community in all of these ways and continues to do that every way he possibly can.”
Brissie has received many awards through the years. Savannah held a day in his honor. He received the Order of the Palmetto from South Carolina. He’s an honorary citizen of a variety of places including New Orleans, Philadelphia and Nebraska. The National American Legion commission gave him an award at Cooperstown. He received the Audie Murphy Award at the American Veterans Center in 2008 on behalf of Major League Baseball veterans of WWII. He was one of the first 12 people named as Presidents Council Fitness Leaders.
Brissie even had a winning race horse named after him by Dogwood Stable’s Cot Campbell.
But he’s never had an award in his name – a fitting tribute to a man who represented sports with humility and grace and a lasting legacy in the town he calls home.
“It’s truly a great honor,” he said.
The honor, truly, is all ours.