War hero, baseball star Lou Brissie dies

Longtime North Augustan overcame war injuries to become all-star pitcher

File photo
Lou Brissie holds his Cleveland Indians baseball card.
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 7:18 AM
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 7:25 AM
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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.

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Lou Brissie
Lou Brissie

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.”

Comments (7) Add comment
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dwb619
93137
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dwb619 11/26/13 - 09:53 am
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A GREAT AMERICAN HERO!

A GREAT AMERICAN HERO!

Riverman1
83521
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Riverman1 11/26/13 - 10:17 am
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A real hero and patriot. He

A real hero and patriot. He used to visit the same dentist that I saw. An easy going and humble person.

dbranyon
7
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dbranyon 11/26/13 - 10:41 am
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Lou Brissie

Despite all his accomplishments in the face of such adversity, he remained very humble. When honored for his war efforts, he would humbly accept on behalf of his Ware Shoals High graduating class of 1941, explaining many of his boyhood friends never made it back home. And so he gave them the credit, downplaying what he had done to survive and eventually pitch in the major leagues. What a patriot!

grinder48
1945
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grinder48 11/26/13 - 10:51 am
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WOW!
Unpublished

God bless you Mr. Brissie

justthefacts
21699
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justthefacts 11/26/13 - 02:36 pm
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Some Life

Quite a man.

RdaveJames2
5
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RdaveJames2 11/26/13 - 07:53 pm
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"The Loss of A True American Hero"

The United States of America, Veterans, Baseball Fans, The CSRA, and especially me, have all loss a "True American Hero".
Mr. Lou Brissie was a personal, trusted, and admirable friend of mines for many years. My recent visits with him during his recovery in the hospital were always met with the same smile, strong handshake, and consistent kind words, wisdom and optimistic outlook will forever be cherished. May God be with you my friend until we meet again!

deestafford
27412
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deestafford 11/27/13 - 09:11 am
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Even though this is an excellent well written column it is

nothing compared to Lou Brissie's book, "The Corporal Was a Pitcher". It is a must read for so many reasons and baseball being only one. The commitment Mr Connie Mack made to Lou when he was injured and how he continued to encourage and believe in him is so heart warming. I don't know where one can find the book but do everything possible to get yourself a copy.

I was fortunately enough to have him autograph a copy of his book and a baseball for me when he was signing books at Books-A-Million. It was my second "Lou Brissie" autographed baseball. His signature is very neat, steady and clear. One would have thought at his age the signature would have been a little shaky but not Lou's.

The first I got when he was playing in my hometown of Savannah. As balls were rather scarce in my youth, it ended up being played with and having the cover eventually being knocked off and replaced with black tape.

Another great American hero and individual is now answering the Lord's roll call in heaven.

bschil
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bschil 11/27/13 - 02:08 pm
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In 2009 I attended a luncheon

In 2009 I attended a luncheon where he was guest speaker. We talked about old Philadelphia A's players I remembered as a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. Lou very graciously autographed an old Philadelphia A's cap which I treasure to this day. He was a great guy and a superb role model.

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