Sadly, Brissie who dreamed not of greatness but of merely being able to play the game that he loved so much, had his life, like so many other lives, interrupted by the Second World War. By the end of the War, Brissie’s body, and his dreams, would be shattered by German artillery in Northern Italy. In The Corporal was a Pitcher (Triumph Books 2009, 253 pages), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ira Berkow brings us the story of Leland Victor (“Lou”) Brissie, Jr. and the courage of one man who overcame tremendous odds to reclaim his dreams despite horrific adversity, and become a beacon of hope for a multitude of wounded and maimed veterans and children throughout America.
Lou Brissie was born in 1924 in Anderson, South Carolina. A child of the Great Depression, Brissie grew up in the mill town of Ware Shoals, South Carolina. It was there that he learned to play baseball. As a child, his first catcher was his uncle Robert, only five years his senior. (Robert would die in the North African campaign of 1943.) By the time Brissie was 14, he would be a dominant pitcher in a very competitive men’s mill league, and was known for striking out the league’s best hitters.
Brissie’s success in the mill league brought him to the attention of baseball’s iconic Connie Mack, the manager and owner of the Philadelphia A’s. Mack believed that Brissie would eventually be a Hall of Fame pitcher and agreed with Brissie that he would pay for Brissie to attend college, so that he could learn the finer points of being a ball player and that Brissie would then have a chance to try out with the A’s.
His future seemingly set, in late 1941 the inevitable entry of the USA into World War II radically changed Brissie’s path. He joined the army after he turned 18 and was eventually promoted to corporal. On December 7, 1944, Corporal Leland Victor Brissie, an infantry squad leader in G Company, 351st Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division, Fifth Army, was riding in a seven truck convoy in the Apennines Mountains of Northern Italy. Brissie’s convoy suffered under a devastating artillery barrage that killed most of Brissie’s squad. He was horrifically wounded with shrapnel tearing into most of his body. He crawled away from the area of the artillery barrage and blacked out, the lower half of his body submerged in a small stream. Eight hours later, medical corpsmen found him and his odyssey to recovery began.
Doctor’s initially wanted to amputate Brissie’s left leg. It was shattered beyond almost all hope of repair but Brissie objected, “You can’t take my leg off. I’m a ballplayer. I can’t play on one leg.” When his doctor told him that he would die without the amputation, Brissie responded, “Doc. I’ll take my chances.” Fortunately for Brissie, gangrene never took hold in his wound and he did not have to have it amputated because he found a doctor who was willing to treat him without amputating. Even more fortunately, the use of penicillin to fight infection was finally becoming standard medical procedure and Brissie was the first man in the Italian theater to be administered the new wonder drug. That, plus dozens of operations, painful rehabilitation and Brissie’s own unfailing desire to someday play baseball again, allowed Brissie to keep his left leg.
Throughout his two year convalescence, Brissie stayed in close touch with Connie Mack and Mack, true to his word encouraged Brissie to try out for the team in 1947. No one thought Brissie could ever make it to the team, probably including Mack. Brissie's left leg was barely more than a toothpick and constantly suffered from recurring infections, his skin cracking and oozing pus when he put too much pressure on the leg. Indeed, the only way Brissie could stand on his leg at all was by wearing a bulky brace that would help support his frame – he was over six feet four inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Brissie, however, surprised them all. In 1947 he was a phenomenon in the minor leagues and in 1948 he was in the major leagues for the beginning of a seven year career.
Despite appalling injury, Lou Brissie had achieved his dream of playing professional baseball and, in doing so, he became the hope for thousands of horrifically wounded GI’s and disabled children throughout America. Following his playing career, he would go on to work in youth baseball and was a major force in establishing pitch count standards for youth baseball players so that they could preserve their arms. He spent two years teaching baseball in Australia as part of a US-government sponsored program. Indeed, he did many things, but none was as great as the simple task of learning to walk again in the years after artillery forced him out of the war.
The Corporal was a Pitcher is not a war story. Nor is it a baseball story. It is the story of one man who, despite all the odds against him, refused to give up his dream. More than that, it is the story of one man who learned that by living out his own dream, he gave thousands of maimed veterans the ability to dream again. Whether you are interested in military history, baseball history or simply the story of one man who conquered great odds to achieve more than could reasonably be expected of him, you must read this book.
Edited by dgmitchell, 01 July 2009 - 09:59 PM.