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Lou Brissie, major league pitcher despite war wounds, dies

Lou Brissie, who made an inspiring recovery from severe leg wounds during World War II to become an all-star pitcher in the major leagues, died Monday at a veterans hospital in Augusta, Ga. He was 89.

The cause was cardiopulmonary failure, his wife, Diana Brissie, said.

In 1940, Brissie was a lanky 16-year-old lefthander pitching in an industrial league in South Carolina when he began to attract the attention of baseball scouts. He agreed to join the Philadelphia Athletics after the team owner and manager, Connie Mack, said he would pay Brissie's college tuition for three years.

But with the outbreak of World War II, Brissie left Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., after a year to join the Army. He was a corporal serving in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy when his unit was attacked by German artillery on Dec. 7, 1944.

Eleven soldiers were killed. A shell exploded at Brissie's feet, and he was struck by shrapnel. Both feet were broken, and his lower left leg was shattered. A gaping wound was filled with mud and debris as he tried to crawl to safety across a creek.

Field doctors told him the leg could not be saved and would have to be amputated.

"You can't take my leg off. I'm a ballplayer," Brissie said, according to a 2009 biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ira Berkow.

"You will die if you don't," a doctor said.

"Doc," Brissie replied, "I'll take my chances."

He was taken to a military hospital in Naples, Italy, for the first of 23 operations on his leg.

It took a year before Brissie was able to walk with crutches. By 1946, he was pitching in his old textile-mill league in South Carolina.

Mack, who had stayed in touch with Brissie, offered him a chance to pitch in the minor leagues. His left leg was more than an inch shorter than his right, and he had to wear a bulky protective brace, but Brissie reported in 1947 to the Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League.

He finished the season with a stellar record of 23-5. At the end of the year, he was called up to pitch for the Athletics. His first game was in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1947, facing Hall of Fame greats Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio.

Brissie lost the game, but he began the next season on Philadelphia's big-league roster as his recovery captivated people throughout the country.

The 6-foot-4 Brissie seldom spoke about his injured leg, which was painful and often infected.

"I would put olive oil on the leg, wrap it in an ace bandage," he said in a 2005 interview with Baseball Digest magazine, "then cover it with a sanitary sock before finally putting a magnesium plate, that had holes in it so the leg could breathe, over it for protection."

His first start of the 1948 season came in the second game of an opening-day doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. In the sixth inning, a line drive off the bat of Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams struck Brissie in his left leg, causing him to fall. As players rushed to the mound, Brissie looked up and jokingly asked Williams why he didn't pull the ball to rightfield instead of hitting it up the middle.

He stood and pitched a complete game, beating the Red Sox, 4-2. In a dramatic act of vindication, he struck out Williams in the ninth inning.

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