Leland “Lou” Brissie had the double distinction of being both a war hero during World War II and an All-Star pitcher in Major League Baseball.
The first distinction, however, nearly kept the second from happening.
At 16, Brissie was pitching in the textile baseball leagues in Ware Shoals. He was impressive enough to attract an offer from the Dodgers, but his father urged him to turn it down and work out in front of Connie Mack. Mack recommended that Brissie attend and pitch in college and, then, try out then.
He pitched for Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. that year. However, duty called during World War II and he entered on Dec. 1942 as a infantryman in the Army.
Brissie’s life and career in sports changed on Dec. 7, 1944. On that day, while serving in Italy with the 88th Infantry Division, Brissie was severely injured when a German shell exploded nearby. The shell shattered his left shinbone into more than 30 pieces. He also broke his left ankle and right foot.
The doctors wanted to amputate Brissie’s leg, but he was able to persuade the medical personnel to send him to an evacuation hospital in Naples, Italy. He told his doctor that he wanted to pitch in the major leagues and the doctor decided to put him on penicillin and worked to save his leg. Over the course of the next two years, Brissie would go through 23 operations to repair his leg.
Connie Mack continued to stay in touch with Brissie and gave him an opportunity to try out in 1947 during spring training. Brissie was assigned to the minor league team in Savannah and pitched with a leg brace. He excelled with a 23-5 record and a 1.91 earned run average. It was enough to earn him a chance with the Philadelphia Athletics at the end of the season.
He started 1948 with the team and pitched to a 14-10 record. One of Brissie’s biggest seasons came in 1949 with the Athletics. Brissie finished with a 16-11 record, 118 strikeouts and a 4.28 ERA, in 229.1 innings pitched. That season, Brissie was named the American League All-Star Team.
He pitched for the Athletics from 1947 to 1951. He was traded during the 1951 season to the Cleveland Indians and pitched there through the end of the 1953 season. His career totals include a 44-48 record in 897.2 innings pitched. He also had 436 strikeouts and a 4.07 career earned run average.
Grantland Rice, famed sportswriter who coined the Four Horseman nickname for Notre Dame’s football team in the 1920s, wrote about the courageous performance of Brissie in an article in Sport magazine in 1948 on the stars of the Textile League.
“Venerable Connie Mack came up with one of the real finds of the year,” Rice wrote. “Lou Brissie, a 215-pound southpaw, has captured the hearts of baseball fans everywhere by his courageous triumph over a severe leg injury and by his performance on the mound.”
“There have been many stories of servicemen who barely escaped death and returned to play ball again. Lou Brissie’s case puts him on top. Brissie’s left leg was all but torn away by shell fragments in the Italian campaign. Only his great determination to play baseball again saved Brissie from losing the the leg. With the help of a heavy protective brace, Lou returned to the mound, winning 23 and losing only 5 in the Sally League last year.”
Brissie was June 5, 1924 in Anderson, South Carolina. He graduated from Ware Shoals High School in Ware Shoals, South Carolina. Today, Brissie lives in North Augusta, S.C. Following his career in baseball, Brissie became the national director of the American Legion baseball program.
In 1994, he was inducted into the South Atlanta League’s Hall of Fame.
Brissie kept one thing from his incident during the war. He had a stainless steel watch that stopped on 10:57:53 AM. That was the moment the the shell struck.
Lou Brissie died on November 25, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.
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Sources: NY Times obituary, personal interview