Former All-Star Lou Brissie is still soldiering on
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Painkillers could ease the 63-year-old ache. It is hidden under a pair of sensible slacks, a firm handshake and a wrinkled smile. Lou Brissie doesn't talk much about the leg. Every day is a good day, he says. When the infections set in and creep through his bone marrow, Brissie rests. When the scar tissue dries and cracks, he rubs on cocoa butter.
But painkillers? They cloud the mind, and that is the one body part still intact.
"I have a card," Brissie says as he reaches into his tan Members Only jacket. "Every active duty military [person] I see, I give them that card and say, 'Thank you. I'm just an old man, but thank you.'"
The old man wants to make one thing clear: He is not a counselor, a doctor, or an expert. He will not give a dissertation on politics. He doesn't know Generation Y from Preparation H.
Every day is a struggle. He rides down One Freedom Way, past the yellow sign that says the national security threat is elevated, and parks in one of the patriotic lots named Drum, Eagle or Flag. He pushes his 83-year-old body on metal crutches, across concrete and through long, white hospital hallways at the VA Medical Center.
A 23-year-old sergeant from Indiana stops by to see Brissie on Tuesday afternoon, just before Veterans Day. The young soldier fell off a tower in Iraq three months ago, crushed his pelvis, might never regain full use of his arm, and wants to race motorcycles again someday.
If Brissie could do it -- survive after being left for dead, plead with at least three doctors to let him keep his leg because, as he said in a pain-induced fog, "I'm a ballplayer" -- then why can't he? If Brissie could last through 23 surgeries, his body peppered with shrapnel, then why can't Private Richard Servin get back on a motorcycle?
"Some young soldiers come through here and they think it's the roughest time of their lives," Servin says. "When you hear what [Brissie] has been though It takes a big ol' relief off your shoulders."
When Brissie first heard a couple of years ago that active duty servicemen were being treated at his Veterans Hospital in Augusta, he didn't want to bother them. But he brought eight baseballs for them that first time, signed by old-timers from a much different era, and left them to be divvied up among the biggest fans.
Eventually, they wanted much more.
The future seemed as planned as a Southern picnic when Connie Mack spotted him in 1941, a tall, left-handed teenager pitching in a textile league. Brissie's dad was a great admirer of Mack, and one dream melded into another.
Another club offered a fatter contract, but Brissie signed with Mack. The kid had plans to go to college, then crack the Philadelphia Athletics' roster. Pearl Harbor changed things. Brissie and a few of his buddies decided to tank their college classes so they could enlist in the Army.
"There was a unity of purpose in this country," Brissie says, "that I've seen very seldom since."
Winter had set in on the Apennine Mountains in Italy when Brissie's unit, dug in for about a month, was spelled for a few hours one day at 3 a.m. The men enjoyed hot showers, clean clothes and a warm breakfast. On their way back, the trucks were hit by a massive artillery attack. Instinct told them to scatter.
A 170-mm artillery shell exploded near Brissie. At least eight men died around him. Brissie crawled into a creek bed, and saw blood flowing out of his right boot. His left leg, he thought, was gone. It was 10:50 in the morning, his watch frozen from the blast.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, he saw his family at the dinner table with one chair empty. As a kid, Sunday dinner at his grandparents' was always a big deal. But now there was an empty spot, and his grandfather was pointing at it.
"It was indicating to me," Brissie says, "that we've got a place for you."
|Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ira Berkow is writing a book about Lou Brissie. "The Corporal Was a Pitcher: The Courageous Story of Lou Brissie," is set to hit the bookstores next year. In Berkow's research for the book, he discovered that Brissie once hit a triple. Nobody, including Brissie, is quite sure how that happened. In his climb to the majors, Brissie's mobility was so limited by his war injuries that hitters often tried to bunt off him to get on base. "I couldn't run very well," Brissie told ESPN.com. "I was about as fast as syrup."|
Hours went by, and Brissie was left for dead. When he finally was found and loaded onto the front of a jeep, he fell off and injured his right shoulder. A chaplain kneeled beside him just before he was whisked away to surgery. Brissie assumes the chaplain gave him last rites.
In 1944, legs shattered in 30 pieces were amputated. When Brissie woke up, a doctor, Major Wilbur Brubaker, was next to his bed, reading his chart. Brissie made a pitch to keep his leg. Brubaker, who Brissie describes as a quiet man with a commanding presence, made little eye contact and no promises.
"We'll see," Brubaker said.
The doctor saved the leg, but it meant Brissie shuffled through hospitals for 1½ years. When he finally limped out, his left leg was an inch shorter than the right.
Asked if amputation would've been less painful, if seven years of postwar baseball led to six decades of pain, Brissie doesn't even ponder it.
"It's in your heart," he says. "This is something I really wanted to do."
A serviceman at the hospital recently told Brissie about a man he'd befriended in Afghanistan. He was a policeman, and the men laughed and talked and became close.
One day, the policeman walked up to him, raised his pistol and shot the American six times. The soldier didn't know why. He assumes now that the Afghan's family was being held hostage, that he was being forced to take the American out.
The lesson? "From 6 [years old] on up," Brissie says, "anyone could be the enemy.
"If everybody goes to work tomorrow morning and drives or takes the kids to school, and every piece of paper or box you see laying on the road could be a bomb, or every man coming toward you could destroy you and your friends, it's a little bit stressful."
In reality, most of them struggle to feel comfortable. Brissie missed the young, dirty faces he counted on each day for survival. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, which was called battle fatigue back then. He wanted to be alone.
"I know when I came back, my wife and mother were kind of on my case because I'd changed," Brissie says. "You have moments where you just don't want to talk, moments where you just want to get off to yourself. You're inclined to be a little uneasy and nervous. You can't sit and relax.
"And they want you the way you used to be. They don't understand why. One of the prime questions, as I understand, that they ask [is], 'Well, don't you love me anymore?' Well, that wasn't the case at all."
Baseball meant long, humbling days in sandlots, and before that, pitching with crutches. But in September 1947, Brissie made his major league debut for the Athletics at Yankee Stadium. His father wasn't there to see it; he died a year earlier. The Yankees had clinched the pennant weeks before, and the hoopla of the day centered around an old-timers game and an ailing Babe Ruth.
Brissie's comeback story didn't get much play, and it didn't help that he was the losing pitcher that day. Brissie didn't seem to care about the attention or lack of hero worship. He wore a large aluminum brace and a shin protector. His leg was mostly scar tissue, and one sharp lick could've set him back two years.
On Opening Day in 1948 -- Patriots Day -- Brissie started against the Red Sox. Ted Williams hit a line drive that smacked him in the leg. A giant "POW!" shot through Fenway Park as Brissie crumpled him to the ground.
Williams ran from first base to the mound and stood over Brissie to see if he was OK.
"Why in the hell don't you pull the ball?" Brissie said with a smile.
He pitched for seven years, and made the All-Star team in 1949. But intense pain followed him on nearly every trip to the mound. He never told the team doctors about the infections or the pain out of fear they wouldn't let him play. When his leg turned too bright red and swollen, he called Dr. Brubaker, who prescribed antibiotics.
He retired after the 1953 season, but Brissie never really left baseball. Eventually, he became the national director of the American Legion Baseball program.
"It was painful, and it was hard," Brissie says. "[But] I believe in my heart that I'm probably the luckiest guy ever to get to the big leagues."
Dexter Durrante is a seasoned platoon sergeant, a protective leader with a streak of attitude. During Desert Storm, in Somalia and Afghanistan, nobody was badder than Durrante. He had a vibe that seemed to warn the enemy: Don't mess with Dexter!
"I was born in Trinidad, but I love this country," Durrante says. "I love being a soldier. It was designed for me, you know? It's just the pride that I have in wearing the uniform. Just the way it fits, the way everybody else looks at you when you wear it."
Durrante was back in the States in August, a combat engineer on a demo range, disposing of explosives. He spied a piece of a plastic explosive on the ground, picked it up and threw it into the fire. It was the last thing he'd ever see. Witnesses say the shock wave blew him back.
When he first heard about Brissie, he hesitated to visit with him. Durrante wanted to keep a low profile.
"I told him my story, and he invited me back to talk again," Durrante says. "I love his stories, that he didn't let an injury stop him from doing anything. And that's the same attitude I have. Although I don't have eyes, it doesn't really make me any less of a person.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't a train coming at me. I keep heading toward that light."
Durrante's unit is prepping to go back to Afghanistan next year, and it hurts that he won't be with them. Being a soldier is all Durrante knows. His unit has become a family.
"The first thing I want to do is go back to my unit and go for a 6-mile run," Durrante says. "If they see me out there, then they can say that I'm back. Even if I lost my eyes, it's not going to keep me down."
Brissie recently was zooming down an elevator at the hospital when a soldier handed him a commemorative coin. They didn't have these coins back when Brissie was in the Army. He didn't know their meaning, that they are rare rewards, that a soldier might get only one in his life.
When Brissie learned how precious it was, he tried to give the coin back. He told the soldier, Private First Class Jason Rainey, that he didn't deserve it.
"It's not that we relate to his All-Star status," says Dave James, a recreation therapist assistant at the VA Medical Center. "We don't talk about his baseball status. He has just found a way to approach them that they're very receptive to. I don't know what the magic is."
Brissie isn't an expert on anything, really, except maybe baseball. But to the soldiers, he's a hero. Durrante has never seen him, but says he imagines Brissie standing 6-foot-2 with white hair. And maybe, Durrante says, he wears a baseball cap sometimes, on good days.
For the old man, that's every day.Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.