Ware Shoals names baseball field to honor native son on Veterans Day

11/11/2013 9:15 PM

11/11/2013 9:16 PM

Think about heroes and Lou Brissie should be on every list.

Never heard of him? The folks in Ware Shoals certainly have.

He’s one of them.

Brissie got the start there that led to his climb to baseball’s major leagues, but his record (44-48 over seven seasons) is not the reason the baseball field at Ware Shoals High was named in his honor.

Rather, he was saluted Monday, Veterans Day, for being Lou Brissie, an unassuming hero who overcame so much and did so much.

Brissie is a member of the Greatest Generation — the generation who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II. He suffered an injury so bad that doctors wanted to amputate his shattered leg. He had been left for dead in the mountains of Northern Italy on Dec. 7, 1944, and the promising baseball career that had blossomed in Ware Shoals seemed obliterated by the German mortar that decimated his unit.

“But I’m a ballplayer,” Brissie told Army medical staffers, and doctors found a way to save his leg and his dream.

Three years and 23 surgeries later, Brissie pitched in the major leagues.

He always rejected the hero suggestion, claiming in interviews with the national media or in informal chats that included Bill Voiselle, another former major league pitcher, and legendary state senator John Drummond. “I’m not a hero,” he would say, “but I knew some.”

But those who know him beg to differ. How many pitchers won 44 major-league games basically on one leg and, more important, gave so much of himself to others?

His story is one of perseverance, of overcoming immense odds to succeed, and what better way to honor him than in the place the dream took root. Putting his name on the baseball facility should be a reminder to those who follow of the value of an unyielding work ethic.

Brissie, 89 and hospitalized in Augusta, was unable to attend the ceremony. But his wife, Diana, and other family members attended.

Diana Brissie called the event “a home run.”

Fay S. Sprouse, superintendent of Ware Shoals School District 51, called the ceremony “flawless, meaningful.” She said a message that Brissie recorded earlier was played.

Brissie spent his post-baseball days striving to expand the American Legion baseball program, working in private industry and later serving on the South Carolina State Board of Technical Education.

A native of Anderson, he graduated from Ware Shoals High in 1941, and the school did not have a baseball team. No problem; he pitched on the Riegels team in the Textile League, a brand of competition that observers insist ranked with the high minors. He pitched for the B-team at age 14 and the big team a year later.

The tall left-hander drew attention from baseball scouts and the Brissie family worked out a deal with the Philadelphia A’s. He would attend Presbyterian College for three years, then join the pros.

The war intervened, and he enlisted.

Brissie said there was a sense of unity in the country then that he has seldom seen since.

Brissie returned to baseball in 1947 wearing a special brace and dominated the South Atlantic League, winning 23 games. The A’s called him to the majors in September and he made his debut against the world-champion-to-be Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

He lost on a day that is more remembered for the Yankees honoring the terminally ill Babe Ruth. But he won 14 games for the A’s a year later and 16 more in 1949 — a season in which he made the American League All-Star team.

Brissie retired from baseball in 1953 and has lived in North Augusta in recent years. But he never forgot Ware Shoals. A few years ago, he proposed a veterans memorial for the town and made the first contribution. At the dedication ceremonies, he made the keynote address.

Says Tom Martin, a Ware Shoals High alumnus and a member of the Lou Brissie Field project: “He was clearly one of the athletic heroes of World War II, rising to All-Star fame in the major leagues after miraculously recovering from devastating war injuries. And what he has done since has been not only inspirational to so many but also life-changing to veterans and their families.”

He could often be found at the VA Medical Center in Augusta, telling his story and listening and sharing and encouraging.

He received treatment there, too; the pain that started almost 69 years ago never went away. But that did not stop him from living a life to remember.

The folks in Ware Shoals made sure Monday, Veterans Day, that Lou Brissie, hero, will not be forgotten.

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