Monday, March 5, 2012

Amputee Baseball after World War Two-The National Amps

It looks like a close play at second…the runner is going all out, the shortstop is in position and lays down a stinging tag.  Yikes! The base runner has a badly broken leg.  Is it time for a stint on the Disabled List, and a frantic call to the minors?  Well, no, how about a helping hand up, some commiseration on the shortcomings of conventional prosthetics, and a time out to strap on a new leg. 

Welcome to the odd world of amputee baseball in the years following World War Two.

Those of us born in later generations have a difficult time comprehending the magnitude of our national effort in that war.  Most families had their men in uniform.  Most communities large and small had native sons that never returned, or that came back grievously wounded.

Those who did come home faced neither the shameful hostility of the post Vietnam era, nor the ticker tape parades of other conflicts.  It was all pretty much matter of fact, the men just came back and got about building the American Dream.

But for men seriously wounded there was often a long stay in the hospitals of the Veterans Administration. 

In the New York area there was an active collaboration between the VA and the local sports community.  Servicemen were given discount admission to events, and for disabled servicemen the Yankees, Knicks, Rangers and various boxing venues offered free seats, often among the best in the house.  The Physical Therapy department of the VA was instrumental in arranging this, and even provided buses for transportation. 

At some point the decision was made for the spectators to become participants, and the National Amputee baseball teams were born.

Twice weekly practices were established at the ball fields on Randall’s Island under the Tri-Borough bridge. 
The bridges and the ball fields are still there.

Eventually there were teams organized along two different lines.  One was geographic, with the New Jersey Amps and the New York Amps contending.  Given that the baseball world of the late 1940’s had the New York area as its heart and soul it is not surprising that teams were set up this way.  Later, and for special occasions, another system was employed.

Exactly who deserves credit for the idea of the National Amps remains a little uncertain. There were a few amputee baseball teams in the 19th century, particularly among railroad workers, where industrial accidents were tragically frequent.  And there was also a vague collective memory of an amputee team of veterans existing after the First World War.  I have unearthed a single photograph dated 1921, but no further details.

But perhaps is was not a coincidence that there were two World War I veterans associated with the National Amps.  One was a Jimmy Schneider, who served as a coach despite having minimal baseball experience. He was said to be so articulate in his support of the amputee vets that “music came out of his mouth”.  The other was a Morris Novgrad, an attorney who was Chairman of the Baseball Committee for the National Amputee Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans organization. 

Some credit Novgrad with the idea, although a VA physical therapist named Jerry Gerace appears to have been the chief organizer. 

Soon, up to 300 amputees were attending the practices.  Single and even double amputees tried out for the teams, with Gerace doing the actual selection. It was now the summer of 1948 and the teams were no longer primarily comprised of hospitalized veterans, but of men who had finished their rehabilitation and were back in the community.  For instance, Gale Beccue, a former Ranger (Army, not Texas) and leg amputee, was working in Hoboken and tracked the group down after reading a newspaper article about them.

Gale Beccue in uniform

In addition to the practices each of the two Amps teams would play roughly a dozen exhibition games.  The opponents were varied.  Sometimes they would play each other as a benefit for a local VFW, on other occasions they would play American Legion All Star teams. Area colleges such as St. Johns and Adelphi took the field against the Amps.  Once they were said to have played the Kenosha team from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League who were in the area for a spring training/recruiting trip.  Scores were not always kept, but apparently they lost to the Legion All Stars and managed to defeat “the Girls”. 

Since many of these exhibition games were benefits for veteran’s groups there was generally a gathering afterwards, either a potluck or a dinner out at the best restaurant in town. 

The amputee teams attracted a fair amount of publicity.  Box scores of some of their games appeared in the local press and on radio, and they were also invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan show.  

Another invitation, that seems to have occurred several times, was to stay at Grossinger’s, a popular Catskills resort.  This was a traditional hangout for professional boxers and baseball players, particularly the New York Yankees.  The Amps, 30 players and their wives, stayed “on the house”, played a little ball to entertain patients from the local VA hospital, and were cheered on by such notables as Hank Bauer and Mel Allen.

Some of the players labored under greater adversity than others.  Sol Kaminsky played despite being a double leg amputee.  Bill Marino being a one armed pitcher played barehanded.  Some of the arm amputees had to develop an odd batting style, somewhat akin to a tennis back stroke.

But despite these adversities, and the good-natured tone of the competitions, the players worked hard.  They certainly looked the part of serious players, being outfitted in professional quality uniforms obtained from Friedman’s Athletic Store.

For several years in the late 40s and early 50s Horace Stoneman, owner of the New York Giants, turned the Polo Grounds over to the National Amps periodically for benefit games.  These were major events, with twelve to eighteen thousand fans in attendance.  Promotional artwork, done by the cartoonist Al Capp, appeared on posters and mail trucks for a month prior to the event.  Capp as it happens was also an amputee, but as a result of a childhood injury.
Illustration by Al Capp, and featuring his famous Shmoos

The usual arrangement was to pool the players from the New York Amps and the New Jersey Amps, and then pick two teams designated The Broken Wings and The Flat Tires.  This of course pitted players who were leg amputees against arm amputees.  The only exception made was the realization that the Broken Wings would need a catcher with two arms, so Gale Beccue was “traded” to the Wings for the day.
The Broken Wings

And the Flat Tires.  Note that both squads, circa 1948, are integrated.

The games at the Polo grounds were generally the only time that the most famous of the amputee players took the field.

Bert Shepard was a sore-armed minor league pitcher, put on waivers and seemingly out of baseball when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.  Trained as a P-38 pilot he was shot down over Europe just prior to D-day.  Losing a leg he was remarkably able to begin his rehabilitation while still in a German prison camp, with the help of an improvised prosthesis.  After being repatriated he was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical hospital when the Assistant Secretary of War stopped by to hand out some medals.  Asked what he planned to do next in life Bert answered that he wanted to play professional baseball.

A tryout with the Washington Senators was arranged, where he proved able to pitch, hit and even field the occasional bunted ball.  Bert made the team, but rode the bench until late in the 1945 season, when he was called in to finish up in a game where the Senators were losing badly.  In his one appearance in the Majors, Bert Shepard threw some solid innings, only gave up one run, and went 0 for his career as a batter.

By the time the National Amps teams were active Shepard was still in professional baseball, but as a player-manager in the minor leagues.  So his availability for exhibition games was limited.

Jerry Gerace was able to impartially manage both teams, which is in itself likely to be a unique accomplishment.

For the record, the score of one Flat Tires-Broken Wings game had the Wings scraping out an 8-7 victory.

Once in 1950 a National Amps all-star team faced off at the Polo Grounds against a squad called The Broadway All Stars.  The roster of the Broadway team has not been preserved, but members of the Amps recall a wide array of luminaries from the sporting and entertainment worlds taking the field.

Al Schact a former major leaguer and “baseball comedian” was their first pitcher.  Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean pitched next, with Mel Allen, the long time Yankees announcer finishing the pitching duties.  Lanny Ross, a popular singer of the day played, but not well.  Several women rotated in briefly, and by some accounts Bing Crosby and Ed Sullivan made short appearances!  An ambiguous photo suggest the celebreties were wearing uniforms from the Friars' Club.

The benefit games played at the Polo Grounds were financially successful to the point that the Disabled American Veterans amputees chapter was able to purchase a headquarters in New York City that remains in use to this day.

From their beginnings in 1948 the National Amps teams were active for about five years.  There was no formal disbanding, in the way of old soldiers they just faded away.  Wheelchair basketball became more popular.  The players got a little older, and a little more involved in other activities.  At least two of them got jobs as representatives for prosthetics manufacturers.  Bert Shepard eventually gave up on his baseball dreams and had a long career in industry, as well as winning the National Amputee golf championship several times.  Well into his 80’s he claimed he could still fly a P-38 if anybody would put him at the controls again.

Most players like Gale Beccue just moved on, started families, playing a little softball or town league baseball on the side.

The world since 1945 has hardly become a more peaceful place.  Indeed, the heyday of the National Amps was contemporary to the Korean Conflict and the beginning of the Cold War.

Although more recent wars have not involved the massive numbers of soldiers who fought in World War Two there is still a need for services for amputee veterans.  Indeed, with recent advances in trauma care, as well as improved body armor, the percentages of injured veterans who are amputees is almost certainly higher.

Since baseball no longer has quite the iconic status as “The National Pastime” it is a bit surprising that amputee baseball has made a modest comeback.

Noe Santos is a Third Infantry soldier injured by an IED while serving in Iraq.  He lost a leg, and suffered traumatic brain injury resulting in a long stay at Walter Reed.  Unable to remember much beyond names of family members he was being readied for transfer to a rehab facility, when one morning he could recall the entire Yankees lineup.

On May 4th, 2006 Santos was one of 14 injured servicemen from Washington area hospitals who squared off at Prince William County Stadium, in Woodbridge Va.  They were wearing the jerseys of their favorite major league teams, courtesy of the DAV, Rawlings Sporting Goods, and the minor league Potomac Nationals who were hosting the event.

The game ended in a friendly 14-14 tie.  The sun shone brightly, there were plays close enough to argue about, and afterwards they all went out to a local restaurant.  All in all a fun day, and one that the Amps of two generations earlier would have appreciated.

But I think the original Amps were a tough enough bunch that they would have razzed Tim Taylor, another former 3rd Infantry soldier who “didn’t slide into a base because he wanted to keep his jersey pristine”.

(I wrote this story a few years ago, and it originally appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly in 2008)

Photos are courtesy of the DAV with the exception of the Beccue photograph, courtesy of the Beccue family.

Coming up Wednesday: more tales of the old National Amps, and the 2012 Wounded Warriors team!

1 comment:

Borepatch said...

Wow, that's some perspective. Thanks, Tacitus.