The familiar term “sports hero” is an oxymoron. No offense to the amazing athletes who deliver clutch catches, tackles, dunks or pitches, but “hero” should be reserved for the truly heroic.
For instance, South Carolinian Lou Brissie, who died at age 89 Monday at a veterans hospital in Augusta, was a real hero.
OK, so he objected to being called a “hero.” As he put it: “I don’t think I am. I knew some.”
But if Lou Brissie doesn’t rate hero status, who does?
He didn’t just become an all-star pitcher in the big leagues. He did so after almost losing his left leg in combat.
Born in Anderson and raised in Ware Shoals, he was only 16 when he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. Connie Mack, the team’s owner and manager, agreed to pay for three years of the hot prospect’s education at Presbyterian College.
Then came World War II.
From Tuesday’s Augusta Chronicle: “Brissie twice tried to enlist before he was 18, but his parents refused to sign the papers. Finally, in 1942, he enlisted and went through infantry basic training and by 1943 was deployed to Italy with the 88th Infantry Division.”
And: “On Dec. 7, 1944, Brissie’s unit, advancing in northern Italy, was hit by a German artillery barrage. A 170 mm shell exploded directly at Brissie’s feet, breaking both his ankles and shattering the bones in his lower left leg into 30 pieces.”
Doctors warned that if the leg weren’t amputated, he could die. Cpl. Brissie, citing his planned baseball future, replied, “Doc, I’ll take my chances.”
A mere year and a half later, Mr. Brissie, who was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, was again pitching in an Upstate textile-mill league.
Then, in 1947, though his left leg by then was more than an inch shorter than his right after 23 operations, he went 23-5 with the Savannah Indians of the South Atlantic League. By season’s end, he was pitching for Philadelphia in the American League.
He went 14-10 and 16-11 for the Athletics the next two years, making the 1949 AL all-star team.
Though he retired from the mound after the 1953 season with the Cleveland Indians, he stayed in baseball, serving as national coordinator of American Legion baseball and later as a scout.
Mr. Brisse, who used crutches for the last two decades of his life, also served as a strong inspiration to other Americans scarred by battle.
In recent years, he frequently visited U.S. military members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Augusta baseball historian Lamar Garrard told the Chronicle: “Lou was the embodiment of an American hero — a great man, a gentleman who always thought of others first.”
So when you think about what makes a hero, on or off the field, think about Lou Brissie.