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Museum exhibit reunites veterans of war and baseball

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    NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Lou Brissie and Morrie Martin shared much more than a uniform when their baseball careers briefly intersected in 1951 as teammates with the Philadelphia Athletics.
    Before they were major leaguers, Brissie and Martin fought for their country during World War II. Both were wounded and nearly lost legs. Both beat long odds to play baseball again.
    Brissie and Martin have kept in touch over the years, but they never traded war stories before they reunited this month at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans for the opening of a new exhibit, ‘‘When Baseball Went to War.’’
    ‘‘You don’t talk about the war in baseball,’’ Martin, 85, later explained during a telephone interview from his home in Washington, Mo.
    Photographs of Brissie and Martin during their playing days are among the exhibit’s pieces, which tell a wide-ranging story about the national pastime — at home and abroad — during the war.
    Brissie, now 83 and living in his native South Carolina, said he enjoyed reminiscing with Martin and other former big leaguers who gathered at the museum over Veterans Day weekend, even if some of their memories weren’t pleasant.
    ‘‘I didn’t realize he had it as tough as he had,’’ Brissie said of Martin’s wartime experience.
    Brissie certainly didn’t have it easy.
    After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Brissie suspended his promising baseball career to enlist in the Army. An artillery shell nearly ended it.
    A squad leader in Italy during World War II, Brissie was returning to the front line when an artillery barrage killed eight members of his unit and wounded several others in December 1944. Brissie, whose left shin was shattered into 30 pieces, begged his doctors not to amputate the leg ‘‘because I was a ballplayer.’’
    Three years, 23 surgeries and 30 blood transfusions later, Brissie joined the Athletics and made his major league debut at Yankee Stadium. A leg brace and shin protector were reminders of the ordeal he endured to salvage his career.
    ‘‘I was probably the most fortunate ballplayer who ever played,’’ recalls Brissie, a left-handed pitcher who played in seven seasons for the Athletics and Cleveland Indians. ‘‘I never gave up on playing.’’
    Neither did Martin, even after a bullet pierced his left thigh while he was helping to build a bridge in Germany in March 1945. He said he needed 155 shots of penicillin to save his leg.
    ‘‘I didn’t know if I could come back or not,’’ he said.
    Martin, who was 20 when he joined the Army in December 1942, had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers before the war took him overseas, first to North Africa and later to Europe. Returning home in August 1945, he recovered from his wounds quickly enough to join the Dodgers for spring training in 1946.
    It wasn’t until 1949, however, that Martin made his major league debut with the Dodgers. His wounds had left the pitcher’s left leg shorter than his right, altering his delivery. And, ‘‘Getting in shape took a little longer,’’ he said.
    Throughout his military service, Martin, a member of the 49th Combat Engineers, said he never picked up a baseball. The war took a toll on his career, but he said he doesn’t have any regrets.
    The war interrupted plenty of careers: Ninety percent of the players on major league rosters at the start of World War II had served in the military by the end of it, according to the exhibit. Two former major leaguers, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, were killed in action.
    Some of the game’s biggest stars served with distinction. Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was a Marine Corps pilot and flight instructor. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama, earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars for his service in the South Pacific.
    ‘‘Just imagine A-Rod or Barry Bonds flying a jet or helicopter, moving troops around Iraq. It’s almost impossible to conceive of,’’ said Bill Nowlin, vice president of the Society of American Baseball Research.
    Todd Anton, a museum trustee and author of a book about baseball’s military veterans, said plenty of lesser-known players served and then returned to the game without fanfare.
    ‘‘It was just part of the time then,’’ he said.
    Baseball on the homefront wasn’t on hiatus even while many of the nation’s best players were overseas.
    After Pearl Harbor, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter asking President Roosevelt whether the show should go on. Roosevelt, who responded with the so-called ‘‘Green Light’’ letter, wrote that ‘‘it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.’’
    A carbon copy of that letter, kept by Roosevelt, is a centerpiece of the museum’s exhibit. Other artifacts on display include military-issued baseball gear, a Navy jumper worn Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto and a replica uniform for the South Bend Blue Sox, one of the teams in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league, which ran from 1943 to 1954, was made famous by the 1992 film, ‘‘A League of Their Own.’’
    Joining Martin and Brissie at the exhibit’s opening were Bob Feller, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and current Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a museum board member. Also in attendance was New Orleans native Herb ‘‘Briefcase’’ Simpson, who was offered a contract with the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues as a teenager. Before he could play for the team, however, he joined the military in 1942.
    In England, Simpson was a Quartermaster Company dispatcher and the only black player on a military ‘‘Battle League’’ team. Returning home in February 1946, he played for a string of Negro Leagues teams.
    A photo of Simpson, now 87, is on display at the museum. His home on the city’s West Bank also is decorated with keepsakes from his military service and baseball career. Simpson said he has fond memories of his service in Europe and cross-country travels as a baseball player, but his voice quavered while he reflected on his wartime experiences.
    ‘‘War ain’t nothing to play with,’’ he said.
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