Forgotten Stories of Courage and Inspiration: Gene Bearden

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IApril 22, 2009

This article is the first in a series, dedicated to Bryn Swartz, who reminds me of myself at his agethoroughly devoted to the rich history of sports.

On Thursday, March 18, 2004, most of the country took little notice that Harry Eugene Bearden, 83, died in Alexander City, Alabama, a tiny town of just 16,000.

Gene Bearden was born on Sept. 5, 1920, in a town—Lexa, Ark.—that is far tinier (population: 331) than the city in which he died. His father was a railway worker, and the family moved around a lot; he finished high school in nearby Memphis, Tenn. and was a first baseman for local sandlot teams.

Signed by the Phillies organization in 1939, he was farmed out to the Moultrie Packers of the Georgia-Florida League. Though going only 5-11 his rookie year, he was promoted to Miami Beach of the Florida State League in 1940.

He blossomed, crafting an 18-10 record while leading the circuit in earned-run average (1.63) and shutouts (5). He starred with Miami Beach for two more years before being called up to Savannah and Augusta in the South Atlantic League in 1942.

That’s when Bearden’s life took an almost tragic turn.

Bearden answered the call to military service, joining the Navy in 1942 and being assigned to the engine room of the ill-fated USS Helena.

As any student of history knows, the USS Helena was torpedoed by Japanese U-boats on July 6, 1943 in the Battle of Kula Gulf, in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea.

The ship was struck three times. After the first torpedo rocked the cruiser, U.S. troops began evacuation. When the second and third struck seconds apart, Bearden was hurtled from a ladder and landed awkwardly onto the boat’s deck—head first.

Bearden suffered a deep gash in his head and a fractured skull. His right kneecap was crushed to the point of being irreparable. Multiple ligaments in his knee were shredded. Medics figured he would never walk again.

Multiple surgeries were performed, and an aluminum cap was screwed into his knee as a substitute for his shattered patella. A metal plate was implanted into his fractured skull.

At the hospital, doctors gave him zero hope of playing professional baseball ever again.

Bearden’s rehabilitation was so tedious that he remained in the hospital for some two-and-a-half years before he was finally discharged early in 1945.

Amazingly, Bearden was playing baseball again later on in 1945. With his reconstructed right leg, Bearden’s velocity took a nose dive. This left him to become a left-handed knuckleball pitcher, and the crafty Bearden adapted expertly.

Remarkably, his results were as good as ever—perhaps even better.

He rode his knuckler to a 15-5 record with a 2.41 ERA in ’45; a 15-4 mark with Oakland of the PCL in 1946; and a major league debut—eight years after originally being signed by the Phils—in 1947 with the Cleveland Indians.

He only appeared in one game in ’47, getting strafed for three runs in one-third of an inning for an unsightly earned run average of 81.00!

1948, however, was a magical season for Cleveland and for Bearden.

The Tribe was a juggernaut that season. The 1948 Cleveland Indians are on an extremely short list of teams with the finest infields in major league history.

Player-manager Lou Boudreau led the way, earning AL MVP honors on the strength of a .355 batting average, 199 hits, 18 home runs, and 106 runs batted in, while playing solid defense at his shortstop position. He’s now in the Hall of Fame.

Second baseman Joe Gordon, another future Hall of Famer, had his last truly great season, batting .280 with 32 round-trippers and a team-high 124 RBI, while exhibiting his customary range in the field.

At the corners, first baseman Eddie Robinson managed 16 homers and 83 RBI, while Ken Keltner made only 14 errors at the hot corner and chipped in with 31 home runs and 119 RBI, just behind Gordon in each category.

Outfielder Dale Mitchell led the club in hits (204) and steals (14) while batting .336; Larry Doby, who had broken the AL’s color line the previous season, batted .301 with 14 homers and 66 RBI.

Cleveland scored a very respectable 840 runs (5.45 per game) that season.

However, it was the pitching staff that truly shined for the Tribe, and they led the team to their first World Series title since 1920.

The Indians of that time period were led by two legendary, Hall of Fame pitchers: right-handers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon. Feller, known as “Rapid Robert” for his overpowering fastball, and Lemon, whose sinker led Ted Williams himself to call him “one of the very best pitchers I ever faced,” combined for 473 career wins, despite losing years to World War II.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige, another HoFer, at the age of 40+ years old (I have read estimates that vary from 41 to 47), went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA; Steve Gromek crafted a 9-3 mark with a 2.84 ERA; and Russ Christopher compiled 17 saves.

Bearden burst onto the scene during his rookie campaign. He tied for the team lead in wins (20, with Lemon) and paced the club in starters’ winning percentage (.741) and ERA (2.43, best in the AL). He was second on the team in shutouts (six, behind Lemon’s 10), third in innings pitched (229.2), and complete games (15) and allowed a mere nine home runs.

Numbers, however, cannot measure the impact this pieced-together war veteran had on Cleveland that season.

Cleveland battled the Boston Red Sox to a regular season tie, and a one-game playoff was scheduled to break the deadlock. Manager Lou Boudreau had to select one starter to face the Sox. The winner would earn the AL pennant.

Even though the plucky lefthander would work on only one day of rest, and even though there were two better-rested future Hall of Famers to choose from—not to mention the fact that there were five other men on staff (one of them being Paige, who had two shutouts) who had combined for 47 starts that year—Boudreau went with Bearden.

The Indians were facing a red-hot Red Sox team, a team that had eliminated the Yankees on the next-to-last day of the season and caught the Tribe on the very last day.

The Sox led the major leagues in batting in 1948, behind the Splendid Splinter, Williams, who batted .369 with 25 HR and 127 RBI. Williams was supported ably by shortstop Vern Stephens, with 29 HR and 137 RBI, and second baseman Bobby Doerr (27 HR, 111 RBI).

Gene rewarded his skipper’s faith in him, holding the high-scoring Sox attack to only five hits and three runs in an 8-3, complete game, pennant-clinching victory, his 20th triumph of the campaign.

His heroics were far from over.

With Cleveland heading home for Game Three, and the World Series tied at a game apiece, Bearden tossed his second consecutive complete game, another five-hitter, this one a 2-0 whitewash to push the Tribe ahead of the Boston Braves, two games to one.

Everything was leading up to a fairy tale ending that they wouldn’t even write in Hollywood...

The Indians clung to a 4-3 lead with one out in the bottom of the eighth of Game Six. Their closer, Christopher, had been unable to get anyone out just two nights before during an ugly 11-5 Braves rout.

Boudreau once again turned to his 27-year-old knuckleballer, who gutted his way to a gritty, five-out save, propelling Cleveland to the World Series title.

Bearden had reached the high-water mark of his major league career. He never again won more than eight games in a single campaign, and his best winning percentage was .500 twice. By 1954, he was back in the minors, and he retired from baseball after the 1957 season.

Gene went back home to Arkansas, doing a long stint as the manager of the Helena, AR Country Club and Golf Course. He also coached the local American Legion team for a time.

There’s a sign in Helena to this day that proudly heralds the city as Bearden’s home. No doubt, he is a legend in the town of 6,323 on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

For the vast majority of the world, though, his is a forgotten footnote in history.

Until now, that is.

"Forgotten Stories of Courage and Inspiration" is a series that I will continue until it plays itself out. I have already selected the next three subjects: Roy Campanella, Glenn Cunningham, and Ben Hogan. If you feel that you have worthy candidates that you would like to see profiled, please e-mail them to me: leroywatsonjr@yahoo.com.


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