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Gene Bearden

Ballplayers Wounded in Combat

 

Date and Place of Birth: September 5, 1920 Lexa, AR
Date and Place of Death:    March 18, 2004 Alexander City, AL
Baseball Experience: Major League
Position: Pitcher
Rank: Machinist's Mate
Military Unit: US Navy
Area Served: Pacific Theater of Operations

Henry E. “Gene” Bearden was born in Lexa, Arkansas, on September 5, 1920. Because his father was a machinist with the Missouri Pacific Rail Road, the family moved frequently and Gene finished high school in Memphis, Tennessee, where he played first base on the varsity team.

A left-hander, Bearden was signed as a pitcher by the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 1939. He was assigned to the Moultrie Packers of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, and had a 5-11 won-loss record his rookie year. He pitched for the Miami Beach Tigers of the Class D Florida East Coast League in 1940, where he was 18-10 with a league-leading 1.63 ERA and circuit-best five shutouts. In 1941, Bearden was 17-7 with Miami Beach (now known as the Flamingos), then joined the Savannah Indians of the Class B South Atlantic League. Bearden was sold to the Yankees organization in June, and joined the Augusta Tigers in the same league. He was 4-4 in 13 appearances before entering military service with the Navy.

He took basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Illinois, and attended machinist school prior to being assigned to the engine room of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). The Helena had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and was badly damaged. Thirty-four of Helena's sailors were killed and 69 were wounded.

During the battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomons, on July 6, 1943, the Helena was hit by a Japanese torpedo, tearing off the bow. Minutes later she was hit by two more. As the crew abandoned ship, Bearden fell from a ladder on to the deck and was knocked unconscious. As the Helena disappeared beneath the waves, Bearden was picked up by a destroyer and returned to the United States. Of the Helena’s nearly 900 crew, 168 died.

Bearden’s right kneecap was crushed beyond repair, the ligaments in his leg were badly twisted and his skull had been fractured. A metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee and plate in his head. He remained in hospital until receiving a medical discharge in early 1945.

His injuries would bother him for the rest of his life. He needed to take painkilling drugs and at times he had difficulties seeing. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old reported to the Binghamton Triplets of the Class A Eastern League early in 1945. His left-handed knuckleball produced an impressive 15-5 record with a 2.41 ERA, and his bat contributed a .274 average with three home runs. In 1946, he was 15-4 with the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks, and although he was with the Oaks again for the majority of 1947 (16-9 with a 3.38 ERA), he made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians on May 10, 1947. In his only appearance for the Indians that season, he made a seventh-inning relief appearance against the Browns, and gave up three runs.

His inauspicious start to a big league career was completely turned around in 1948. Bearden won 20 games and lost just seven for the Indians. On a pitching staff that included Bob Lemon and Bob Feller, he out-pitched them both. His 2.43 ERA was best in the American League and he beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff for the league crown. The 28-year-old pitched two games in the World Series against the Braves, including a, 2-0, five-hitter in Game Three.

Unable to repeat his previous performance, Bearden slumped to 8-8 in 1949, and was 1-3 when the Indians traded him to Washington on August 2, 1950. He was picked up by the Tigers at the beginning of 1951, pitched for the Browns in 1952, and ended his major league career with the White Sox in 1953.

Bearden was back in the Pacific Coast League in 1954, pitching for Seattle. He was with San Francisco in 1955 (where he was 18-12) and Sacramento in 1956 and 1957.

"I don't know what happened." Bearden said back in 1967 while trying to explain his one year phenom. "Maybe Casey Stengel was right when he said they'd stop swinging at my low pitch. But there's no use looking back. You can't live in the past."

He later worked as manager for the Helena, Arkansas, Country Club and Golf Course, while coaching the American Legion team. Bearden would then own a restaurant and work as general manager for Plaza Auto Sales in West Helena.

Gene Bearden passed away on March 18, 2004, in Alexander City, Alabama. He was 83 years old and is buried at Sunset Memorial Park in Barton, Akansas.

Date Added January 3, 2018

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