Roy Gleason had, as they say in
Major League baseball lingo, "all the tools." Translation: He
could hit, he could hit with power, he could run, he could
throw, and he could field. But Gleason did not have the other
tool required to excel in his, or any, trade: Fortune.
Instead, he landed in Vietnam. Instead, he became the soldier
of the month, not the player of the year. The career in the
big leagues that everyone expectedthat he expectedlasted
only one at-bat.
"I thought I was going to be a superstar,'' said Gleason, who
signed for $55,000, and was recruited for the Boston Red Sox
by the legendary Ted Williams. He joined the Los Angeles
Dodgers instead. "I was a five-star ballplayer. Things just
didn't turn out that way."
Gleason, 60, doesn't, however, linger in self-pity. It's not
his style. As a matter of fact, he feels lucky. Lucky that he
survived Southeast Asia. Lucky that, if nothing else, he got
his one close-up and that he made it matter.
It was September 28, 1965. The scene: Dodger Stadium, the home
of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the best one-two pitching
combination in the game. The Dodgers, having clinched another
trip to the World Series--they would defeat the Minnesota
Twins in seven gameswere hosting the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was a meaningless regular season game, except to Roy
Gleason. He was only 20 years old. He had been used on seven
occasions as a pinch runner but had yet to appear at the plate
with a bat in his hands.
Manager Walter Alston said the magic words: "Gleason, get a
bat. You're batting for
Gleason got the bat and left the jitters behind.
"I guess it was good in that I didn't have time to think about
it,'' he said. "It was an adrenaline rush, 'Holy cow, I'm
going to hit.' I had been frustrated, pinch-running but not
getting any at-bats.' ''
The first pitch was a fastball, down and in. Gleason took it.
The second was another fastball. It was knee-high, a definite
strike. Gleason did not take this one.
"I hit a line drive down the leftfield line for a double,'' he
"I felt exhilarated.'' There was little difference, he
believed, between the minors and majors. Just swing the bat
when they throw a strike.
But Gleason would never get a chance to prove his theory.
While the Dodgers were playing the Twins, Gleason was in the
Arizona Instructional League. From there, he went to
Albuquerque. The trail took him to other outposts, such as
Salem, Oregon; and Spokane, Washington. He led the Northwest
League in runs batted in, home runs, and total bases. Yet the
trail did not take him to Los Angeles. The Dodgers were loaded
those days in the outfield with players such as Willie Davis,
Frank Howard, and Lou Johnson. There was no place for Roy
Suddenly, it was April 1967, and he got his assignment. It
wasn't one he expected.
"I got the notice that I had been reclassified from I-A to
III-A,'' Gleason said.
He didn't understand. As his family's sole breadwinnerhe was
supporting his mother, his sister, and one of her kidshe
assumed Uncle Sam would give him a break. He was wrong.
When he showed up to report, he was ready to fight. Fight the
draft notice, that is.
"They tell you to take a step forward and take the oath,'' he
said, "or, if you refuse, to raise your hand. I was in this
room with about 100 guys. I was the only guy who raised my
The act of defiance was not well-received. "They took me
outside the room and said, 'You realize what the penalties are
if you refuse to be inducted?' ''
Gleason did not back down. Not at first.
"I'm the sole supporter of my family,'' he told them. "I
should be on a hardship discharge. I shouldn't even be
drafted.'' The Army didn't back down, either.
"We'll deal with it legally,'' they told him. "Because,
otherwise, you can spend five years in jail or have to pay a
$10,000 fine, or both. Take your step forward, file the
paperwork, and do it correctly.''
Gleason gave in. He would take his chances with a lawyer. Jail
was not an option. "I'm about as American as you can get,'' he
said. "I wasn't going to rebel against my country.''
As the months went on, Gleason remained optimistic, believing
the Army would do the right thing. He was inducted at Fort Ord
near Monterey, California. He had to be ready, just in case.
He then took basic training at Fort Lewis in Washington,
becoming skilled at throwing grenades and shooting rifles. He
had all the tools, remember.
Gleason was sent for infantry AIT at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
He tried as much as possible to delay any trip overseas,
hoping the legal process would grant him a last-minute
There was no reprieve.
"My orders were cut for me to go to Vietnam,'' he said. "I was
bummed out, naturally, wondering if I was ever going to make
it through this alive. But, I was put on hold up in Oakland. I
was there for a month. Again, I had hope.''
Again, the hope did not last. "Grab your stuff, you're
going,'' he was told by three MPs one day. "You're going to
Nam. We've got the orders right here.''
"Where are my records?'' Gleason responded.
"You don't need records,'' they said. "The orders have been
Reality didn't take long to settle in.
"I was in the plane looking down,'' Gleason recalled. "It
looked terrible. I saw moon craters from the bombing. It was
like, `Welcome to Vietnam.' I thought of the Beatles song
'Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.' All of
a sudden, I'm right in the middle of it.''
Gleason proceeded to the 9th Infantry headquarters in the
Mekong Delta, in a place called the French Fort. From the
beginning, he was involved in search-and-destroy missions. As
Gleason put it: "Our job was to make contact with the enemy.
They would drop us any place they thought there was movement.
Every day, you were shot at. Some days, it was just a couple
of sniper shots here and there; other days, it was flat-out
One dayJuly 24, 1968stands out. Gleason, who had been named
the division's soldier of the month in June, was walking
point, ready to cross a small stream. A shell suddenly
exploded out of a tree, ripping holes in his left calf and
left wrist. He was taken away in a helicopter. The injuries
were severe. "My index finger was totally dead,'' Gleason
said. "I couldn't squeeze with my left hand like I used to.''
Even today, he adds, "any kind of cold weather, it hurts like
But Gleason was not the kind to surrenderto the enemy or the
After recuperating at a hospital in San Francisco, he started
his comeback. In 1969, he played again for Albuquerque. Though
the Dodgers sold him to the Angels, Gleason was not
discouraged. In 1970, he was sent by the Angels to the Mexican
League, "a new lease on life,'' he called it. He was still
only 26. There was time.
Gleason did not waste the opportunity. He was becoming a more
intelligent hitter. In Mexico, he was called El Atomico.
"I hit balls out of sight,'' he said.
But on January 19, 1971, the dream ended. Gleason and a friend
were on their way back from doing some roofing work near
Mammoth, a few hundred miles from Los Angeles. The road was
icy. Gleason was in the passenger's seat.
"We lost control of the truck,'' he recalled, "and went to the
opposite side of the highway. We rolled over two and a half
times, and ended up upside down. I was lucky I didn't go
flying out the door.''
Again, the injuries were extensive. His collarbone was
wrecked. "They put a screw in it," he says. 'I couldn't raise
my arm above my chin for about three months.''
Still Gleason did not give up. But when he tried to come back
too soon, the end came quickly. "I tore it all out,'' he said.
"It just didn't hold. That was it. I knew my baseball career
Without baseball, his future was more uncertain than ever. He
went to Orange Coast College in Southern California on the GI
Bill. Then, thanks to Drysdale, his former teammate, he took a
job tending bar. Gleason got married in 1976 but soon realized
it was a "terrible mistake.'' His solution was to go as far
away as possible. It turned out to be northern Greece, where,
for about 18 months, Gleason worked as a nuclear custodian for
In the early 1980s, Gleason moved back to California. With the
assistance of former Dodger Jimmy Campanis, he became a car
salesman at a Honda dealership. He had worked earlier as a
The years went on, rather uneventfully. But, in 2001, an
Orange County businessman named Wally Wasinack purchased a car
from Gleason. He was interested in Gleason's storyso
interested, in fact, that he contacted the Dodgers to get more
"As we talked, I became more and more curious,'' Wasinack
said. "I realized it was a very unique and incredible story.''
Dodger historian Mark Langill took the call from Wasinack.
Langill knew the Gleason namenot every player, after all,
goes 1 for 1 in his entire careerbut that was all he knew.
"You wonder why it didn't work out for him,'' Langill says.
"Was it a numbers game?'' Langill invited Gleason to visit
Dodger Stadium. Gleason ran into Tom Lasorda, the former
manager, who brought up the huge signing bonus.
"It cracked me up a little,'' Gleason said. "We're friends.''
Bruce Froemming, an umpire, said hello, as did a legion of
scouts. Gleason saw a wall that lists most of the players who
have ever suited up for the Dodgers. He didn't think his name
was up there, not with just one trip to the plate. But it was.
"I was a little in awe,'' he said. "I played in the majors,
but it was just a brief appearance, eight games total.''
Langill soon discovered that Gleason no longer had his World
Series ring from 1965; it was stolen when he was injured in
Vietnam. One thing led to another. Last September, 40 years
after his firstand onlyat bat, the Dodgers invited Gleason
to throw out the first pitch before a game with the San
"It blew my mind,'' he says. "I was so humbled by it. I felt
like they were welcoming back all the Vietnam vets.''
Gleason received more than applause on that special night. He
also received a replica of the lost World Series ring. "I was
stunned,'' he says."I didn't expect anything like that. They
showed a lot of class. The ring doesn't come off my hand.''
Gleason, it is believed, is the only baseball player with
prior major league experience who served in the Vietnam War.
Wasinack hopes to turn Gleason's life story into a book.
Whatever happens, Gleason doesn't regret what happened in the
"I don't feel sorry for myself at all,'' he says. "I've got
all my faculties. I've had quite a life.''