The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2004
FEATURE
   
 

Five-Star Ball Player: Rob Gleason
The Only Major Leaguer Who Served In Vietnam

BY MICHAEL ARKUSH


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 expectedthat he expectedlasted 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 gameswere 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
Perranoski.''

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 recalled.

"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 Gleason.

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 breadwinnerhe was supporting his mother, his sister, and one of her kidshe 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 hand.''

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 reprieve.

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 cut.''

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 ambushes.''

One dayJuly 24, 1968stands 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 hell.''

But Gleason was not the kind to surrenderto the enemy or the odds.

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 was over.''

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 NATO.

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 furniture mover.

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 storyso interested, in fact, that he contacted the Dodgers to get more information.

"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 namenot every player, after all, goes 1 for 1 in his entire careerbut 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 firstand onlyat bat, the Dodgers invited Gleason to throw out the first pitch before a game with the San Francisco Giants.

"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 earlier chapters.

"I don't feel sorry for myself at all,'' he says. "I've got all my faculties. I've had quite a life.''
 

   

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