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Mudville: December 7, 2022 1:46 am PDT
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From Ballfield to Battlefield

Roy Gleason experienced what he thought would be a not just a career-altering moment in the fall of 1963, he expected it to be life changing. The slugging Illinois native thought that he would use that moment as a jumping off point, one that would have him pouring champagne over the heads of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax each October for the better part of that decade.

It never happened, though. Rather, Gleason’s life-altering moment would come five years later in the jungles of Vietnam when he was severely wounded during a Vietcong ambush. Charlie [a shortened slang term for Vietcong] didn’t care much about baseball or about the aspirations of a certain young sergeant, one who never expected or wanted to exchange his life on the baseball field for one on the battlefield.

Gleason, 78, became the first and only player to serve on the frontlines in Vietnam with Major League experience in 1968. He was awarded a Purple Heart and, in the process, lost the game he loved. Gleason would return to baseball following his tour in Vietnam but the talent and drive that he displayed as a younger man were gone, stolen on the killing fields half a world away.

While many men would be bitter about how their dreams had been shattered, Gleason simply moved on. He finished up his baseball career and then tended bar for several years before re-enlisting in 1976, when he was sent to Greece to work at a nuclear missile site in the northern part of the country. He played fast-pitch softball for the Army and later went on to spend 20 years working for Honda.

And, if he were called upon again today under similar circumstances, Gleason says he wouldn’t hesitate to go once again and serve.

“I’d go in a heartbeat,” he said. “I realized when I was laying on that stretcher and in the hospital that I was half happy because I was going home and the other half was tearing my heart out because I was leaving my buddies. You develop such a strong bond that it’s hard to explain. You’re protecting each other. You’re not fighting for your country but fighting for the survival of each other. I love my country but you’re fighting to protect the guys there with you.”

GOING TO CALIFORNIA

Gleason grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and was an ardent Cubs fan, idolizing Hank Sauer, the slugger and 1952 National League MVP. Sauer was the power hitter for the Cubs for nearly a decade at a time when they were one of the more moribund teams in the National League. Gleason, however, appreciated his ability and gravitated towards Sauer’s ability to hit homeruns.

“I was a typical Cubs fan,” said the 6-foot-5 Gleason. “They lost a lot of games but [the 6-foot-3] Hank Sauer was my idol. He was a good right-handed hitter and I met him when I was a sophomore in high school and I was about 15. The Dodgers were scouting me, and the Giants were in town and he was a coach for the Giants.

“He was always larger than life when I was a kid, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old. I idolized him. When I met him, though, I stood over him. I remember when I met him I was thinking God, he’s small.”

That Gleason was able to meet Sauer when the Giants were in Los Angeles was made possible by the fact that he had begun to show promise early as a ballplayer. Gleason began attracting enough attention for his play that not long after his family moved from Illinois to California the Dodgers began looking at him in high school. He had come to California around his 11th birthday and as he grew and began to exhibit the power that would become his calling card, the Dodgers took notice and comparisons to Frank Howard, another hulking Dodger, began.

“I took those comparisons as a compliment,” Gleason said. “He was 6-foot-7, he was huge and had immense power. Hondo was a top star for the Dodgers but I knew he couldn’t run or field like I could.”

Gleason also ran some track in high school and attempted to play football when he was a sophomore. The Dodgers were interested in him for their amateur rookie team by then so they frowned upon him trying out for the football team. Gleason, however, attempted to be stealthy and was almost Garden Grove’s starting quarterback when the high school football season opened in 1958.

No matter how quiet Gleason tried to keep his news about the football team, word eventually leaked out and his mom put a stop to his career on the gridiron.

“‘Why is he throwing a pinch-hitter a changeup on the first pitch?’ As soon as I said it, I knew I screwed up. I thought he was going to throw the next one in my ear.”

“I went through hell week and all the summer training [for football] and I got issued equipment because they wanted me to be the quarterback,” Gleason said. “I could throw the ball 70 yards. The Garden Grove Daily News ran a story before the first game of the season that said, ‘Gleason to Start at Quarterback’. And, I hadn’t told my mom yet. Kenny Myers, the scout who signed me, told my mom not to let me play football.

“Everyone in school was asking me to [play] and your ego gets carried away with all the chicks and that kind of stuff. So, I was out there hiding it from him [Myers] and it’s there in the sports pages. My mom says to me, ‘Is there another Roy Gleason at Garden Grove High School?’. I had forged her name on insurance papers and that ended that. I got caught and was suspended for three days.”

Gleason began playing winter ball with the Dodgers Rookies by that point but he was also on the basketball team at school. He was just beginning to dunk the basketball when the California Interscholastic Schools Federation found out about the Dodgers and informed him that he was breaking the rules. He was not allowed to play a high school sport if he was also playing a semi-pro sport, so his basketball career ended almost as quickly as his football career.

While Gleason was a budding young star on the diamond, the move to California was not without issues. His father did not view the West Coast as a paradise the way the rest of the family did and shortly after they arrived in Southern California, he walked out on the family and returned to Chicago.

“I wasn’t real upset about it,” Gleason said. “He was in the navy and he was a disciplinarian. He was cool at times, but you had to do all your chores before anything else. I was in charge of the yardwork. I always had little league games on Saturday when we first came out here and he wouldn’t let me go until all my yardwork was completed. He made you finish your work first and now I could do things on my schedule.

“I kind of felt like I had gotten out of prison. I missed him, naturally, but I guess he had another love. We moved to California and he went back. During my junior year of high school, the Dodgers flew my mother back to Chicago with their attorney and had them get divorced. They didn’t want him interfering with my signing.”

It turns out the Dodgers didn’t have to worry about Gleason’s father. They had to worry about soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams, who was recruiting Gleason to play for the Red Sox. Williams had retired following the 1960 season and was still in the hearts and on the minds of many baseball fans throughout the country. He was a larger-than-life figure, not only for his performance on the field but for his rugged, John Wayne-esque persona off the field. Williams had served in both World War II and the Korean War as a pilot – he was shot down in Korea – and he was a noted outdoorsman.

The combination of his image and the fact that many consider him the greatest hitter of all time was meant to impress Gleason and to a certain extent it did. But Gleason never wanted to leave Southern California.

“Sauer was my first idol and then Ted Williams was my idol as I got to know baseball and hitting,” Gleason said. “All my life, I always thought he was the best hitter in baseball. He was just amazing. I spent a whole day with him the week before I graduated. Joe Stephenson was [Boston’s] lead scout here on the West Coast and he invited me over to spend the day with Ted. The five top prospects in California were there and Ted congratulated all of us and watched us hit before we all went to Stephenson’s house. We talked about hitting and fishing from 10 in the morning until eight that night. I was intrigued and wanted to know all his secrets.

“He said it’s all in the forearms and hands. He used to do pushups on his fingertips. He would also take the Sunday newspaper and roll each page into a ball with one hand. He said when you’re in a game, just look for your ball to hit; don’t try to outguess the pitcher. Just get a pitch and hit it. But I didn’t want to go to Boston. I would have signed with the Angels if not the Dodgers. Ted had that charisma, though, that’s what attracted me to him. He was his own man; a man’s man and he didn’t take any crap from anybody.”

Gleason said the Angels offered him more than $100,000 to sign but that he had already committed to the Dodgers. He spent that summer playing on the Dodgers Rookie team alongside future Major Leaguers Bill Singer and Jim LeFebvre. The team was managed by Myers, whom Gleason said was 50 years ahead of his time when it came to coaching and teaching about baseball.

That experience served as a precursor to what Gleason would see the next season when he played in Reno. The Dodger Rookies were essentially what Gleason called “a pre-professional team” that featured high school and college players which traveled and made road trips like regular minor league clubs.

TURNING PRO AND ON TO L.A.

Gleason got the full pro experience the following spring when he was invited to big league camp. The opportunity to see Vero Beach, Fla. before the minor leaguers invaded camp proved to be eye-opening. Dodgertown had its own airport and the club had its own plane. While the accommodations – barracks style dorms with no air conditioning and scores of mosquitos – weren’t great, everything else was what Gleason imagined it would be.

“The food was great and the training camp was fantastic,” he said. “Two weeks later the rest of the organization came to camp and at the time the Dodgers had something like 12 minor league teams so 600 players were in camp. I’m thinking that out of all these guys, everyone is fighting for a job on the big team. That really cuts down the odds [of making it].”

The Dodgers assigned Gleason to Reno of the Class-C California League, a squad that also featured Singer and Lefebvre. Gleason had a solid rookie season in pro ball, hitting 22 homers and driving in 76. He hit only .234, though, and led the league by striking out 214 times, 62 more times than his nearest competitor. There were several reasons for the high strikeout totals, not the least of which was the fact the Dodgers were trying to make him a switch hitter. He spent the first half of the season trying to hit left-handed with the club’s logic being that Gleason would be facing mostly righties so why not try to make him into a switch hitter.

“I learned how to hit left-handed and it eventually worked out well in ‘63,” Gleason said. “I had a hitch but it wasn’t a timed hitch so if the pitcher threw high and tight, I was in trouble. But, in Salem [of the Class-A Northwest League the following year] I figured it out. In the back of my mind, I was thinking ‘Why am I doing so lousy?’. Maybe I should have stayed on the mound and kept pitching. The Dodgers were the only team that wanted me as an outfielder because they were loaded with pitching. I probably could have pitched in the majors during my second year because I had a good fastball and had control of four pitches.

“We were having a doubleheader on a Sunday and I had been out all night so when I went up to the plate for batting practice I was totally relaxed and probably still had half a buzz on. I had my hands dropped down and the bat laid horizontal to the ground. I also opened my stance a little and moved closer to the plate. The first couple I hit over the light tower in right and [manager] Stan [Wasiak] said it looked like I was working on something all night. I went 4-for-6 in the doubleheader with a homer, a triple and a double. Everything I hit was on a rope. The ball looked like a balloon and nothing was fooling me.”

Photo: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

Gleason had followed some of the advice that Williams had given him two years prior – don’t think, just look for a good ball to hit. He went on a tear for the remainder of the season and ended up his Northwest League experience with a .254 average, 16 homers and 60 RBIs. More importantly, he had shaved 84 strikeouts off his 1962 total.

“I couldn’t wait to get to the plate,” Gleason said. “I was praying for guys to get on base. I knew I was going to hit the ball well and I knew how Ted Williams felt. Nothing fooled me. If they had brought me up to the Majors, I would have creamed everything. That [doubleheader] was on July 4 and I hit something like .386 for the last month of the season. The Dodgers figured that I finally got it figured out and called me up at the end of the season.”

Gleason made his Major League debut on Sept. 3 as a pinch-runner against Houston. He entered the game in the 10th inning, running for Moose Skowron. Gleason ultimately came around to score on a Wally Moon sacrifice fly to tie the score at 4-4 before the Dodgers eked out a 4-3 victory.

“I was really in the Majors,” Gleason said. “I was pinching myself. Was I dreaming or was it for real? It was a feeling of achieving something but knowing the challenge is ahead of you, not behind you. I got to the park early and by the time the other players and coaches started coming in, I was already dressed and ready to go. [Third-base coach] Pete Reiser called me into the office to go over the signs with me. There were three sets of signs and three indicators. In the minors we only had one set and I was thinking man, I’m going to screw this up.

“I’m relaxing at the end of the dugout [before the bottom of the 10th] when [manager Walt] Alston goes ‘Gleason, Skowron’s going to hit for the pitcher. If he gets on, you’re going to run for him.’ This was in the middle of a pennant race and I didn’t want to screw anything up because one game could cost the Dodgers the pennant. Sure enough, Moose Skowron got a hit and there I am trotting out to first. I got to the base and look at Reiser and he’s flashing all the signs. I didn’t remember anything but I knew the situation and knew what I had to do. Thankfully, Junior Gilliam singled to right on the first pitch. I went to third base and Moon hit a fly ball [to deep center] and I scored the tying run – and we went on to win.”

Gleason would appear in seven more games, mostly as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement, scoring another run Sept. 5 against the Cubs. It wasn’t until his last appearance, which came in the final game of the season, that he got a chance to pinch-hit. Alston sent Gleason up to pinch-hit for Phil Ortega in the eighth inning of what would be a meaningless 12-3 loss to Philadelphia.

1966: Dodger-turned-Hollywood star Chuck Connors, left, talks baseball with fellow actor and Dodgers hopeful Roy Gleason.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, that at-bat would represent the first and last Major League appearance and hit of Gleason’s career. What looked like a promising Major League career unofficially ended that day at Dodger Stadium.

“I was wondering if I was ever going to get to hit,” Gleason said. “I was relaxing again and Alston gives me the old Gleason, you’re going to hit for the pitcher. We had already clinched the pennant the night before. I went up to the plate and after they announced my name, I didn’t hear anything else’ I was just focused on the pitcher [Dennis Bennett]. The first pitch was down and in and it was a ball that looked like a changeup. I turned to the catcher and said, ‘Why is he throwing a pinch-hitter a changeup on the first pitch?’. As soon as I said it, I knew I screwed up. I thought he was going to throw the next one in my ear. The catcher [Bob Oldis] just said ‘That’s his fastball rook’.

“The next pitch was another fastball and I lined it to left for a double. I figured I was on my way up. But as things have it, it didn’t work out that way.”

He earned a World Series ring for his effort, but it would provide little solace.

THE COMEDOWN AND UNCLE SAM CALLS

Gleason said that far too many people had an opinion about what he should be doing at the plate when he struggled as 1964 unfolded. He moved around Single-A teams in the Dodgers system over the next three seasons with a few cups of coffee at Double-A before former Dodger great Duke Snider managed him in 1966 at Tri-City of the Northwest League.

Snider left him alone, simply instructing him to do “what felt natural”. When Snider backed off, Gleason began hitting again. He hit .281 with 16 homers and 48 RBIs in 74 games, which earned him an invite to spring training in 1967. The good feelings that accompanied that invite, however, were dashed when Gleason received his notice on April 1, 1967.

He had originally been classified as 3A because he was the sole provider for his mother and sisters, which meant that he shouldn’t have been headed to Vietnam. Gleason, however, was reclassified to 1A that spring, putting him in a position that had him fighting with the Army about his draft status.

“I thought about Vietnam but I didn’t think it would affect me because I was my family’s sole supporter,” Gleason said. “But I got a letter saying I was reclassified. Why? My situation was the same. I gave my mother every month and she took care of everything else. I couldn’t figure out why things had had changed.

“I went to [Dodgers general manager] Buzzie Bavasi and he said you’re not going to get drafted and not to worry about it. But I got another letter on April 9 and this one was a draft notice saying I was hereby ordered to report. I had to fly back to L.A. and report to the draft board. They processed me and issued me clothing and in the meantime I filed for a hardship discharge.”

Gleason kept getting the same answer without much of an explanation – he wasn’t qualified. Despite showing them all his financial records and providing letters of support from his pastor and local senator saying that he had been his mother’s sole supporter since 1961, Gleason was eventually sent off to Louisiana for jungle training.

That’s when it began to sink in that he would be heading overseas. He fought for much of 1967 to get his status changed but to no avail. Gleason arrived in Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1967.

“Three MPs came in and told me to grab my stuff, we have orders cut for you and you’re going,” Gleason said. “I said home and they said no, Vietnam. There was nothing much I could do. The next thing I know I’m on a plane [Tiger Airlines] for Vietnam. When we were arriving we had an announcement that we couldn’t land at the airport because it was being mortared. I just looked around the plane and wondered how many of these guys would be going home alive.”

Gleason was in Vietnam for about a week and a half before he saw action. He said it took some time to get used to the heat and humidity, not to mention the smell. Gleason was assigned to Alpha Company and it wasn’t long before he saw combat. His unit was on what he described as a search and destroy mission on Jan. 8 when they were ambushed.

“You have to remember that this was 1968 just before the Tet Offensive,” Gleason said. “So, there were a huge number of VC and NVA coming into the Mekong Delta because they wanted to overrun Saigon. We were right in the action so we’d call in airstrikes and then sweep the area. That was the beginning of it.”

Luck seemed to be on Gleason’s side for the first six months he was in the jungle. Much of his company had been hit and his friends were wounded, some seriously enough to get sent home, or were killed. He was promoted to sergeant in June and was also named as the Soldier of the Month for the 9th Infantry, an award that allowed him to go to the rear and spent a week and a half serving as the bodyguard for a general and living in much better conditions, including sleeping indoors and better food.

Baseball was still on his mind, though, and he wrote a letter to Ted Williams that spring after reading an article about him in Sports Illustrated. Surprisingly, the Hall-of-Famer answered.

“I wrote to him about a month before I got hit,” Gleason said. “I still have that article. It mentioned that he had a hitch when hit. I wrote to him and said I hope you remember me. You said you can’t have a hitch when you hit but you had one of the biggest hitches around. He wrote back and said he did remember me and that it was okay to have a hitch as long as it was a timed hitch. He said keep your butt down and get out of that rat hole and when you get back we’ll have a real long chat, which we did in spring training in ’69.”

Unfortunately, Gleason didn’t follow Williams’ advice. He was returned to his unit after spending time with the general and it wasn’t long after that his world changed forever.

Roy Gleason, a member of the 1963 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers throws out the first pitch before the game with the San Francisco Giants on September 20, 2003 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Gleason's career was cut short by the Vietnam War, where Gleason received a Purple Heart and other decorations but never returned to baseball. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

IT ALL COMES CRASHING DOWN

Gleason went back to his daily routine of patrolling, hoping that he and his men wouldn’t be walking into an ambush. He had begun walking point in March and was good at it, using the knowledge he had gained in his limited time in the jungle to help keep his men alive. It helped that he had a member of The Chiêu Hồi Program walking with him. These men were VC defectors who had come over to aid the South Vietnamese and Americans in the war. Gleason’s Chiêu Hồi was a VC officer by the time he was 18 and had several wives, all of whom were killed by the Vietcong when they raided his village. He went to join the Americans as a way of getting revenge on those who slaughtered his family.

“He ended up teaching me what to look for,” Gleason said. “He would spot ambushes that I normally wouldn’t spot so I got to know what he knew. He would point out booby traps and machine gun nests that we would have walked right into.

“I was walking point the morning I got hit [July 24]; it was a search and destroy mission as usual. We got to an area where there was a lot of VC activity and I didn’t like the route we were taking. So, I walked back and picked up the phone and called the commander, who was behind us. I told him we can’t take that path, that we were asking for trouble. He was a new CO [commanding officer] and had only been there a few days. I told him I wanted to cross the bank and go on the other side. He said no. I told him sir, we’re asking for trouble and he told me to do as I was ordered.”

Gleason and the Chiêu Hồi walked down the path as ordered and neither of them noticed what was above them. The pair were looking down for booby traps so they never saw an unexploded 155-millimeter shell that had been placed in a tree with a remote detonation wire on it. The pair made it through without incident but when his machine gunner got underneath the shell, it exploded, killing the gunner instantly and wounding many others, including Gleason.

“It blew me into the air and right into the moat,” he said. “The shrapnel hit me in the left calf and went through my left wrist. There was a big chunk of it sticking out. When I looked at my wrist, there was blood spurting out. It had hit an artery. I put a tourniquet on it and tried to hold my position.

“I fell down and didn’t realize I was hit in the leg. When you realize you get hit, you don’t feel anything until you see the blood, your adrenaline was so high. We still had to make sure the VC were gone, too. They hit you, you return fire and then there is silence. Then you yell for the medic. I was only there for about 15 minutes before the medic got to me. I told him to take care of my men first.”

While the medic eventually returned for Gleason, he had to stay alert out of fear that the Vietcong would return to finish what they had started.

“You had to keep looking for Charlie because they were sneaky and you had to be alert,” he said. “I didn’t realize how bad I was hit until the medic got back to me. I was the last guy he looked at because I told him to take care of my men. He cut my boot and pants off and I couldn’t believe the blob of blood that had solidified. It had all turned to Jell-O. I asked him what that was because I thought it was my muscle. He said that’s your blood, it solidified, and I started to shiver. He wrapped me up and carried me out of there because I couldn’t walk.

“I was there for five days before I was flown to Saigon and I was there for another three days waiting for my orders to ship me out. That’s when a colonel came walking by with a bunch of Purple Hearts. He came up to me and congratulated me. I said for what and he told me I had been given the Purple Heart for the wounds I suffered in action. He stuck me with the pin and I thought now you have to give me another one.”

Gleason spent two weeks in Japan before returning to the States, where he continued his convalescence. He had metal stitches in both his leg and wrist to help prevent infection while his left arm was in a cast. The shrapnel had gone through his wrist and severed his ulna nerve so he had very little feeling in his index finger, thumb and part of his left hand. He also had a broken bone in his wrist. Gleason said it still hurts when the weather turns colder.

Part of Gleason’s left calf was also “blown away” but as he began to heal and regain the ability to move his fingers, his attention slowly began turning back to baseball with the hope of going to Spring Training in 1969. He was discharged on Jan. 10, 1969.

“When I went over there, I was 220 pounds but when I came back, I was 173,” said Gleason, who began working out in earnest.

All the exercises, however, wouldn’t change the fact that he was not the same person or player he was when he left in the spring of 1967.

GOOD-BYE BASEBALL, HELLO LIFE

Gleason returned to the Dodgers and split 1969 between the Texas and California Leagues, where he hit .187 with six homers and 33 RBIs in a combined 267 at-bats. He went on to play in Mexico in 1970, hitting .228 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in 52 games before calling it a career.

“There was a major difference when I started playing again,” Gleason said. “When I would swing the bat right-handed, my left hand would lose the bat, I couldn’t hang onto it and it would slip through my fingers. It kind of worried me because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Gradually it strengthened but it was never what it used to be.

“I had a good spring training [in ‘69] but then I went out and fell flat on my face. I felt like something had changed. I lost my love for the game. My heart wasn’t in it anymore when I was playing. Maybe it was the situation the world was in at the time. My mind would wander and I would worry about too many things. It kind of depressed me. I was so thankful, though, and happy to be home, especially with all my body parts.”

Gleason began tending bar and was working as a roofer in the winter of 1970. He said he was making good money and enjoyed the labor. Any thoughts about returning to baseball ended that winter when he was returning from a job with his co-workers when the truck in which he was traveling went over a cliff and down an embankment, causing him to severely injure his right shoulder.

“When we went over, I was holding my hand on the curve of the ceiling so I wouldn’t get thrown out of the truck,” he said. “My right shoulder pressed up against something and I heard a big pop. We ended up upside down and when I crawled out, my shoulder was killing me. I had an AC joint separation and I needed surgery. That put a nail in the coffin of my baseball career. My right arm was my biggest asset. I could really throw hard so it was the end of my baseball career.”

While the injury ended any hope Gleason had of returning to baseball it didn’t end him. He spent the next several years bartending [including a stint working in Drysdale’s bar], got married, split up and then rejoined the Army, where he stayed until 1980. Additionally, Gleason drove a truck and eventually worked for Honda while also writing a best-selling book about his exploits – Lost In The Sun – Roy Gleason’s Odyssey From The Outfield To The Battlefield. He remarried and had two sons before retiring in 2005.

Though he was done playing, Gleason wasn’t done with the Dodgers. He had insult added to injury when he was wounded in Vietnam. When Gleason was shipped back to the US, his personal belongings were returned to him but missing from his footlocker was his 1963 World Series ring, which had been stolen.

So, in September of 2003, the Dodgers invited him back for an anniversary of sorts and asked if he could throw out the first pitch. After doing so, the club surprised him with a replacement 1963 World Series ring.

“A lot of events happened and a lot of things happened to me,” Gleason said. “It was all meant to be, I guess.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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