The Babe of the Delta

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Back in the 1960s I got one those all expense paid trips to sunny Southeast Asia courtesy of the U.S. Army. For reasons known only to Uncle Sugar (Uncle Sam) they decided I would do wonders for the war effort in the Mekong Delta (or could cause less confusion; I’m not sure which). So there I went down to the Delta where, like everyone else I tried to figure out what the heck was going on.

One of the things that was going on was baseball. I’ve mentioned in a couple of other posts the baseball diamond we had. It wasn’t much, just a bunch of tubes of aluminum and iron welded together to form a backstop and some chicken wire to cover the backstop. The field was all dirt and when a chopper came over, which was frequent (we were in the normal glide path for the hospital), the dirt became dust and the game had to stop. If there were lots of choppers, we knew it was bad and the game stopped so we could help unload wounded. We had a shed painted Army olive drab that I’ve talked about before. It contained three bases, an umpire’s chest protector, a couple of bags of chalk, an olive drab grass spreader, and the pin up I mentioned in an earlier post. We never asked where any of this came from because we were all afraid of the answer. It wasn’t much, but you could play ball on it.

I tried to get into a game a couple of times a week, my job permitting. We’d get a bunch of guys together, head over to the diamond, then play “work up” until enough guys showed up to make something like a real game (occasionally we had enough people to have umpires). As almost everyone wanted to play, we didn’t have much of an audience.

Every unit on the post (except for a couple of super secret units) had “house boys” or “house girls”. These were locals who lived in the surrounding villages and towns who were paid to work for us. They did standard “gofer” jobs like shine shoes, sweep floors, do laundry, work in the mess halls, fill sandbags. Everyone in the unit chipped in a few bucks and I understood from talking to the house boys that the pay was better than they could get on the local economy. They’d show up early in the morning, do their work, then head home in the evening. A big deuce and a half (that’s a two and a half ton truck for all you civilians) would head out in the morning, pick them up at various places and bring them home (I never did it so I’m not sure of the exact way it worked). Sometimes they would be done a while before the truck came to take them home and a few of them would wander over to see the crazy Americans playing this silly game.

His name was Pham and he worked for one of the other units. He was thin, about my age, and had gotten past the pigeon GI English of a lot of the workers. “Hey, GI, you want to screw my Mom, she’s a virgin”–Honest to God I heard this a time or two from kids who knew GI English but had no idea what it meant (And btw “screw” wasn’t the word used there, but this is a family site.). We could communicate in a broken English and his English was a lot better than my Vietnamese. We noticed him one day standing behind the backstop trying to figure out how to grip a ball. So one of the guys decided that if he was interested, we’d show him how the game worked. So we showed him how to hold the ball, how to throw with your right arm while your left foot came forward (he was right-handed). He knew so little that it was like trying to teach the game to a four year old. There were some old gloves around and we gave him one then showed him how to close the mitt when the ball got into the pocket. It took a while but he got reasonably good at catching and could throw a little. He understood that to run the bases you went to the first big white sack and began making lefts until you got back where you started. He wasn’t quite sure why this was so great (after all, you hadn’t actually gone anywhere), but we assured him that he’d scored something mystical called “a run” and that was good.

He couldn’t hit a lick. He tried, God, how he tried, but he couldn’t hit a 30 mile an hour toss let alone a 60 mile an hour pitch (which was about as fast as any of us could control a fastball). But he worked at it and finally in April he got lucky.

I was at first when Pham came up. The pitcher lobbed one in and he swung. Magically, almost miraculously, the bat found the ball. It not only found it, it found the absolute center of the “sweet spot.” The ball arched up, went way over the head of the outfielders, and kept going. There were no fences so it rolled forever. By the time the nearest fielder got to it, Pham was around third and came home standing up. Everyone, even we guys on the other team, were cheering for him. A couple of guys picked him up, carried him around the bases on their shoulders, and everybody shook his hand. Bats were at a premium, so we couldn’t give him the bat, but we did have extra baseballs so we gave him his home run ball to take with him. We immediately nicknamed him “the Babe” and had to take a long time to explain to him who Babe Ruth was and why he mattered. Pham got several more hits, but it was his only homer.

In May, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the May Offensive (it was 3 months after Tet). I was one of the people sent to hold Cholon (a northern suburb of Saigon). We did our job and got back to the Delta a couple of weeks later. I was in no mood for baseball for a while, so it was probably late June before I got back to the diamond (it was also the wet season and games were more infrequent). It was another week or so before I noticed Pham wasn’t around.

“Hey, where’s the Babe?”

They looked at me and shrugged. “Don’t know. He hasn’t been back since the Offensive.”

Pham was gone. We never knew what happened to him. It was possible he was a VC spy, but we decided that wasn’t very likely. Maybe the VC found his ball glove or the home run ball and got rid of him as a collaborator. We hoped that wasn’t true. I think we’d have almost preferred he be a spy than be killed because we gave him a ball and a glove. A lot of the villages around were devastated by the battles and our best guess was that he’d ended up displaced (a lot of the house boys disappeared after May) and was now somewhere far away in another part of the Delta.

I never knew what happened to him. I’d like to think his son or grandson still has the glove, but I wouldn’t bet on it what with “re-education” and everything. Maybe they missed it and it’s still safe. Maybe he made it to the States in the 1970s boatlift. If he did, I hope he still enjoys the game.


11 Responses to “The Babe of the Delta”

  1. steve Says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience v. I love all the baseball insights and stats and hall of fame debates and discussions, but this is a window into something I could never find on baseball reference or in my own experience.

    I’ve read that Abbie Hoffman took a liking to playing baseball in prison maybe around the same time you were playing in the Mekong Delta. Baseball knows no borders.

  2. Gary Trujillo Says:

    Amazing. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. ses56 Says:

    This moved me in a way that was unexpected. Really beautifully written. Thank you for your service!

  4. wkkortas Says:

    This is just top-shelf writing, nothing less.

  5. verdun2 Says:

    Thanks to each of you.
    Did it for Vet’s Day

  6. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    This is very moving. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to read it until now. It has humor, as well. This is VERY well-written, and I suggest that you submit it to a magazine.

    I’ve got one question, and I may come off as sounding stupid, but what do you mean when you refer to a “grass spreader.” Do you mean one of those “whirly-bird” type things that spread grass seeds? I doubt it, but I really don’t know, so if you could explain it to me, I’ld appreciate it. (I feel like a moron asking).


    • verdun2 Says:

      Our spreader was an old kind that had this handle where you could open and close a small slot at the bottom that let the grass seed (or in our case the chalk) out and helped us get something like a foul line (how straight it was is a different story). You can probably Google grass spreader and find something that looked a lot like ours (except not olive drab). Thanks for your kind words.

  7. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    This is what I pictured when you said “grass spreader”. I used it as a kid back in the late 60s to spread grass seed on my parent’s front lawn. I got this picture from an e-bay listing, and in the listing, it says “vintage”. Am I THAT old? “Vintage?????” Ouch. That hurts. Does that mean that no one uses this thing any more????



  8. The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Absolute awesomeness … I love this post but could only skim it at the time because I was busy with work/stuff/things, but was smart enough to bookmark it. Now, with a week off, I came back to give it a better read. And, it is still … absolute awesomeness. I love when baseball can provide the backdrop for a bigger story or be the mirror of who we are as a society. Just beautiful!

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