“We Got Ball Players Here”

Standard jungle fatigue shirt

In August 50 years ago I first sat foot on the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut airfield in Vet Nam to begin a year-long exploration of a small part of sunny Southeast Asia. I guess that’s made me think a bit more than usual about what happened to me all those years ago. So I’m going to delve into the strange world that occasionally saw the confluence of war and baseball. Bear with me.

Before I tell you this story, there are some things you need to know. First, there were only two places in the entire universe for someone in Viet Nam. There was “in country” and “the world.” “In country” was Viet Nam, and occasionally small bits of Cambodia and Laos (I was never in Laos). It was where you faced whatever it was you faced that day and you learned to live with that. “The world” was everywhere else. It was as if Viet Nam existed somewhere totally disassociated with the rest of the planet and if you could find someway out, you would get back to “the world” and something that at least appeared to be normal. That’s important to know because it gives you some sense of the relative isolation we felt from the rest of humanity (and it’s vastly unfair to Viet Nam and the Vietnamese) .

Raquel Welch

Second, we were very ambivalent about the USO and its tours. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t mind the people coming over from “the world” to entertain us, especially the pretty girls, but we always knew they were doing it for what we lovingly called “enlightened self-interest.” That meant that it might be good for us, but it was going to be terrific for them. Sure Raquel Welch was nice to look at and we were glad to hear her sing (but of course you couldn’t get near enough to actually touch) but we also knew that she was gobbling up a lot of positive press that was going to enhance her career (and I don’t mean to pick on her, we felt that way about most of the people who came over to visit). There were exceptions like Sebastian Cabot, the overweight, bearded actor who came over to read Shakespeare to us. As he pointed out to us when he visited our place “No one wants to see me in a bikini” and he was already on the downside of a nice enough career so we thought maybe he did just want to make us feel better. And besides, it never hurt to hear Shakespeare and, yes, he did quote the Agincourt speech from Henry V (You probably know it better as the “band of brothers” speech). Even Bob Hope wasn’t immune. We knew he’d get lots of money for one of his “visiting the troops” specials.

Sebastian Cabot

All this is by way to letting you know what was going on internally in a lot of guys when we went to lunch sometime in late November or early December (it was after Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember the day). Lunch wasn’t bad, actually the food was pretty good except for reconstituted milk and frequently reconstituted potatoes (and “rubber” eggs–powered eggs). So most of the company was chowing down when the CO (that’s the commanding officer for you civilians) showed up trailed by three guys in new jungle fatigues. Mine hadn’t been that green in a month (OD–olive drab–fades).

“We got ball players here,” I remember he announced it (funny how you remember certain phrases, isn’t it?) It turns out the USO had gotten three Major Leaguers to come to Nam on a goodwill tour. They travelled from post to post, signed autographs, talked baseball, and told stories about the big leagues to us. The stories were, all in all, pretty good and they could talk baseball so well that it put all us armchair “experts” to shame.

Well, they wandered around from table to table, shaking hands and just talking to the troops, building morale one mess hall table at a time. I got to shake all three hands, got a couple of autographs which I ended up leaving in Viet Nam when I left, and to this day couldn’t tell you who any of them were (Again, funny what you can remember and what you can’t.). None of them was from the Dodgers or Cardinals (I’d remember that) but I couldn’t tell you much else about them. They were all white guys, so Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell et.al. weren’t there. They were nice enough guys and most of us enjoyed shaking hands with them and engaging them in conversation. For instance, I learned why you never try to steal home with a left-handed batter at the plate (the catcher has an unobstructed view of what’s happening down the third base line).

They left after an hour or so happy that they’d done their bit for God, Country, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the morale of the troops. What, of course, they never heard was the comments of a lot of guys sitting in one simple wooden mess hall in the Mekong Delta who were ultimately utterly ambivalent about what had just happened to them. It was part of returning “in country” from a small touch of “the world.”

“You suppose they think this will help their batting average?” (All comments translated from GI English, which is much heavier on 4-letter words than normal English).

“You see how good a shape those jerks were in? How’s come they’re not over here with the rest of us?”

“Wonder how quick they can duck when they hear ‘Incoming’?”

“How much you wanna bet at least one of them is 4-F? He can play ball but he’s 4-F. You watch.”

“Wonder if they get a raise for coming over here and seeing us?”

“Hey, Top, you think we can change places with some of them?”

The first sergeant in an infantry unit is the “top sergeant” and he’s frequently called “Top” by the guys. Ours was an old guy (he was in his late 30s) from back water Georgia who’d been around since Korea and was by now a first rate cynic about war, women, politicians, and people in general. He’d remained in the mess hall after the officers and dignitaries left for the air conditioned comfort of the local officer’s club.

“You can’t hit a Cong with your damned rifle. What makes you think you can hit a ball? Now shuddup and eat you’re damned chow.”

“Sure thing, Top.”

Welcome back “in country.”






10 Responses to ““We Got Ball Players Here””

  1. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    You are a brilliant storyteller! Absolutely wonderful. But, now, of course, I have to know who the 3 players were. Do you have an exact year? I’m going to assume by your “50 years ago” it was 1967 or so, so I’ll paw through some old papers or something and maybe I can figure this out. Because, I must know!

    And, I always wondered how the soldiers felt about these big production USO shows. Now I know.

    • verdun2 Says:

      A quick disclaimer. My comments on USO shows reflect my opinion and the opinion of the guys I was with in ‘Nam. I don’t promise any other group of people agreed with us.

  2. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Could it have been 1966? On November 1, 1966 it was reported that the following players would be visiting the troops in Viet Nam, hosted by Mel Allen: Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Joe Torre, and Stan Musial.

    (I’m going to figure this out you know!)

    • verdun2 Says:

      Should have been November-December 1967, give or take a month or so. I was “in country” August 1967 into August 1968 (during Tet and the May mess).
      Probably more effort than it’s worth. Even if you gave me a list, I doubt I’d remember the names.

  3. wkkortas Says:

    There is a book in these tales from Vietnam, and I think you are the man to write it.

  4. rjkitch13 Says:

    What a life you’ve lived, V. Thanks for the insight and returning to “the world” safe and sound.

  5. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Around November 1967, I can find news about Cale Yarborough, the racecar driver, Pearl Bailey, and a number of football players, including Bart Starr, visiting the troops in Viet Nam. But, I’m determined to find out which baseball players you met. I’m going to keep digging, because … … … well, just because.

    • verdun2 Says:

      I remember Bart Starr came to my base, but didn’t hit our unit. I have no idea what, if anyone, you’ll find. I guess it’s possible after all these years that I have the dates wrong (obviously it couldn’t be during the season) and maybe January or February?
      Still think you’re wasting your time, because I doubt even if you gave me the names I’d remember if they were the right ones or not. Thanks for trying.

  6. keithosaunders Says:

    Great post!

  7. glen715 Says:

    “You see how good a shape those jerks were in? How’s come they’re not over here with the rest of us?”

    “How much you wanna bet at least one of them is 4-F? He can play ball but he’s 4-F. You watch.”

    I’ve wondered the same thing for a long time. Do you notice how there were so many major league baseball players who fought in World War I, World War II, and Korea, and, seemingly, there were so few major league ballplayers who actually served in Vietnam (Not talking about Vietnam-ERA veterans, but those who actually SERVED IN Vietnam.) The only ones who I’m aware of are Chuck Goggin (Pirates, Red Sox, Dodgers), Al Bumbry (Orioles), Jim Bibby (Pirates, Rangers), Ed Figueroa (Yankees, Angels) Dave Schneck (Mets), Garry Maddox (Phillies), Bobby Jones (Rangers, Angels), Carlos May (White Sox, Yankees), and Roy Gleason (Dodgers, who played with the ’63 team but wasn’t eligible for the World Series; see excellent article about Gleason and his Vietnam experience…….


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