One & Done: Roy Gleason only MLB player wounded in Vietnam War
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
Baseball was the least of Roy Gleason’s worries during the fall and winter of 1968, as the former Dodgers outfielder sat day after day in a room at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, recovering from injuries suffered in Vietnam that July.
At that time, Gleason wasn’t reflecting about his first major-league hit, a double in his only big-league at-bat, or whether it might also be his last. He wasn’t concerned, either, with the World Series ring that his eight games in the big leagues earned him in 1963 — a piece of memorabilia that was curiously absent when the contents of his foot locker were returned to him that November.
He wasn’t thinking about spring training or whether the shrapnel that littered the left side of his body might put him at a disadvantage if and when he reported to Vero Beach. No, Gleason, who was drafted into the Army during spring training in 1967, was just happy to be anywhere at all after the ambush, sparked by an explosion from above that came just late enough to spare him his life.
“I was just ecstatic,” the 72-year-old Gleason said in an interview with FOX Sports last week, “that I was alive and back home.”
Originally from Chicago, Gleason had a connection to the Dodgers forged long before he was ever played for the team. Gleason’s family moved to southern California in the 1950s, and as a teenager, after his father left the family, he was a star at Garden Grove High School.
For three seasons, he threw batting practice to the Dodgers before games at the Coliseum during the team’s early years in Los Angeles, and during that time Gleason formed a bond with Dodgers scout Kenny Myers, whom Gleason described as a father figure. Then in 1962, shortly after Gleason graduated, Myers and the Dodgers offered him a contract — with one stipulation.
“I was a pitcher until the day I signed,” Gleason recalled. “That’s when the Dodgers said, ‘You’re not a pitcher anymore; you’re going to be an outfielder.’ If I had signed with any other team I’d have been a pitcher, and I think my heart was with pitching because I really knew I could pitch. But I wanted to play every day, and the Dodgers had taken me under their wing when I was 15 years old.”
The decision to change positions turned out to be a good one, and it wasn’t long after joining the franchise that Gleason found himself playing at Chavez Ravine.
After hitting 22 home runs during a successful Rookie ball season in Reno, Nevada, Gleason was assigned to the Dodgers’ A-ball club in Salem, Oregon, in 1963. There, Gleason struggled early, but a slight tweak to his approach at the plate during the middle part of the season changed his fortunes and eventually earned him a big-league call-up at age 20.
“I just kind of dropped my hands down and relaxed and didn’t think about anything else, and from that point, I just went bananas,” said Gleason, who missed three weeks in the midst of his surge with a broken bone in his hand. “The ball looked like a beach ball to me. … I think from July until the end of the season, I was hitting close to .400, and I had like 12 home runs in two and a half weeks. I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do, and they called me up on Sept. 3.”
However, even Gleason didn’t anticipate that a call-up meant he would actually play.
The Dodgers had a six-game lead over the Cardinals atop the NL at the time of the promotion, but St. Louis was gaining ground, so Gleason figured the chances he’d get in a game were low. In fact, Gleason says he barely even got a “hello” from manager Walter Alston after arriving at the Dodger Stadium, and third-base coach Pete Reiser was the only one to brief him before his first game, giving him a rundown of the signs before the team hosted Houston that night.
“I was a young 20-year-old rookie and at the time we were right in the middle of a pennant race,” Gleason said. “So I got dressed and prepared myself, warmed up, took batting practice, outfield practice, all that, and figured I’d just have the best seat in the house to watch the ballgame.”
Then in the bottom of the 10th, with the Dodgers trailing 3-2, Gleason heard his name.
“I was sitting, naturally, toward the end of the bench where all the rookies are — Al Ferrara and myself and Derrell Griffith, a few other guys,” Gleason said. “I didn’t figure they were going to call on me to do anything, and then Alston calls at me, ‘Hey Gleason, if (Bill) Skowron gets a hit, you’re running for him.’ Sure enough, Skowron got a single, so there I go, I’m out at first base now, one out, thinking, ‘Oh no, what were the signs?’ ”
Jim Gilliam, the next LA batter, hit a first-pitch single to right to advance Gleason to third, then two pitches after that, Wally Moon hit a sacrifice fly to center to drive Gleason in to tie the game — the first run of his career in his first major-league game.
“I remember Reiser saying, ‘Don’t leave too early, don’t leave too early,’ and I almost got mad at him saying, ‘I know, I know,’ ” Gleason said. “The guy caught it, and I made sure it was in his glove, and then ran home. And when I hit home plate, that’s when it hit me, the roar of the fans. … I was excited, and kind of awestruck. ‘I’m really here, I’m on the team, I’m in the majors.’”
The Dodgers won the game on a walk-off single by Tommy Davis later in the inning, and Gleason appeared in each of the next two games and a total of six more over the course of the next two weeks, each of them as a pinch runner.
In his second appearance, against the Cubs, Gleason again ran for the former Yankees All-Star Skowron in the 10th inning and broke up a double play, forcing a throwing error by Andre Rodgers. The next night, he scored his second career run after once again replacing the slow-footed first baseman Skowron on the bases in the bottom of the eighth.
But by the time the Dodgers traveled to St. Louis for a series beginning on Sept. 16, tensions in the LA clubhouse were running high. The Dodgers weren’t playing poorly — they’d gone 8-5 since Gleason’s arrival — but the Cardinals were surging and entered the series one game back in the pennant race after winning 19 of 20 games.
With so much at stake, Gleason didn’t expect to be called upon, even to run, and in the first game of the series he almost made Alston regret putting him in as Gleason nearly sparked a brawl after a run-in with Cardinals shortstop Dick Groat. LA had just taken a 3-1 lead in the ninth when Gleason replaced Skowron on first base with two on and one out. The next batter walked, loading the bases and advancing Gleason to second base, where he got a bit of unsolicited advice from umpire Tom Gorman.
“The infield was in, and (Gorman) told me, ‘Hey, Gleason, make sure you go behind Groat if the ball is hit at him,’ ” Gleason said. “And, as Murphy’s Law goes, the ball is hit right at Groat. So I go behind him, and I measured it close because I wanted to get to third as quickly as possible, but he stepped back to get leverage on his throw to home plate, and when he stepped back, he was coming into me, blocking me off. So I gave him a shoulder, a quick nudge.”
Groat was able to force Dick Tracewski out at home despite the contact, but St. Louis couldn’t turn the double play to end the inning. Afterward, Groat and the Cardinals protested that Gleason should have been called for interference. Eventually, however, cooler heads prevailed and the Dodgers won the game, and the next day, Gleason received a surprise visit from Groat before the game.
“Ironically (before the series), a friend of mine out here in California had told me, ‘If you run into Dick Groat, get his autograph for me,’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Gleason said. “So Dick came up to me and he said, ‘I want to apologize to you for yelling and screaming. I was trying to get an out on the play, and we’re in the middle of a pennant race, so there’s all this pressure, but you’re just a rookie, a young kid trying to break into baseball. I was wrong, you were right.’
“He apologized to me, and I said, ‘I really appreciate that, now can I get your autograph?’ ” Gleason continued with a laugh. “And he went in and got one of his old gloves and signed it for my friend.”
Two nights later, Gleason once again pinch-ran in the series finale, which LA won. The sweep pushed the Dodgers’ NL lead back up to four games with just seven games left on the Cardinals’ schedule, and after back-to-back St. Louis losses to the Reds that weekend, LA had clinched the pennant.
That, Gleason figured, would surely be enough to get him in a few games down the stretch outside of his regular role as a pinch runner, but after not appearing in any capacity over the next seven games, Gleason instead found himself questioning whether he’d even get his first big-league at-bat that season.
“It’s a Saturday and the next-to-last game of the season, and I’d been wondering all week, ‘Why haven’t I been put in to play?’ ” Gleason said. “I’d done everything they asked me to do, and I was hitting the ball so well in the minors. They’ve got nothing to lose because we’ve got the pennant clinched, but I’m still sitting the bench.”
Then in the bottom of the eighth on Sept. 28, 1963, with the Dodgers trailing the Phillies 12-2 and pitcher Phil Ortega due up, Gleason got the call he’d been waiting for his entire life.
“Alston says, ‘Gleason, get a bat, you’re hitting for Ortega,’ but he didn’t tell me until Philadelphia was already out on the field, and the pitcher was already warmed up,” Gleason said. “So I barely had time to grab a bat and run up to the plate, and I really didn’t have time to think about it because the umpire is looking over at the dugout to see who’s hitting. I just went directly to home plate, which was really probably a blessing in disguise.
“There was an adrenaline rush, and to me it looked like he was throwing change-ups,” Gleason continued of the opposing pitcher, Phillies lefty Dennis Bennett. “He only threw me two pitches. The first was a fastball that missed down and in. I looked at the catcher and said, ‘He’s throwing a changeup to a pinch hitter on the first pitch?’ He said, ‘That was his fastball, rook,’ and I expected the next pitch to be behind my ear, because that’s how we played in those days.
“Then the next pitch was a little more up and in, I think it was a strike, and I lined it into left field for a double. I was on top of the world.”
And that was it for Gleason’s career. He scored three batters later, cutting the deficit to 12-3, was replaced by a pitcher in the top of the ninth and never played a big-league game again. A week later, the Dodgers won the World Series in a sweep of the Yankees — ineligible for the postseason roster, Gleason watched from the Arizona instructional league — and the following year, Gleason, playing back in Salem, got a championship ring for his efforts.
On April 1, eight days before his 24th birthday, the World Series champ with a 1.000 batting average received a letter. His draft status had been changed from 3A to 1A. A short time later, after going to basic training and infantry school he was sent to Vietnam, and, more than a year after that, on June 24, 1968, his life changed forever when he got caught in a Viet Cong attack.
“It was awesome,” Gleason said. “It’s a beautiful ring, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, look at that diamond.’ Nowadays, the whole ring is a diamond, but back then it was one you could wear every day. It’s not gaudy, and it’s pretty simple, but it’s beautiful to me. In fact, I wear mine all the time now. That ring doesn’t leave me.”
Of course, if you were Gleason, you might not take the ring off, either.
After spending the next three seasons taking a more traditional path to the majors, making stops in Salem, Albuquerque and Santa Barbara, among others, Gleason found himself in big-league spring training with the Dodgers in 1967. Gleason had begun to mature as a player, he says, and felt he was showing superstar potential.
But then on April 1, eight days before his 24th birthday, the World Series champ with a 1.000 batting average received a letter. His draft status had been changed from 3A to 1A. A short time later, after going to basic training and infantry school, he was sent to Vietnam, and, more than a year after that, on June 24, 1968, his life changed forever when he got caught in a Viet Cong attack.
“I was with the Ninth Infantry and I was a grunt, out walking point for my unit,” Gleason recalled. “As we did many times, I walked into an ambush. Enemy command detonated a 155 (millimeter) round up in the bush that was one of our own 155 rounds that was a dud. The VC had picked it up and put a charge on it and mounted it like nine feet up in a tree — we called it the bush — and it was command detonated, so they can squeeze it off on whoever walks underneath it.
“I was looking down, looking for booby traps on the ground, and I walked through the area. They let me walk underneath it and squeezed it off on the machine gunner behind me and it killed him instantly.”
Gleason didn’t escape unscathed, however. The explosion knocked him to the ground, and shrapnel tore through his left arm and leg. He drew his weapon and returned fire, but the damage had been done.
He was eventually medevaced to the Ninth Infantry base camp at Dong Tam, then was moved to Saigon, Osaka and eventually San Francisco. It was there, at Letterman, that Gleason began the long and arduous healing process. He was discharged from the hospital on Jan. 10, 1969, but before his release he finally received the belongings he’d left behind in Vietnam.
“I came home on a stretcher wearing pajamas, with a bag that had a toothbrush, a razor, shaving cream and toothpaste in it,” said Gleason, the only major-league player wounded in Vietnam. “That was it. That’s all I had with me. All the rest of my stuff was left at company base camp, and all of that is inventoried, and they take it out and ship it back gradually.
“It took months for me to be reunited with my belongings that were in my foot locker. I was still at Letterman, and I went through all the stuff they sent back. They had an inventory list, but there was no World Series ring on it, and my sharkskin suit that I’d gotten in Hong Kong was missing, too.”
“I was so happy to be home and alive and have all my body parts that it didn’t bother me that much at the time,” he added. “I figured someone probably stole it and took the diamond out of it, not even knowing what it was. But I don’t know who would want my sharkskin suit.”
Finally healthy, Gleason once again reported to spring training with the Dodgers in ’69, and though he played well that March, the lingering effects of his injuries in Vietnam left him struggling to regain his past form. Nerve damage made it difficult for the switch-hitting Gleason to hold onto the bat when he swung right-handed, and the shrapnel in his calf sapped some of his speed.
That year, Gleason hit .187 combined at Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Albuquerque, and in 1970, he spent the year in the Mexican league, as part of the Angels organization. Then the following fall, while working in the offseason, a truck crash left him with a rotator cuff injury that ended his playing career.
“It was frustrating,” Gleason said. “I made it through Vietnam and was given a second chance, and then I go over a cliff. I’m going, ‘Man, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.’ It was really depressing, and I remember I didn’t feel like talking to anybody for a while coming out of it.”
In the more than 30 years that followed, Gleason lived life mostly under the radar, making a living at a car dealership in southern California without his prized World Series ring to remind him of his days as a major leaguer. Or at least that was the case until Sept. 20, 2003, when the Dodgers, at the urging of team historian Mark Langill, brought Gleason back to throw out the first pitch before a Saturday night game against the San Francisco Giants.
“They just told me they wanted me out there to throw out the first pitch, and that’s all I thought I was going to do,” Gleason said. “They shocked me. I threw the ball and one-hopped it to the catcher, which was really irritating to me, and I got halfway off the mound, when I hear Vin Scully say, ‘Hold up, Roy. Hold it right there, we’ve got something for you.’
“Then the whole Dodger team came out on the field with Jim Tracy, at the time the manager, and presented me with my 1963 World Series ring. I was biting my tongue and everything else to keep from crying. I was literally probably in shock for a little bit. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was like a dream.”
And nearly 40 years to the day after his first and only big-league hit, Gleason could finally call his baseball career complete.
“The only way I can look at is that I was blessed to be able to have the tools to get there in the first place,” Gleason said. “When you’re a kid, every kid dreams about playing in the major leagues, and I got that chance. It was only one at-bat, but I was there. How many guys in America today wish they could have had just one at-bat in the majors, just to see what it’s like? So I was fortunate.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said of the twists and turns that kept him away from the game. “It’s the bumps in the road and the way things go. It wasn’t meant to be, and I’m happy where I’m at now, and that’s all that counts.”
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