Almost every sporting event in the United States has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an absence noted by the many service members who are ardent sports fans and enjoy playing sports.
Because the games are mostly on hold, here’s a look at two sports legends who also served in the military.
Roy Gleason and Donny Tidwell both have ties to Los Angeles Dodgers baseball and to military service in Vietnam. The difference is that one came home alive. One didn’t.
Outfielder and switch-hitter Roy Gleason played just eight major league games for the Dodgers in 1963, though he had been with the Dodgers organization in the minor leagues since 1961. But 1963 was the year that the Dodgers swept the World Series over the New York Yankees, 4-0, making Gleason part of the team’s legacy. In 1967, Gleason was drafted into the Army. He completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Shortly after completing his training, he was deployed to South Vietnam with the 39th Infantry Regiment and then the 9th Infantry Regiment. He was stationed at the old French fort called Fort Courage, near Saigon, beside the South China Sea.
Gleason had many close calls with death, which he recounted in his collaborative biography, Lost in the Sun.
Fort Courage got mortared regularly, Gleason wrote, once taking a direct hit which killed five soldiers and took the leg off his company commander.
In March 1968, Gleason’s platoon came under heavy fire in the Mekong Delta as they were crossing a rice paddy. Two soldiers were hit by enemy fire, and Gleason carried each to safety as incoming fire continued. As a result, Gleason was meritoriously promoted to sergeant in June, thereby making him the platoon sergeant.
Shortly after his promotion, on July 24, 1968, while walking point, he and his men walked into an ambush. Almost immediately, he was wounded in the wrist and lower leg. After fashioning a tourniquet, he returned fire. Many of his buddies were wounded or killed that day. Eventually, they were evacuated by helicopter, and that ended Gleason’s tour in Vietnam.
After his tour of duty, Gleason played in the Dodgers’ farm system in 1969 and 1970, but his war wounds prevented him from returning to the major leagues. He went on to have a career in television and films, including starring in the TV series “Branded” alongside actor Chuck Connors, and portraying a race car driver in a “Batman” episode.
He makes his home in Melrose Park, Ill. His father, Richard Roy Gleason, served as a Seabee during World War II.
Just about every rookie who gets drafted into the big leagues dreams of hometown glory. Donny Tidwell, most likely, had dreams, too.
The Dodgers selected pitcher Donny Tidwell in the 42nd round of the 1966 first-year player draft. In his only professional season at rookie-league level with the Ogden Dodgers, Tidwell went 4–3, with a 4.01 earned run average in 19 games, according to Mark Langill, L.A. Dodgers team historian and author of five Dodger-related books. Based in Ogden, Utah, The Ogden Dodgers were a minor league baseball team in the Pioneer League from 1966 to 1973.
It was future Baseball Hall of Fame coach Tommy Lasorda’s second season as a minor league manager, and Ogden won the Pioneer League title with a 39–27 record, Langill said. Future major league players on that 1966 Ogden squad included then-outfielder Bill Russell and pitcher Charlie Hough. Tidwell’s roommate at Ogden was infielder Justin Dedeaux, son of longtime University of Southern California baseball coach and former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Rod Dedeaux.
Tidwell, sensing a call to duty, enlisted in the Army in November 1966 for an expected three-year tour. He had been in Vietnam for only two months and 12 days when he was killed, at age 21, on April 12, 1968. Tidwell was a member of Bravo Company, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, Langill said.
Lasorda, who later managed the major league Dodgers for 20 seasons and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, sent a message to the Tidwell family in 2018, when Tidwell’s high school in Diana, Texas, renamed its baseball field in his honor. Hometown glory was just as sweet 50-plus years after that rookie season.
“I began my managerial career in the rookie leagues. It was an incredibly good feeling to take young, inexperienced players and mold them, build them into good players and winners,” Lasorda wrote to Tidwell’s family. “Throughout my playing career, I knew there was only a small difference between the mediocre ballplayer and the very good ballplayer on the team, and that distance could be narrowed through hard work and determination.
“My first championship team was the 1966 Ogden Dodgers,” he continued. “I’ll always look at that roster and think of Donny Tidwell. Every player who starts out in pro ball has a dream of playing in the Majors. While several of his teammates eventually played in the Majors, Donny decided there was something bigger than baseball. His decision to enter the Army took courage as he set aside his dream of playing baseball to serve his country. The image of Donny eagerly taking the ball and pitching in a Dodger uniform during that summer of 1966 is something I’ve carried with me for more than 50 years. I am thankful the community of Diana, Texas, continues to honor a true hero and role model.”