- - Thursday, November 9, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Al Bumbry was one of the great athletes to ever come out of the state of Virginia, a high school and college basketball star who went on to become one of the great Baltimore Orioles center fielders in franchise history, the 1973 American League Rookie of the Year and a member of the 1979 American League pennant-winning squad and 1983 World Series champions.

As part of that organization, he, like many, learned of the “Oriole Way,” a philosophical approach to the craft of baseball that ran through the organization, particularly during the glory years when Bumbry was signed by Orioles scout Dick Bowie in 1968. But Bumbry got a particular education that very few people in baseball got during that time.

Al Bumbry learned about duty and responsibility in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

As we honor our veterans this week on Veterans Day, we should take the time to honor Al Bumbry, one of just 10 major league players to have served in Vietnam. I spoke to Bumbry, 70, who became one of the franchise’s great leadoff hitters during his time in Baltimore from 1972 to 1984, about his career and the impact his time in Vietnam had on him in my weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast.

After all, there may be nobody in the history of this country, let alone baseball, that won American League Rookie of the Year honors (1973) and a Bronze Star as a tank platoon leader responsible for the lives of his men.

“I think I realized when I was in a do or die situation and I was a commander and responsible for my life and the men in my platoon, it must have made me focus more on what I had to do and my responsibilities,” Bumbry said.

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Bumbry was a standout basketball player who went to Virginia State College on a basketball scholarship. He didn’t play baseball until his senior year, but when he did, he batted .578 and was named the Most Outstanding Player on the team.

Here’s what else he did in college — ROTC during the Vietnam War.

“The ROTC program was required your first two years there,” Bumbry said. “While you were taking the required ROTC you got a deferment. After the two years you did not have that deferment anymore and the ROTC was not required unless you wanted to go into the advanced ROTC. That was another two years, but if you took that you got paid $50 a month and got your deferment for another two years. But after you graduated you had another two year active military commitment, but you went in as an officer as opposed to a PFC or what have you.

“During the summer of my sophomore year I got notification from my draft board to come down for an examination,” he said. “I was classified 1-A, the top classification. So I signed up and got another two year deferment. I thought it was a pretty good plan. I wanted to keep playing basketball. I really didn’t realize the magnitude of what I committed to until my senior year when we went down to the ROTC office and they said raise your right hand and repeat after me. Then I realized what was happening. Before that, it was just a plan, but I didn’t realize the seriousness of it.”

He was also drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round in 1968 and got a chance to play in Stockton, California, in Class A ball, where he struggled, batting .178 in 35 games. Then it was time to fulfill his military commitment. He spent a year stationed nearby in Fort Meade, Maryland, and then was shipped off to Vietnam.

“Once you got there, you had a choice — getting in the flow and protecting yourself and protecting the men in your platoon, and doing what you need to do to stay alive,” Bumbry said.. “I was a tank platoon leader in Vietnam for a year. It was all very stressful. I had nine vehicles and 45 men in my platoon, and I was responsible for all of our activities. The main thing was I was responsible for the lives of those men.

“My commander told me when I got assigned that platoon to go out into the jungles of Vietnam and do what they wanted us to do, he said to me and two other first lieutenants just in Vietnam, that this war was going on before you got here, it will be going on after you leave and your main objective should be to see that you and your men get home safely,” he said. “At the same time, not neglecting your responsibilities, be very aware and conscious of your actions, but your main objective is to get yourself and your men back home safely.

“While I was performing my assignments, I always kept that in the back of my mind.”

He did just that, and won a Bronze Star — awarded for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone — in the process. “I won a Bronze Star when my platoon intercepted a large shipment of supplies heading north to the Viet Cong military,” Bumbry said.

Like so many of that generation, when Al Bumbry came back to America, he was a changed man.

“I’m sure it changed me,” he said. “When I was taking the ROTC program at Virginia State in those four years, one of the most difficult assignments and subject matter that we went through was reading maps. I had a very difficult time in reading a map. I did not pass exams on map reading. When I got to Vietnam and was responsible for the lives of those men, I learned to read that damn map pretty good.

“If you go into a big firefight and had to call in for support, you had to know where you were.”

When Bumbry got back in 1971, he began playing ball on the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Orioles farm club, and batted .336 in 66 games. The next season, after hitting .345 with 10 home runs, 57 RBI and 32 stolen bases between Class AA Asheville and Class AAAS Rochester, Bumbry was called up to Baltimore by the end of the season. That began a brilliant career patrolling Memorial Stadium — 772 runs scored, 1,403 hits, 217 doubles, 52 triples, 252 stolen bases and a .283 batting average before finishing his career in San Diego in 1985.

“They said, ‘How did you do so poorly in minor leagues before and then not play for two years and then come back and play in the big leagues so quickly?” Bumbry said. “‘How do you account for that?’ The answer I would give then and give now is the changing and the maturity factor involved. I think I realized when I was in a do-or-die situation and I was a commander and responsible for my life and the men in my platoon, it must have made my focus more on what I had to do and my responsibilities.”

It was a player development step that few took during the Vietnam War.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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