As their country teetered on chaos and collapse, a group of Vietnamese teenagers embraced an all-American game for a season to remember.
The Vietnamese youth grasped something tightly in his hand as he sprinted past us, arms and legs pumping furiously, panicked eyes wide open. A half-dozen GIs in hot pursuit some 20 yards behind the boy were shouting, “Stop him, stop him!” It was the fall of 1973, and we were watching a slow-pitch softball game at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon. The young thief had charged into the American players’ dugout, snatched his prize, then careened out, racing past us and leaping onto the back of a motorcycle where his accomplice was waiting with the engine running. In a split second, they were out of sight.
We had seen this type of thievery many times before at the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) ball field. With no secure place to store their valuables while on the field, the players often wrapped those items in bags or towels and left them on the dugout bench. Vietnamese youngsters hanging around the field would take advantage if the opportunity presented itself, frequently scoring a watch, a wallet or both. It was too easy, and the temptation too great. The players were angry, but no one had ever been able to figure out what to do about it.
In previous years, with more than 500,000 military personnel in Vietnam, the DAO-organized softball leagues were filled with dozens of teams playing in seasons that lasted for many months. By 1973, however, with the American forces drawing down, only a single playing field was in use and the season was just a couple of months long. Nevertheless, a large number of Americans, including Marines, Army soldiers, contractors, USAID workers, MACV and U.S. Embassy employees, postal workers and American Legion members, participated in the league—and the competition was fierce.
Following the game that day, a group of us who played for different teams in the league went out for a beer. The stolen wallet incident was fresh in our minds. “Well, it’s just a shame,” said Walt Larsen. A former Army officer who had mustered out in Vietnam and then stayed in Saigon to work for an American contractor, Wally was a big, strong man and a superb ballplayer; as such, he was our de facto leader. Other members of our group included Dave Cessna, Tom Rife and myself, all working for different civilian companies. “Yeah,” replied Tom, “but it’s never going to stop.” Dave chimed in: “They’re the kids of the Vietnamese military personnel who live on the base. They play on the field when we’re not using it.”
“I’ve watched them,” said Wally. “When they’re not playing soccer, they fool around mimicking the Americans playing softball. Some of them aren’t half bad.”
As our conversation continued, an idea soon began to take shape. It was suggested that perhaps we could stop the stealing by getting the Vietnamese youngsters involved on a team. “Sure,” someone said. “Suppose we started with our group of four Americans and then added a dozen or so of these Vietnamese kids to complete the team?”
A new league was starting soon, and existing teams were beginning to fragment because of the ongoing departures, so we needed to pull together new teams anyway.
“What would we call the team?” someone asked. My company represented a number of American firms, including The Timken Company, a manufacturer of ball and roller bearings. “I’ll ask Timken to sponsor us,” I said. “We can call ourselves the Rollers.”
Organizing the team was the easy part. With our nucleus of four Americans, we started recruiting the teenagers who loitered around the field. When asked if they would like to join our team, most quickly agreed. We began practice sessions, and Vietnamese boys with names of Phu, Vo, Tu, Yo, Loc, Dung, So, Nhan and Tho became our regular players. With our coaching, they quickly soaked up most of the game’s nuances and grew more proficient day by day. After just a few weeks, we knew we had a team that could compete with most of the other American teams.
The hard part came when we approached the DAO to enter our team in the league. They had misgivings about allowing the Vietnamese to play against Americans. They did agree to put the matter up for discussion and subsequent vote at a meeting of the league’s team captains. The team captains were less than enthusiastic and their objections were numerous: the Vietnamese boys would get hurt, they didn’t know how to play the game, the games would be an embarrassment. We vigorously countered every argument, and at last our team was narrowly approved.
Initially, we believed that while we would certainly not be one of the better teams in the league, the four Americans who formed the core of the team, plus the energetic Vietnamese youngsters, would be competitive enough to win at least a couple of games. But the more obstacles our team faced in getting started in the league, the more determined we became. The laughter and ridicule aimed at our team provoked us to dig in our heels with an unspoken attitude that said, “Oh, yeah, just wait until the season starts—we’ll show you!”
The biggest problem we faced was teaching the Vietnamese the rules of the game. Aside from the simple problem of identifying our players—with three Phucs on our team, we called them PhucA, PhucB and PhucC— communication was a major hurdle. None of the boys spoke conversational English and none of us spoke adequate Vietnamese.
Our first practices had the feel of an Abbott and Costello comedy routine. Imagine teaching the infield fly rule to someone who has never played the game and doesn’t speak English! During one of our early practices, we had PhucB at third base and PhucA at first base. The coaching went something like this: “Now listen, PhucB, if the ball comes to you on the ground and there are two outs, throw the ball to PhucA. If there is a runner on first and less than two out, throw the ball to Dennison at second base, who will try to get a double play by throwing the ball to PhucA….Got that?” The player, as a rule, would smile, nod positively, stare blankly—and then just stand on the base without moving, no matter where the ball went. We ended up depending mostly on our simplest guideline: Watch the coach. Some of the first English words our kids learned were “run,” “get back,” “go, go,” and “no, dammit, no!” The Rollers’ first game against the American Legion was a stunning 16-to-6 upset. In the second game against the LSI contractor team, the Rollers won by a final score of 14 to 4. After the first two games of the season, we were tied for the league lead!
The team then returned to reality with a thud, getting stomped in its next two games against Northrop and the Marines, followed by four more losses in the next five games, including a 29-to-2 humiliation at the hands of the USAID team. As the first half of the season ended, with three wins and six losses, the Rollers were mired near the bottom of the league standings. Our starting pitcher was then drafted into the Vietnamese army, and the rest of the boys on the team were feeling the pressure of losing and were starting to bicker with each other.
The kids were extraordinarily quick and amenable, though. The learning curve was sharp, but they caught on so fast that we soon took it for granted that they would make correct in-game decisions, and the attitude of both the Americans and the Vietnamese players began to change. We began to believe in ourselves, and the confidence among the team grew progressively. We expected to win! Among the Americans, it was no longer just fun or just a challenge— it became an objective. With a newfound passion, we couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark for our games.
We knew we could win, and as the second half of the season began we went on a four-game winning streak. Some of the teams we beat had players who originally didn’t want us in the league because they were afraid they might hurt us. After we beat them, we frequently asked them who exactly it was that was hurting now. The Vietnamese kids understood what was happening and seemed to enjoy it immensely.
We knew it was unlikely that the Rollers could win the league championship, but every opponent now expected a real fight to the finish. As the season wound down, there was one more big game that would be remembered forever.
The DAO scheduled the Rollers against the league-leading and undefeated U.S. Post Office team on July 4, 1974. The game was even promoted on the local armed forces radio station, and, combined with the holiday celebration and free refreshments, several hundred Vietnamese and American spectators were on hand. No one on the Rollers had ever played in front of more than 20 or 30 fans. The idea of taking the field against an undefeated team with all those screaming spectators was scary enough for us American players, but the Vietnamese boys were petrified.
A light mist didn’t dampen the spirits of the players or the fans as the contest seesawed back and forth. At the end of seven regulation innings, the score was tied at eight runs apiece. Going into extra innings, spectators were still screaming on every pitch, each hit or out, and the players were wound tight as a drum. In the bottom of the ninth, the Post Office team had a leadoff single and the runner advanced to second base on a ground out. The next hitter doubled to the gap, and the game was abruptly over.
The Vietnamese boys hung their heads, many with tears in their eyes, as they began to walk off the field. Then something magical happened: Everyone in the stands stood and cheered the Rollers. The winning Post Office team players were applauding along with the rest of the fans, and they rushed over to meet us. “That was the toughest game we had all season,” said one of the opposing players. “You have the respect of every team in the league.” We exchanged high-fives and handshakes while the ovation from the fans in the stands continued.
As it turned out, 1974 was the first and only season for the Vietnam Rollers. The young players were eagerly looking forward to the 1975 schedule, but that would never be, as Vietnam fell to the Communists before the team could play together again.
We were proud of what we had accomplished with the Vietnamese teenagers and how, in a small way, we had bridged a divide and changed people’s perspectives. As for our original goal—as trivial as it now seems—that, too, was a success. Before the Rollers joined the softball league, some 30 to 40 thefts were attributed to Vietnamese teenagers every season at the DAO field. During the time the Rollers played in the league, we knew of only one theft at the ballpark. That was when an “outsider” Vietnamese stole a wallet—and “our” Vietnamese kids chased him down and returned it to the owner.
Richard Dennison worked for a manufacturer’s representative company in Saigon between 1966 and 1975. He is now a documentary filmmaker and author of the 2005 golf book Just Fore Laughs.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.