Baseball was always there, an integral part of the three men’s childhood and teenage years. All Baby Boomers and sons of World War II veterans, they followed America‘s Pastime during the sport’s post-war era, an age when DiMaggio and Mantle and the Yankees ruled October, Hammerin’ Hank was just getting started on his home run odyssey and the Athletics were migrating west from the City of Brotherly Love through Kansas City, finally settling in Oakland.
The South Philly kid, Richard Levin, rooted for the A’s – until they left southeast Pennsylvania – and he still relishes the first baseball game he attended at old Shibe Park. Connie Mack was in the final years of a Hall of Fame managing career, and later Jimmy Dykes and Eddie Joost skippered bad A’s teams that rounded out the franchise’s Philadelphia tenure. “I think we were the last A’s family on our block,” says Levin, whose family moved to Los Angeles when he was 12. “They were all Phillies fans.”
Bob DuPuy‘s Connecticut home was an amalgam of baseball allegiances. The young DuPuy was a diehard Yankees fan, his father Alfred, the president of a New Haven wholesale paper company, pulled for the New York Giants and his mother, Alice, cheered on the Red Sox. DuPuy’s Little League team would take annual trips to Yankee Stadium, and on one occasion DuPuy scored a souvenir courtesy of Hector Lopez, who tossed a baseball into the left field grandstand area.
And there was the Air Force brat, Sandy Alderson, born in Seattle but whose childhood crisscrossed the globe, from Denver to Japan, Illinois to England, South Carolina to Virginia, while his father John was stationed at air bases.
“Hank Aaron was my favorite player,” says Alderson, smiling at the memory. “When I was living in South Carolina, the Reds and (Milwaukee) Braves played an exhibition game in Columbia, about 40 miles from us. My Dad took me – it may have been 1958, ’59, maybe ’60. After the game, I followed (the players) to the taxi stand, stuck a baseball in the back window. In the back seat were Aaron, Wes Covington and Billy Bruton, and they all signed it. If I have (the ball), the autographs, I think, are faded.”
A tranquil ’50s gave way to the turbulent ’60s, when all three men came of age, graduated from college and were sent to Southeast Asia, each serving one tour of duty in Vietnam. Cold War tensions mounted, the civil rights movement churned across the country and the Vietnam War dominated the news headlines – searing combat images splashed across American television screens and newspaper pages trumpeted a gradual escalation of U.S. involvement.
The military experiences shared by the three men would shape their futures, affect their decisions, serve as catalysts for their professional careers as all three eventually landed positions in Major League Baseball.
Veterans Day is Thursday, and as the day approaches, Levin, who is retiring from his position as MLB senior vice president of public relations, DuPuy, who is stepping down as baseball’s president and chief operating officer, and Alderson, the newly hired Mets general manager, talked with the Daily News about serving their country, their perspectives on the war then and now, and coming home to baseball.
Saigon, Tay Ninh, Song Be, SOUTH VIETNAMUCLA coach John Wooden‘s first two NCAA basketball title teams (1964 and ’65), but upon graduation in the spring of ’65, the 6-4 forward originally from Philadelphia was at a crossroads, personally and professionally.
“I had some girl issues, some personal issues. I started law school in September (’65) at California Western University in San Diego,” says Rich Levin. “I didn’t want to go, but it seemed like the thing to do, because as soon as you left (undergraduate) school, you were available for the draft. I went to law school to keep my deferment, but I didn’t even finish the semester. I went home at Christmas and never went back.”
Levin says his parents, Bernard and Sara, “weren’t happy about” his decision, his mother hopeful that the middle son among her three boys would become an attorney. Levin, then 22, mulled his options for about a month before deciding to enlist in the Army along with UCLA classmate and friend Bill Parsons.
Thousands of GIs who served in Vietnam were born into military families, their fathers stationed in the European or Pacific theaters of World War II. Bernard Levin was with the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific, although Rich Levin says his father “did not see any action, fortunately.” The younger Levin adds that his father’s military background “had nothing to do with” his decision to enlist in the Army on Feb. 7, 1966.
“Parsons had looked into it. We enlisted in Army Intelligence,” says Levin. “It sounded like it was pretty decent, better than infantry. I thought it would be like joining the Foreign Legion.”
The two UCLA boys had a rude awakening, first in boot camp at Ft. Bliss (Tex.) – “a misnomer,” jokes Levin – and then to the military intelligence school at Ft. Holabird in Baltimore (which later closed). “That was interesting,” says Levin. “We learned all about the trade. Don’t forget, it’s the middle of the Cold War. You’re learning how to be a spy, really. The military intelligence was broken down into two parts – one was sort of like the FBI, and the other like the CIA.”
A massive American military buildup characterized much of 1966, with President Lyndon Johnson fulfilling Gen. William Westmoreland‘s request for more troops in Vietnam. At the end of the year, there were an estimated 450,000 American GIs in Southeast Asia. “By that time, I knew there was a good chance I’d be going to Vietnam,” says Levin. “I wouldn’t say I was nervous. The Army beats you down.”
Levin and Parsons had their orders in November ’66 and soon were aboard the U.S.S. Darby out of Tacoma, Wash. en route to Saigon. Parsons, who says his UCLA days were filled with “rousing, crazy parties,” recalls a hellish, 25-day trip across the Pacific. “It was like you were in a cattle hold. You had a tiny bunk,” says Parsons, who owns a winery in Carmel Valley, Calif. “They had trays of Dramamine that disappeared the first week. When we hit a monsoon, the boat was being tossed like a cork. People were puking their brains out.”
Levin was a Private, First Class (PFC) in the Army’s 525th Bilateral Battalion when he arrived in Saigon – now called Ho Chi Minh City. Levin and Parsons were put in different units in Saigon, Levin remaining in the city the first few months of his tour before later being transferred to rural Tay Ninh and Song Be near the Cambodian border. The Saigon days dragged, and Levin was indoors in a regional headquarters, carrying out intelligence operations. Within the first few days, one of his NCAA championship watches – “a Lord Elgin with a gold, flexible band” – was stolen while he was riding in a pedicab. He cured boredom with nightly ventures into the city. “We usually would go into town, drink and screw around. You can imagine what other stuff,” says Levin. “A lot of music, that was a big part, the Stones, the Doors, Beatles.” But the dynamic changed and Levin’s pessimism toward the war grew when he was transferred to what he says was “the middle of nowhere.”
“I worked with a Vietnamese captain, a counterpart. He ran a group of agents that were supposedly infiltrating the Vietcong,” says Levin. “We’d get some information – a North Vietnamese division was seen in this little village – basically gathering intel on troop movements, where Vietcong was located, any information about the enemy. We’d file reports, pass information along. But I think everything we were doing over there was a joke, at least from an intelligence standpoint.”
Levin rose to rank of corporal, and for a brief period was an undercover lieutenant with the code name, Richard Lorik. He never experienced heavy combat, although there were tense situations.
“I became friendly with some CIA guys in Song Be (pronounced Som-BAY) and we went to a big festival in this Montagnard village,” says Levin, referring to indigenous mountain tribes, who proved friendly allies to the U.S. “We went in the morning, by convoy. They had killed a water buffalo – it was like a scene out of ‘Apocalypse Now.’ In the afternoon, as we were coming down the mountain, there was all this weapon fire. I jumped out of the Jeep, got in the bushes. I had an M2 (rifle). It only lasted a few seconds, but it seemed like forever.”
He escaped unscathed, and a few days later, Levin returned to Saigon. It was November ’67, and he was leaving. Levin finished the remainder of his military commitment – about 14 months – in Germany, still operating with an Army intelligence unit. Levin says he continued to monitor Vietnam, thankful that he had left before the Tet Offensive in January 1968. His opinion of the war, however, remained unchanged. “I wouldn’t say bitter – I just thought the whole thing was wrong,” says Levin. “I didn’t think we should be there at all.”
Phu Bai, SOUTH VIETNAMDartmouth roommate’s wedding party, receiving his diploma and proposing to his college sweetheart Edith Mixson. But the fourth – a draft notice waiting for him on his parents’ porch after the Dartmouth graduation – was a blunt reality check.
“Our graduation had been fairly tumultuous. Our valedictorian urged us to go to Canada and avoid military service,” says DuPuy (pronounced Dew-PAY). “There was a lot of opposition. I didn’t have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of our country’s
DuPuy’s father, Alfred, was a decorated Army veteran in World War II, a proud achievement that resonated in the DuPuy household. But with Vietnam’s growing unpopularity by the summer of ’68 – Eddie Adams‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a Vietcong guerrilla being executed during Tet was particularly gruesome – Bob DuPuy started Basic Training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., with a measure of trepidation. While completing Advanced Training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, he received his orders.
“There were 150 of us in our unit and 148 of us got orders,” says DuPuy. “I remember walking up to the PX and calling my father in his office and saying, ‘I got my orders. You want me to call Mom? Or do you want to tell her?’ He said, ‘Give me a couple days, then call.’ She had lived through when my dad served, so 25 years later it was still fresh.”
DuPuy and his fiancée had decided they would get married after his tour, but prior to his departure overseas, he left Edith with an early Christmas present. “I totaled her Chevy Impala while driving in Bridgeport (Conn.),” says DuPuy. “My parents were going to give me a car as a graduation gift. They ended up buying her a Volkswagon Beetle, so I needed to come home and reclaim my graduation present.”
For Christmas, DuPuy was in Cam Ranh Bay, on the East Coast of South Vietnam, and for New Year’s, he was in Pleiku, where the 21-year-old’s nerves were soon frazzled.
“I had a fair amount to drink and went outside (the barracks) to get some air,” says DuPuy. “All of a sudden, there were rockets going off. I thought, ‘This is terrible. I’m here a week and I’m going to die.’ Turned out it was midnight and they were celebrating the New Year.”
Private DuPuy’s final destination was Phu Bai – “town is an exaggeration,” he says – a swatch of land about 60 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the neutral demarcation line separating North and South Vietnam. DuPuy was in the Army’s 504th Military Police Battalion, a unit responsible for the security of Armed Forces, enforcing the laws, working with Vietnamese police both local and national, providing convoy escorts on the main highway.
“Extraordinarily hard work, generally 12- to 16-hour shifts every day. And it was scary,” says DuPuy. “Being next to the airport, we got regularly shelled. We would come under attack by air several times a week. Sirens would go off, you’d hear incoming rounds. Helicopters would go out and strafe the locations where rockets were coming from. Then we’d get fired upon along the road with some regularity.”
To keep his wits – DuPuy lost close friends in the war – he occasionally played baseball with others in the barracks, wrote daily letters to Edith and his family, marked off days until his return home on a short-time calendar.
“There were no cell phones, of course,” says DuPuy. “No laptops. We got one call a month, generally through a ham radio operator:
‘How are you? Over.’
‘I’m doing fine, over.’
‘I love you, over.’
‘I love you too, over.’ There was not a lot of substance to those calls. But it was some contact.”
When Dec. 17, 1969 finally arrived, DuPuy says leaving Vietnam was “anticlimactic.” He’s still perplexed about the lack of euphoria he felt.
“Perhaps I’d thought about it for so long and was so emotionally drained that I just couldn’t respond in the way that I had anticipated,” he says. “I thought there would be a sense of relief and elation. Instead, there was a sort of peaceful acceptance. When I went over there, I was convinced that we had an obligation to these people and that we were doing the right thing. As you were there, you came to realize these people had no clue – they couldn’t handle the political systems that were fighting. It all seemed like a bad chess game that was costing tens of thousands of lives.”
Da Nang, SOUTH VIETNAMAlderson says he is “no hero,” and keeps busy these days playing on an over-80 softball team in St. Petersburg, Fla. He still laughs when asked about the time his son Sandy visited him in the summer of ’67, while he was flying a B-57 Canberra bomber out of Phan Rang air base in South Vietnam.
“Somehow he wangled a (job as a) foreign correspondent,” says John Alderson, stifling laughter. “Anyway, I got him on a test hop and I took him up and got him sick, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I remember this kid came up the ramp – you had a ramp to put up a ladder for us to get out of the plane – and he said, ‘Sir, we don’t clean up after somebody.’ I said, ‘No, I understand.’ I guess Sandy had thrown up a little. But it was very enjoyable. I know Sandy’ll never forget it.”
Sandy Alderson’s visit was an indelible introduction to Vietnam. He would visit Vietnam again in the spring of ’68 – during his junior year at Dartmouth where he was on a Navy ROTC scholarship.
“Because I didn’t get accredited (in ’67), I went back in ’68,” says Sandy Alderson. “I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ That time, I went for about a month. I went to Khe Sanh. I was out in the field with Marines. I flew on a close air-support mission, I flew on an Agent Orange aircraft. I would go out with CBS crews. I bicycled around Hue City, which had been destroyed during Tet.”
Alderson says he was never armed, never fearful for his life. He snapped dozens of photographs, especially around the Marine base in Khe Sanh. He ended up writing one story for the school paper.
“I got there and I figured, ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on here.’ And I didn’t feel like writing for a college audience,” Alderson says, laughing. “The people who ran the press center finally came to me and said, ‘We like you, but you’re not writing anything. If you’re not writing, we’re not going to let you go here or there.'”
After graduating Dartmouth in ’69, marrying his high school sweetheart, Linda, Alderson would return to Vietnam again – this time as a Marine officer in September 1970. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and stationed in Da Nang with the 1st Marines. Alderson hadn’t developed a cynicism towards the war during his two earlier visits, even though opposition against the U.S. effort continued to swell.
“Everything had been viewed positively in recent history. I grew up in an Air Force family. I’m proud of my dad. I’d like to emulate him. There was no reason for me to have questioned whether this (war) was right or wrong,” says Alderson. But combat activity had died down significantly by the time Alderson reached Da Nang; certain regiments within the 1st Marine Division were already being pulled. Alderson says the Marines were mainly responsible for preventing rocket attacks on the air base, but that matters were complicated by many leadership changes.
“There were constant transfers, back and forth in these units,” says Alderson. “I had a platoon for maybe a month. Then there was a shuffle, because of senior or junior people coming in. So I became executive officer. Then another shuffle. It was terrible for unit effectiveness, combat effectiveness. It was a disaster.”
Casualties in the division weren’t heavy, the deaths “mostly due to booby traps, things like that.” Marine operations in Da Nang continued to be scaled down, and Alderson didn’t have to complete a full year in Vietnam, leaving in May ’71. Two years later, the U.S. involvement ended and in 1975, Communist forces took over South Vietnam. “To this day, I’m not convinced that it was an absolute, total disaster and loss from a geopolitical standpoint,” says Alderson. “If you look at what happened in the ensuing years, it was not the most egregious of governments in that area.”
* * *
Rich Levin met his wife Susan on a fluke trip to Hawaii after finishing his military service. They married in 1970 and he helped raise her three kids from a previous marriage. She was with Levin from his days as an L.A. Herald-Examiner Lakers beat writer, to when he switched to PR for the ’84 L.A. Olympics, and for their move east when Rich was hired by former commissioner Peter Ueberroth to work for MLB. Susan died in 2007. Friends described her death as devastating to Levin. Levin, 67, lasted through Ueberroth’s tenure and three others, including the current commissioner, Bud Selig. There was the ’99 MLB trip to Cuba and retiring Jackie Robinson‘s No. 42 – some of the fond memories Levin will store in the memory bank as he transitions into retirement. He plans to travel and maybe teach.
“It’s been a privilege working for Commissioner Selig. I am pleased to have played a small role in the tremendous growth of the game over the last 18 years,” says Levin.
His military experience? Levin has no desire to visit Vietnam again. He says some aspects of the Army experience still resonate, but that playing for Wooden had just as much impact. “I learned how to be part of a team, how the sum of the whole was greater than the sum of the parts,” says Levin. “If you’re not the star, you have to learn to play a role and he helped me with that.”
DuPuy’s post-Vietnam path was marked by his marriage to Edith in January 1970, graduating from Cornell Law School, raising four children and practicing law in Milwaukee, where he eventually met Selig. In Milwaukee in the ’80s, DuPuy, 63, participated in a Dartmouth student’s doctoral thesis, for which she visited alumni and had them re-take a personality inventory test that had been administered in the ’60s to see if Vietnam had modified their personalities. It was the first time DuPuy remembers talking about his war experience with anyone. “The test couldn’t draw any conclusions, no common thread,” DuPuy says, pausing to catch himself. “Vietnam was a life-changing experience.” Twenty years after he left Vietnam, DuPuy found his way back to baseball, as outside counsel and later becoming MLB president and COO in 2002. “The first World Baseball Classic, the birth of MLB’s Advanced Media, seeing that grow and what it’s become, changes in the game. I got to live a dream,” says DuPuy. Through George Steinbrenner‘s help, DuPuy even got another signed baseball from Lopez. It read, “To Bob, I understand this is the second ball I have sent you. Your friend, Hector Lopez.”
Sandy Alderson’s closest brush with a baseball career came at Dartmouth where he played two seasons at second base. “No arm,” says Alderson. But the childhood love for the game never waned – during his ’68 visit to Vietnam, Alderson, now 62, listened to a Senators game via radio while on a flight that blared propaganda statements from loudspeakers. During Basic School at Quantico in October ’69, he caught the Miracle Mets on a PRC-25 radio out in the field.
Following Harvard Law, he landed the first of many baseball jobs working for the A’s as general counsel and later, GM. He recently returned to that role when the Mets hired him to be their 12th general manager. Throughout the nearly 30-year ride in baseball, Alderson says his military foundation is what brought him the success and accolades he’s enjoyed.
“The great thing about the military is you get to meet a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds. It’s the true melting pot,” says Alderson. That foundation served Alderson well in Oakland, rising in his profession and watching his A’s win the ’89 World Series. His baseball journey continues in Flushing now, the former Marine looking to restore luster to a franchise in need of a spark. “This is what you dream of,” he says. “And absolutely, a military background was an important step to get here.”
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