Dig deep into the history of major league baseball and the Vietnam War, and you’ll uncover some interesting data that might raise an eyebrow or two. Of the nearly 3.4 million service members who were sent to fight in Vietnam, none were baseball Hall-of-Famers or active All-Stars. In fact, there was only one player who landed in Southeast Asia after first playing in a major league baseball game – that was Roy Gleason of the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers. While several minor leaguers served in Vietnam and went on to productive post-war baseball careers (notables include Al Bumbry, an Army officer who was awarded a Bronze Star, and Garry Maddox, who was exposed to the effects of chemical weapons and suffered a severe skin problem as a result), hundreds of ballplayers served stateside in the Reserve or in National Guard units. The dirty little secret of the day was that major league baseball was “hiding” its rosters of ballplayers, thus avoiding overseas duty or the draft altogether. (This in great contrast to the hundreds of ballplayers who signed up after Pearl Harbor in WWII, including stars like Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Yogi Berra and Bob Feller, who all lost significant and productive years to the war). Three circumstantial facts support this conclusion. Although never openly acknowledged, teams of the early 1960’s were known to have tracked the draft status of each player in their organization, often challenging and influencing the draft eligibility status of an individual player when needed. Also, teams were known to produce failed physical exams from the draft boards, often with no explanation of rejection, and many times ball clubs won “placement favors” for many of those coveted spots in the Reserve and support units at home. With so much attention to detail from team owners protecting their “investments” during this era, it’s hard to fathom how professional baseball could let a ballplayer slip through the cracks. As he set foot on Vietnam soil on February 14, 1968, Del Chambers must have wondered, too.
Udell Chambers was born on February 22, 1948 and grew up in a section of Kirkwood, Missouri, called Meacham Park (Kirkwood is located just due west of the city of St. Louis). Early on, he was a church-going Baptist and was always an exceptional athlete. From Little League through high school, Del was consistently better than the competition. He attended Kirkwood High School where he was a popular student, and starred in both basketball and baseball. Although only 5-foot-8 tall, he was well toned and a muscled 150 pounds. On the basketball court he was a confident guard, was always quick on the dribble and quite a deft passer. On the baseball diamond, those same skills came into play as he was fast on the base paths and his right arm was strong with pinpoint accuracy. Del was perfectly suited as a shortstop or centerfielder, and he was the prototype leadoff hitter. He possessed such remarkable baseball talent during his prep years that he was recruited by the Atlanta Braves during his senior year in 1966. He reported to Sarasota (Florida) of the Gulf Coast League and was playing professional baseball just weeks after receiving his cap and gown.
The Gulf Coast League was a pure rookie league. Most of the players were young stars out of the sandlots or like Del, recently out of high school. The league was strictly for developmental purposes as won-loss records weren’t closely monitored. While most teams never charged for admission, the games were played during the day in the summer months of Florida, and the oppressive heat and humidity was enough to keep most fans away in any event. Del played mostly shortstop (and some centerfield) and he saw action in 39 games, banging out 23 hits, including 6 doubles, 2 triples and a lone homerun. While his batting average was only .204, Del’s overall play started getting him some favorable notice in the local paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Of note: a teammate on the Sarasota Braves was future 1971 National League Rookie-of-the-Year, catcher Earl Williams.
The Western Carolinas League was a Class A league, and while still one of the lower levels of professional baseball, it was a step up from Sarasota in the Gulf Coast League. Del was promoted to the Lexington (North Carolina) Braves for the start of the 1967 season and he was a star from the start. As the team’s starting shortstop, Del played superb defense. At the plate, he led the league in walks and hit-by-pitch, tied for the league lead in doubles, and finished third in the league in batting, sporting a robust .325 average. Overall, he played in 100 games, had 369 at-bats, stroked 120 hits, had 27 doubles, 1 triple, and showed some undiscovered power by launching 12 homers. He also managed to steal 28 bases in 30 tries. As his second professional season ended, it was clear that Del was poised for advancement, and given the opportunity, a shot at the majors wasn’t out of the question.
“Greetings,” said the letter from the Selective Service. That was the standard wording on all the formal draft notices at the time. Del’s letter arrived in September of 1967, and it is assumed that he reported for his Army induction on time as requested, and that he and the Atlanta Braves organization did not appeal his draft status. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, took his basic training, and then reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he underwent artillery training, specifically being assigned to a 105mm Howitzer, Towed cannon team. The 7th Artillery, 1st Battalion, of which Del was assigned, was tasked with providing direct artillery support for the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade. The 1st Battalion had been in Vietnam since October 10, 1965, and had personnel strength of 490 troops in 1968. When Del landed in Vietnam for the first time in mid-February of 1968, he landed smack dab in the middle of the Tet Offensive, which had been launched two weeks earlier by the North Vietnamese. Tet was a master plan to concurrently attack a plethora of military and civilian targets all throughout South Vietnam. The timing of this aggression violated a previous agreed upon cease fire, (honoring the Tet, or Lunar Year holidays), and it appears that the North Vietnamese planned on violating the terms all along. The war wasn’t winding down, it was only escalating.
On Friday, June 21, 1968, the weather near Del’s hometown of Kirkwood, MO, was a balmy 92 degrees. Later that evening, the visiting Atlanta Braves would lose to the host St. Louis Cardinals 4 -3 in extra innings at old Busch Stadium II. For the 37,869 hometown fans who witnessed the game, it was a perfect summer night. On the other side of the world, 8,460 miles away, Del found himself in scorching 103 degree tropical heat outside the city of Da Nang, in the Binh Duong Province. The day had been calm and routine, but as the sun set, chaos ensued. Several batteries of the 7th Artillery had their nighttime positions overrun by NVA troops. Orders were shouted and as soldiers scrambled to hold their positions, rocket and mortar fire rained down on the American troops. Del’s position took a direct hit and he was killed instantly. He was twenty years old. Also killed that day from the 7th Artillery were SGT William L. Law, age twenty-one, and PFC James R. Zboyovski, age twenty.
Del never married or started a family of his own. It’s not clear if he even harbored a desire for a lifestyle such as that. (It would have been almost impossible with all the movement and travel of a young ballplayer and soldier). However, a few things are clear about his young life. He was very well liked by those who knew him; he had tremendous potential as a baseball athlete; and he served his country during a most unpopular war and paid for it with his life. We all owe him our indebted gratitude.
PFC Udell Chambers was buried on July, 3, 1968, and rests forever at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, MO, Section 2C, Site 151. His name is etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., Panel 55W, Line 11. He is also honored in his hometown of Kirkwood, MO on the Kirkwood Vietnam Memorial.
For service to his country, PFC Udell Chambers was awarded the Purple Heart, the National Defense Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.
© Mark Haubenstein, July, 2012 Permission of use granted.
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