Saturday, April 7, 2018

Vietnam Veteran's Day Salute to Former Major League Pitcher and Honorary Green Beret Pete Richert






I'm always impressed by stories of guys who take their own time to do something for others. And it's a shame when these stories are sometimes lost with time. Since Vietnam Veteran's Day was last week, I thought I would take a look back at one such story--of a major league baseball player who showed his support for American troops..

Pete Richert was a two-time All-Star and a top relief pitcher who had a thirteen-year major league career from 1962 to 1974. While playing for the Washington Senators in the mid-1960s, Richert met and befriended a group of wounded Vietnam veterans who changed his life. I recently spoke to him about the experience:


"Playing in Washington, we were close to Walter Reed Army Hospital and I ended up doing a lot of work with wounded soldiers," says the 78-year-old Richert, who now lives in California. "I always thought that was important. I got involved with a group of seven or eight officers who had been shot up and lost limbs. I met one and he invited me to visit their ward. They had a certain ward there, Ward One. They were all Green Berets, the special forces. They were really impressive guys; very smart, very dedicated. We would sit around and talk and later they would come over to my apartment and we would do things together, drink and party, watch games on TV. They were special guys. Their attitudes were just amazing. Here they were, severely wounded, some had lost arms or legs, and yet everyone of them said they would go back there in a heartbeat--to help their fellow soldiers. I thought that was incredible."


Seeing the need, Richert became more involved in projects to help returning injured vets adjust.
"It built up and became a big thing for me. I started a program where guys from other teams would stop in and visit the wards at Walter Reed when they came to Washington to play us. Most baseball players were happy to do it. And the guys in the hospital loved it. It was really a great thing for their morale. The AP picked up the story and called it the VIP program for Very Important Patients. I certainly thought they were very important--they were true heroes in my book. A few years later, I got traded to Baltimore, but that was still close so I kept it up."
As it became well-known that the cause was close to his heart, Richert was a natural choice when Major League Baseball sought members for a 16-day goodwill tour following the 1968 season. He didn't hesitate when asked.



The trip included Ernie Banks, Ron Swaboda, Larry Jackson, Cardinals' General Manager Bing Devine and Al Fleishman, public relations advisor for the Cardinals. The group met in San Francisco and flew to Vietnam in a military jet with 160 GIs. Once they arrived in Saigon, the men were issued combat boots and fatigues and split into two groups--Richert, Banks and Fleishman headed north.


Richert (middle) and Mr. Cub meet with GIs

They visited U.S. soldiers throughout the region; sometimes at large firebases where they gave talks in mess tents filled with hundreds of soldiers, but more often dropping in on small outposts and talking to the men in small groups. "We would go to a big camp and have dinner with the guys at night. During the days we would fly helicopters out to little encampments. We would land on top of a hill and meet the guys. The jungle, the Mekong Delta, wherever GIs were at, that's where we went. One day somebody broke out a glove and ball and I pitched to Ernie in front of the guys in the middle of a swamp. And, of course, we visited a lot of hospitals."

They chatted with the troops and answered endless baseball questions. "It was important just to talk to the guys and show them we supported their efforts. Me and Ernie both took a pad and wrote down numbers of the family of those who lived near us. When we got back I made forty or fifty phone calls to parents, just to tell them we saw their sons and they were all right and said 'Hi.' That was a big deal for them to receive those phone calls."

The baseball group received an overwhelming welcome from the young men, who were both enamored by the big leaguers and starved for any information from the "real world."  Richert's sideburns were as big a hit with the troops--many of whom had been out of the U.S. for two years--as his baseball status.


Richert met a young GI who was a gunner on a helicopter who traveled with a puppy he had named Tripper. He had found the puppy and as he was walking with the dog in front of him, the dog set off four or five booby traps--traps in which a tripped branch throws the victim against spikes on a tree. The puppy was not hurt due to it's size, but they would have nailed the young soldier. They would take off with the kid training his 60-caliber machine gun on the ground for cover, but once they achieved a safe height, he took out a harmonica and began playing. The sight of a teenage soldier, sitting between a machine gun and a puppy, flying in a combat helicopter, playing a harmonica was a sight Richert would not soon forget.


"We went into one place and there was an area marked off with barbed wire. I asked someone what that was and they said, 'That's the Green Berets--special forces--nobody goes in there.' They had their own area. That night they had a big thing for us and we answered questions and talked to the troops. When we finished, four Green Berets walked in and said, 'Richert, you're coming with us.' So they took me and Ernie out. It turned out that my buddies on Ward One had called them and told them we were coming and arranged a welcome for us with the Green Berets. They took us and we spent the whole night with them. Ernie didn't drink so I had to take up the slack for him to hold up the honor of Major League Baseball. It was rough, but by the morning, we had earned our Green Berets.'

Many of their visits were uncomfortably close to the enemy. It was not uncommon to hear both friendly and enemy fire. One night, Richert and Banks were startled awake by the sounds of combat as Viet Cong troops were trying to breach the perimeter of the base--less than 300 yards away from their quarters. Richert had served in the National Guard and Banks had served in the Army in 1951-52, but neither had faced hostile forces up close. It was an eye-opening experience. "To see what those young men faced on a daily basis certainly put things into perspective," says Richert. "It's hard to explain the courage that it takes to function in that environment without seeing it up close."

While two previous baseball-player trips to Vietnam had been uniformly heralded upon return, Richert's group met an ambivalent response. Coming ten months after the Tet Offensive, patriotism was no longer in style. That did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for Richert. "These guys were just doing their jobs," he says. "They were true heroes." Richert, who played on a World Champion team with the Dodgers in 1963 and appeared in three straight World Series with the Orioles from 1969 to 1971, adds, "It was the most significant thing I did as a baseball player."

3 comments:

  1. Great story. It's nice to hear about a guy who gave back, and in those days he didn't make mega bucks.

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  2. I think he was making between 20 and 40 thousand a year. A bit less than guys now.

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  3. Actually I read it yesterday but I had some thoughts about it and today I wanted to read it again because it is very well written. Major League Baseball Blog

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