Perseverance is a word that Orioles fans are all too familiar with, especially as they sit now, twiddling their thumbs, looking at a losing record and becoming increasingly worried at the familiar dark cloud that hovers ever so closely. Orioles fans have persevered through the dark years, years of coming up short, late inning breakdowns (that can last all season), post All-Star break breakdowns, you name it and O’s fans have found a way to cope with it. I’ve always wondered where it came from. Was it the losing or, maybe, it came from the players? Like, in weird baseball nature vs nurture argument. But I do have a theory.
Alonza “Al” Bumbry is a man who has a work ethic that puts, well, worker ants to shame. He was an all-star, two-sport athlete from Virginia State. He helped kick start their newly restarted baseball program and batted .578 in his last year. While there, he enrolled into Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) which carried a mandatory two-year service time. He would be drafted by the Orioles in 1968 and would play two months before being shipped off to Vietnam.
Bumbry would spend 11 months as platoon lead in the Cavalry Division. “It was all very stressful. I had nine vehicles and 45 men in my platoon, and I was responsible for all of our activities.” Bumbry said. “The main thing was I was responsible for the lives of those men.”
While in Vietnam, Bumbry would earn a Bronze Star, which is awarded on the basis of “bravery, acts of merit or meritorious service.” Bumbry’s platoon captured a shipment of supplies for the Viet Cong Military. “I’m sure [my service time] changed me. I had a very difficult time in reading a map. I did not pass exams on map reading.” Bumbry recollected. “When I got to Vietnam and was responsible for the lives of those men, I learned to read that damn map pretty good.”
Bumbry came back to the Orioles a changed man in 1971. The next season, he would hit .345 with 10 home runs, 57 RBI and 32 stolen bases, and get a September call up from the O’s. “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. “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.”
That’s about as Orioles baseball as a player can get, but Bumbry the player was about as anti-Oriole as you can get. He never hit more than 9 homeruns and stole about 20 bases a year. He’d hover just under .300 and was as good of a glove as he was a bat. He had the defense but could never quite find the three-run homer.
However, Bumbry the person was even greater. He was frequently the player with the most public appearances. By all accounts, he was likeable and friendly. He quickly became a fan favorite. His afro in the outfield became a reassuring sight to many. Him and the afro were an Orioles fixture for over a decade and with a Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series title under his belt, he decided to call it quits in 1985. But ever the hard worker, he had to pick up coaching.
He bounced around from the Padres, Orioles, Red Sox, and even the former all-female professional baseball team, the Colorado Silver Bullets. “I had never worked with women before, but, basically, teaching is teaching,” he said. “I was amazed at how much more enthusiastic the women were than the men. Most of them are softball players, and they know they have a lot to learn, so they’ve been very receptive.”
“He always has a smile on his face,” Former MLB knuckleball and then Bullets Manager Phil Niekro said, “and the brand of ball we play, there’ll be good and bad days, and we need someone to keep us up.”
Nowadays, you’ll seen Bumbry around the Orioles every so often, signing autographs, and coaching when and where he can. There’s not much quit in the 70-year-old. He perseveres through whatever life throws at him.
“I try and forget about the war. Once I came back I just wanted to pick up the pieces. But there are always going to be things that pop up about it,” Bumbry said in 1982. “Like when something happens in the news that is related or when I visit a veterans’ hospital. Luckily, everything has gone well in the baseball career.”
Well Al, that’s the kind of attitude made you a Bronze Star in Baltimore.
Baker, Kent. “If He Knows It Must Be Done, Bumbry Will Do It.” The Sun (1837-1992), 2 Apr. 1982.
Brant, James. “Bumbry cloud has silver lining; Waiting on bigs, ex-Oriole helps out women Bullets” The Sun (1837-1992), 06 Aug 1997
Loverro, Thom. “LOVERRO: Orioles Taught Bumbry a Lot, Vietnam Even More.” The Washington Times, 9 Nov. 2017, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/nov/9/al-bumbry-former-oriole-learned-lessons-vietnam/.
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