In his day, Udell Chambers may have been one of the smallest men on the field — just 5-foot-8, 150 pounds. But he was a ballplayer, no doubt, destined for big things.
He tore up the Western Carolinas League in 1967 for the Lexington Braves, an Atlanta farm team, with a .325 batting average, 28 stolen bases in 30 attempts. He had a .450 on-base percentage and ripped a league-leading 27 doubles.
Chambers couldn’t have known it, but this second season in the minor leagues — after graduating from Kirkwood HS, in his Missouri hometown near St. Louis — would be his final year in baseball.
The slick-fielding shortstop was drafted into the Army as soon as he returned home. He was shipped off to Vietnam in mid-February 1968 as part of the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment.
There wasn’t much of a birthday celebration when Chambers turned 20 that Feb. 22 — South Vietnam was in chaos, in the middle of the Tet Offensive, in which North Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched surprise attacks on several South Vietnamese cities.
Chambers was serving near Da Nang in the Binh Duong Province, with the howitzer section of his unit. On June 21, just as baseball season was heating up back home, he was killed by an enemy rocket that made a direct hit on his position.
Paul Dennebaum, now 76, was a first baseman and teammate. He had also been on the Western Carolinas League All-Star team with Chambers.
“I remember hearing he was killed in Vietnam. I got a sick feeling all over,” he said in an email. “What a waste of a great-to-be young life. Part of it is that many players, like myself, were scared of the draft for we knew the horrible place [Vietnam] was and the numerous casualties being reported every day.”
Another Lexington teammate, Ralph Wells, 77, was a fellow All-Star, who was also sent to Vietnam in 1968, His job was repairing helicopters.
“With me and him at third and short, we covered the left side of the infield for a lot of games,” Wells said over the phone from his Alabama home. “He was a good man. I grieved. His life was taken and it shouldn’t have been.”
Chambers was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal, and a Purple Heart. His citation for heroism, reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch read, “His inspirational actions greatly assisted his fellow soldiers in repelling the enemy . . .”
Dennebaum remembers Chambers as “probably the most popular man on the team . . . a great fielder and good hitter, a no-doubt top prospect.”
Off the field, Dennebaum said, “He loved playing cards and kidding around with us on the 2-4-hour bus rides.”
“He was so young and so talented,” added Wells, “he would have been ready [for the Major Leagues] when a break came his way. He could have made it.”
No Major League players died in Vietnam. Chambers was one of nine minor leaguers who were killed, according to Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice website. He was one of 31 American soldiers who died in Vietnam on June 21, 1968.
Memorial Day in America is a day of remembrance, marked by holiday sales at stores, a day off from work, backyard barbecues. Our national pastime offers somber pregame moments of silence at ballparks, American flags covering the outfield grass, and a thank you to service members.
Then, it’s Play Ball! Udell Chambers played ball.
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