SAN JOSE — When a video went viral of runners diverting off their racecourse to shake hands with 95-year-old World War II veteran Joe Bell, people were touched not only by the spontaneous tribute but by what Bell said in a story the next day: "I never got recognition in my life."
On Sunday, San Jose Giants baseball fans filling the seats of Municipal Stadium gave another tribute -- a standing ovation to Bell and nearly three dozen other veterans who walked or were pushed in wheelchairs onto the field and waved to the crowd. As a special honor, the Giants made a collection of baseball trading cards with photos of the three dozen veterans -- men and women, living and dead -- and handed them out to fans.
"I didn't expect anything like this," said Bell, wearing the same Army uniform Sunday he wore on the sidewalk in front of his house in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood last month when he cheered on runners competing in the 408k run benefiting the Pat Tillman Foundation. "I'm just one of the GIs that came through."
He clearly enjoyed the attention, as did the other veterans, including Jack Stone, 88, who said "this is the first time I've been honored, really."
When the retired Marine who lives in Mountain View returned from war, "No one bought me a drink when I came home," Stone said. "No one said congratulations. So this is a first for me."
The San Jose Giants, along with Operation: Care and Comfort, fielded more than 100 nominations from relatives and friends of local veterans hoping to have their picture land on one of the trading cards created for the event. Organizers expanded the list from two dozen to three dozen when they had trouble narrowing it down.
"It's a small thing, but it's really big," said Debra Vega, who nominated her 93-year-old father, Charles Deane Cavit. The honorees included the late Edward Balli, who was killed by a car bomb in January in Afghanistan; Eduardo Garcia, who fought in World War II; the late Jaclyn Abbott Caselli, who served at the Naval base in New Orleans in the 1940s as a spark plug overhauler; Joseph Graves, who served in the Army in Iraq; and Richard Lum, who served in Korea. A trading card was also made for the late Anthony Saso, who served in World War II and was known to San Jose Giants fans as the founder of the Uncle Tony Merchant Night program.
Many relatives who submitted the nominations said their fathers, sisters or brothers either never received recognition for their service or never really wanted it.
"It's not his thing. He went into the military for his country. It was all about the love of the country," David Del Real Jr. said of his father, who served in Vietnam. "Recognition was never a part of it. But I just felt that this guy has done nothing for himself."
So Del Real nominated his father, then surprised him with the honor at Municipal Stadium, where the two have enjoyed baseball games for decades. The senior Del Real didn't realize he was part of the tribute until he arrived at the game on Sunday and recognized himself on the poster board of nominees.
"I was surprised, shocked," Del Real said. He wasn't used to being appreciated as a Vietnam veteran, he said, so getting all the attention on Sunday made him feel a little uneasy.
"I feel uncomfortable when they say thank you for your service," he said. "But it's great. It's really nice."
Joe Bell is finally starting to get used to it. Ever since the video went viral, he's been receiving letters of respect from scores of strangers. Some have sent red, white and blue blankets. Others offered improved hearing aids. He even received a letter from a woman in the Netherlands, who remembered being given a piece of chocolate from a paratrooper like he was during the war.
Bell's daughter, Joanie Bell, said her father was "going downhill" before his newfound celebrity last month: "This just gave him a real umph."