SABR

Chuck Goggin

This article was written by Ronnie Joyner.

Roberto Clemente’s saga is the stuff of myth. Chuck Goggin’s saga — less so. That said, their two stories are forever linked in a way that would be possible only in baseball.

In a coup of historic proportions, the Pittsburgh Pirates plucked Clemente from the Dodgers organization for next to nothing in the 1954 minor-league draft. He hit the majors for good in 1955 and, while possessing incredible all-around skills, did not gain superstar status overnight. Clemente won the first of four batting titles in 1961, and finally achieved his long overdue national recognition when he won the 1966 NL MVP award. His amazing performance in the Pirates’ 1971 World Series victory over Baltimore not only won him the Series MVP award, it also sealed his place as one of the greats of the game. Already a hero to the people of his native Puerto Rico, Clemente’s status rose to a mythological level when he was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972. The Pirates star had boarded a DC-7 filled with relief supplies bound for Nicaragua to aid earthquake victims. The plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean, less than a mile after takeoff from Puerto Rico. The five-year mandatory wait period for Hall of Fame eligibility was waived, and Clemente was enshrined in 1973. Since then, his legend has only continued to grow.

The story of Chuck Goggin, while less remarkable than that of Clemente, is still remarkable in its own right. His time in the major leagues was brief, but he made the most of it. Appearing in just five games with the 1972 Pirates as an end-of-season call-up, Goggin rapped out two hits in seven at-bats for a .286 average. He was up for most of the 1973 season, starting the year with Pittsburgh before being sold to Atlanta on May 24. A switch-hitting utility man who could play anywhere, Goggin hit .297 while playing in 65 games in 1973. One more at-bat with the Red Sox late in the 1974 season and Goggin’s big-league career was through. He was a .293 hitter in the majors, impressive enough to make one wonder what might have been had he only played longer. The Baseball Encyclopedia is filled with guys like Goggin, but what separates him from the rest of the “what if” guys from his generation is Vietnam. Chuck Goggin is one of only a handful of men who served in Vietnam AND played in the major leagues. Even more exclusively, Goggin is one of only two major leaguers wounded in combat in Vietnam, the other being Roy Gleason who played in eight games for the 1963 Dodgers.

Goggin was born in Tampa, Florida, on July 7, 1945, but grew up in Pompano Beach. He endured a difficult family situation by submerging himself in sports, and it was on the diamond where he truly excelled. A standout baseball player at Pompano Beach Senior High School, Goggin caught the eye of Dodgers scout Leon Hamilton and signed with the organization in 1964 whereupon they dispatched him to Class-A Salisbury of the Western Carolinas League to begin his professional career. After playing in 59 games at Salisbury, Goggin was reassigned to St. Petersburg of the Florida State League where he appeared in 47 games to round out his rookie season.

Injuries would play a key part in slowing Goggin’s rise to the big leagues, and those troubles began in his first year when his progress was hampered by torn knee cartilage. Offseason surgery corrected the problem, and a healthy Goggin flourished in the California League in 1965 where he manned third base for Santa Barbara. A disconcerting subplot to that season, however, was the heating-up of the war in Vietnam. Goggin and a group of his teammates were discussing the situation one day when they all decided to join the reserves. This had become common practice with many ballplayers of the Vietnam era. It allowed them to fulfill their military commitment without the fear of being deployed overseas, thus continuing their baseball careers with minimal interruption. Each franchise had a liaison at the local recruiting office that facilitated getting these players into the reserves, something that was much more difficult for the “average” kid on the street who was also fearful of being drafted into the increasingly unpopular war.

With red tape having been cleared by the Dodgers, Goggin, along with three of his teammates, one of whom was future Hall of Famer Don Sutton, went to take their Army Reserve physicals. While the rest of the players were classified 1-A, which meant that they were eligible to be drafted, Goggin was still classified as 4-F due to his recent knee surgery. That meant he was deemed physically unfit to serve. “During my examination the doctor looked at the scar on my knee and asked what it was,” Goggin recalled in a 2007 phone interview. “I told him about my recent knee surgery. He then asked me what my draft status was, and when I told him I was 4-F, he said, ‘Well, what are you here for? You’re never going to get drafted.’ So I didn’t join [the reserves] with the other guys. I went home at the end of the ’65 season — and got a draft notice by November. They apparently X-ed out my status as 4-F, wrote in 1-A, and said, ‘You’re in!’ I was told to report in February. I went down to join the Army Reserves and ended up in the Marine Corps.”

Goggin missed the entire 1966 and ’67 baseball seasons while he was in the Marines. “I went to Marine Corps bootcamp at Parris Island, then infantry training at Camp Lejeune,” Goggin recounted. “I was an infantry rifleman, or what was called an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). I knew where I was going, and from there I soon got my orders to go to Vietnam. I went to bootcamp on February 10, 1966, and was in Vietnam by the middle of July. I did a 13-month tour over there.” In a 1972 article in The Sporting News, Goggin explained how his combat duty ended. “I heard this thing explode and could feel the shock hit me,” he said. “It lifted me up in the air eight to ten feet. The first thing I could remember thinking was, ‘Damn, I’ve stepped on a landmine.’ I wasn’t too worried because I could tell immediately it didn’t hit me anyplace where it could kill me. It was one of those quick things when everything rushes through your mind at once. Then I thought, ‘What if I should come down on another one?’”

Chuck Goggin: Illustration by Ronnie JoynerChuck Goggin: Illustration by Ronnie JoynerFortunately, Goggin did not come down on another landmine, but he did receive several serious shrapnel wounds in his legs and back that required many weeks of recovery aboard a U.S. hospital ship. Almost immediately upon realizing that he was not going to die from his wounds, Goggin’s attention turned to baseball. “I tried to follow baseball as much as I could,” he told The Sporting News. “I wanted to play. I knew if everything went well I would be back for spring training for the 1968 season.” As it turns out, everything did go well for Goggin and he was, in fact, back in time for 1968 spring training. He performed well at camp and was dispatched to the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate in Albuquerque, where he had a good season — an impressive feat for any player, especially one recently recovered from combat wounds. While acknowledging that there is incredible pressure to perform in professional baseball, Goggin pointed out that it pales in comparison to the stresses of combat, saying, “As far as a comparison to being in Vietnam, there was no pressure in baseball.”

With his career trending dramatically upward following his 1968 season at Albuquerque, Goggin decided to play ball in the winter instructional league in Arizona. While there his manager was an up-and-comer named Tommy Lasorda, a man that Goggin still calls a good friend. Lasorda let Goggin experiment with switch-hitting, something Goggin felt he needed to do in order to make it to the big show. Goggin had never batted left-handed before, but he quickly turned some heads by with his excellent hitting from the left side. Everything was looking up for him until he was suddenly bitten once again by the injury bug. “I was hitting .336 and leading the Instructional League in stolen bases when I broke my ankle stealing second,” Goggin recounted. “It was a very bad injury.” While grisly (his foot was twisted 180 degrees out of its normal position), Goggin’s ankle injury was a setback that he knew he could handle. It was elements out of his control that he feared most when he worried about things that might prevent him from achieving his dream of playing in the major leagues. Things like executives, trades, and managers’ perceptions. One such possible roadblock was laid when the Dodgers sent Goggin to the Pirates organization as part of an August 15, 1969 trade that delivered Jim Bunning to Los Angeles.

The Pirates assigned Goggin to Columbus in 1970, and it was there that a trend continued that he felt was the most serious threat to his goal of making it to the show — the “curse” of the utility player. Because of his versatility, managers at Spokane (where he played part of 1969) and Columbus had increasingly used him as a utility player, and that led Goggin to believe that he was at a tipping point in his career. With that in mind, Goggin approached Pirates Farm Director Harding Peterson with a proposal prior to the 1971 season. “You need a catcher at Double-A, and I don’t want to go back to Triple-A and be a utility player,” Goggin explained to Peterson. “How about if I go to Double-A and be your everyday catcher. I want to play everyday to show you guys that I can play, and you guys need a catcher. It’ll take care of both things. What would you say to that?”

Peterson liked the idea and told Goggin he’d think it over. Then Goggin hit the ex-big-league-catcher-turned-executive with a potential deal-breaker, informing Peterson that it would “cost him.” Surprised at Goggin’s spunk, Peterson asked him to explain. “I don’t own a catcher’s mitt,” Goggin said. “You guys don’t pay me a lot of money, but I’ll go do it if you guys will buy me two catchers mitts.” Unable to resist, the deal was done — and it turned out to be a boon to Goggin’s hopes to make it to the majors. He excelled at catcher with Waterbury in 1971, hitting .311 and making the Eastern League All-Star squad. He was called up to Triple-A Charleston, where he continued to play well. Goggin followed that campaign with an even better season at Charleston in 1972, finishing second to Dwight Evans in voting for the International League MVP award. With that, Goggin’s long struggle was complete — he’d been informed that he was being called up to join the Pirates for the remainder of the big-league regular season.

Goggin joined the Pirates on September 8, 1972. The ballclub was in Montreal for a four-game series with the Expos, beginning with a twin-bill that day. Goggin made his big-league debut in the nightcap, drawing a walk while pinch-hitting for Dave Giusti in extra innings. With the Pirates trying to clinch the N.L. East title, Goggin’s appearances were limited to just two more pinch-hitting assignments over the next few weeks. He’d been retired both times — a fly ball to center and a grounder to second. The Pirates clinched the division on September 21 with a 6-2 victory over the Mets at Shea Stadium, and little more than a week later Goggin’s rookie storyline would mesh forever with Clemente. “We were getting ready to play the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium,” Goggin remembered. “I was sitting on the bench when someone came up and told me that I’d better go look at the lineup. I looked and saw that I was starting the game at second base and batting leadoff. I went over and talked to Bill Virdon, the manager, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry. You’ve been sitting there for a month and I wasn’t able to use you because of the division. But we’ve clinched now, and I wanted to get you in a game.’”

Despite the fact that the game was meaningless in the now wrapped-up N.L. East, it had huge significance for another reason. Clemente had collected hit number 2,999 two days earlier, so this game left him perched at the precipice of hit number 3,000. He was just the 11th big leaguer to be in such rarefied air. “It was a big game because Roberto was playing right field, and he had 2,999 hits,” Goggin said. “And I had zero hits. But my first time up I got a hit off Jon Matlack. The Mets rightfielder came in and got it on one hop and threw it in to second base. This was before the time of all the high-tech stuff, but we had a Jumbotron screen up there. At that moment, they put up a caricature of my face along with the message, ‘That was Chuck Goggin’s first major-league hit!’ Doug Harvey was umping at second and he saw it. He said, ‘Time out! Let me see that ball.’ He got the ball and flipped it to me, saying, ‘I thought you might like this.’ I thanked him very much, and I still have the ball. It’s in a little ball holder right alongside my baseball card.”

Following his big hit, Goggin stood at first, hoping to still be on base when Clemente batted from the number-three slot. “My hope was that Roberto would get his 3,000th hit while I was on base,” Goggin explained, “because I thought it might be televised everywhere and somebody might get a chance to see me.” Goggin’s hopes were dashed, however, when Rennie Stennett, the number two hitter, slapped into a double play. In any case, it turned out to be a moot point when Clemente followed Stennett by striking out, thereby failing to collect hit number 3,000. Picking up the storyline a short time later, Goggin said, “So the game progressed, and I got up to bat again with two out in the bottom of the third. Well, I got another base hit off Matlack. Once again, I was hoping to still be on base when Roberto came up with a chance to hit number 3,000. But Stennett hit a grounder to short, which forced me for the last out of the inning, leaving Roberto in the on-deck circle. As fate would have it, Roberto led off the next inning by hitting a double. So it didn’t work out that I was on base when he got it, but I was very happy for him nonetheless.”

Goggin had his last truly meaningful moment with Clemente in the clubhouse after the game. “Roberto was very gracious to share the stage with me on the day he got his 3,000th hit,” said Goggin. “My locker was just two or three down from him. All the sportswriters from all around the country were wedged around Roberto’s locker interviewing him after the game. I just sat there and listened, taking it all in. The national media eventually left, but a reporter from the Pittsburgh paper stayed. He was asking questions while Roberto sat there and flipped a baseball around in his hand. The reporter asked him if that was the ball from hit number 3,000, and Roberto said yes. Meanwhile, I was still there listening to them while I held my game ball, too. Then the reporter looked over to me and said, ‘That’s the ball from your first hit, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ Then the reporter asked me to stand next to Roberto for a photo. So he snapped a photo of the two of us, each holding our game ball. I never saw it in any newspapers, but a couple of months later, I received a copy of the photo while I was down in Puerto Rico during winter ball. The reporter mailed it to me from Pittsburgh. I treasure that photo.”

The Pirates played three more games after Clemente collected his 3,000th hit and Goggin his first, but Virdon rested Clemente in two of those games (he had removed from his final game before batting again), using him only once as a late-inning defensive substitute. He did not bat in any of those remaining games, so hit number 3,000 turned out to be Clemente’s last. Goggin was still in Puerto Rico with a number of other young Pirates players when Clemente was killed. It was New Year’s Eve, and many of them had gathered on the patio of a waterfront condo to celebrate the occasion. Shortly after midnight, Goggin, along with teammates Richie Zisk and Bob Johnson, noticed a slew of activity going on over the ocean involving helicopters, planes, and searchlights. They assumed it was a missing boat, or possibly a plane crash, but none of them had any idea that the commotion they were witnessing would later turn out to involve the death of their teammate Clemente.

Goggin went to spring training in 1973, confident that he would make the Pirates and be an integral part of their full season. “I’d had two hellacious years in a row in the minor leagues, and I’d done well in the big leagues in my limited time there,” noted Goggin. Ironically, however, the ripple effect from Clemente’s death would ensure that Goggin would not, in fact, get his big break with the Pirates. To try to fill the void left in their lineup by Clemente’s passing, starting catcher Manny Sanguillen was moved to right field. Milt May, previously the number-two catcher, became the number-one backstop. That left the Pirates in need of a new number-two catcher, a scenario that would have seemed to bode well for Goggin considering his successful experience catching at Waterbury. In his heart, though, Goggin knew he wasn’t a big-league catcher. His strength was as an infielder. The Pirates, apparently, felt the same way, but their infield was set. Goggin made the team out of spring training, but things did not go well early. “We were about a month into the season and I’d only been in one game,” Goggin said. “I’d got into a game just a couple of weeks into the season when we were in Chicago. I was sent behind the plate in the seventh inning. The next inning I singled and scored when Al Oliver homered. So I had a 1.000 batting average, but I never played for the Pirates again.”

Feeling the need to bolster their catching corps, Pittsburgh purchased Jerry McNertney from the Oakland Athletics — and sent Goggin back to Triple A. This time, however, Goggin wasn’t going to play ball by their rules. Feeling he’d proved everything there was to prove at the minor league level, Goggin informed Pirates general manager Joe Brown that he would not accept a long-term demotion. He gave Brown an ultimatum: “I’ll go back to the minor leagues, and I’ll give you two weeks,” Goggin told Brown, “but I’m quitting and going home if I haven’t been traded by then.” Backed into a corner, Brown sold Goggin to the Atlanta Braves on May 24, 1973. The deal was the best thing that could have happened to Goggin. “I joined the Braves around June 1, and I really enjoyed it,” Goggin recalled. “I liked everybody there. I did not play every day, but I got to play quite a bit. I had a good year for them and was a good pinch hitter. I finished the season with a combined average of .297. Man, I was really looking forward to 1974.”

Goggin had good reason to look forward to 1974. Against incredible odds, he’d finally made it. Not only had he outlasted countless other ballplayers with whom he’d fiercely competed for so many years, he’d also avoided the fate that befell so many of his generation — death in the jungles of Vietnam. But now, six years removed from the perils of war, it was the safe confines of the baseball diamond that did Goggin in. “I went to spring training, and we were warming up in the outfield,” said Goggin, a hint of pain still in his voice, “doing sit-ups and stuff like that. All of a sudden, I heard a ‘pop’ in my back. I’d ruptured a disc.” His dream season turned into a nightmare of disabled lists, trades and unfulfilled promise. He played in two games with the Red Sox at the end of the 1974 season, never again returning to the big leagues.

Goggin coached and managed in the minors for a few years, but then decided to leave the game to provide a more stable life for his young son. He is proud of the success he achieved in a number of his post-baseball jobs, one being a long run as a Ronald Reagan-appointed United States Marshall, but his pride is most evident when he is reliving his years in baseball. And there’s nothing that he’s more proud of than his 1974 Topps baseball card — number 457. The front of the card features a portrait of Goggin, resplendent in his red, white and blue Braves uniform, yet the look of intensity on his face is an unintended nod to his long and arduous road to the major leagues. “1974 was the only baseball card I ever appeared on,” said Goggin. “I had been under contract to Topps since I first signed back in 1963, but it took me 11 years to finally be on a card — and I loved it. Shortly after signing my first contract with the Dodgers, I received a contract in the mail from Topps. They gave you the choice of $150 or a set of golf clubs to sign. It actually wasn’t a full set of clubs, either, it was the three, five, seven, nine. I took the golf clubs. That first contract locked the player up with Topps for life, but they had to pay you again each and every time they made a card of you — if they ever made a card of you. In that case, they would again give you $150, or let you choose something out of their catalog. The items in the catalog had either one or two stars next to them. You could pick two things that had one star or one thing that had two stars. I chose a washer and dryer, which was a two-star item. It was the first washer and dryer I ever owned. I had those for many years, long after I got out of baseball. I guarantee that I got more than 20 years of use out of that washer and dryer set. It was a great baseball card and great payment.”

A ballplayer to his core, Goggin has a realistic but heartfelt view of his career. “All I ever wanted to do was be a major-league baseball player,” he said sincerely. “Okay, I was not a superstar in the big leagues, but I made it to the big leagues. I’m very, very proud of that. I know deep in my heart that I was a good enough ballplayer to be a good major-league player if I hadn’t been injured so many times before I ever got there. There’s not a thing I can do to change that, so I have no regrets.” There’s another thing Goggin wouldn’t change, either — not for a million bucks: 1974 Topps number 457. That 2-1/2-inch by 3-1/2-inch piece of gum-stained cardboard, 38 years old at the time of this writing, stands as validation that he was one of the elite — a major leaguer. “I’ll tell you something about that card,” Goggin confided, “and I mean this from the bottom of my heart. This is the truth. If you told me that you would give me $1,000,000 tax-free, but that card goes away and it never existed — I wouldn’t take the money.”

 

Sources

Interview with Chuck Goggin, Winter 2008. All quotations from Goggin derive from this interview.

The Sporting News Archives (Paper of Record)

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org

The Baseball Encyclopedia

 

Note

An earlier version of this story originally appeared in Sports Collectors Digest.

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