The $1-million common of Chuck Goggin

This is the story of an unlikely pair of vintage Topps cards: 1973 Topps No. 50 — Roberto Clemente, and 1974 Topps No. 457 — Chuck Goggin. Two cards that, on the surface, seem worlds apart and unconnected.

One card shows Clemente, The Great One, 18 years into his big-league career. He’s seen in an action shot, doing what he did best — hitting. His face is the embodiment of focus, mostly in shadow, almost foreboding of the dark fate that would claim his life just weeks after the card went into production.

The other 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. The 1973 Topps No. 50 was Clemente’s last card; the 1974 Topps No. 457 was Goggin’s first, and only, card. The stories behind those two cards makes it clear how they are inexorably linked.

Roberto Clemente’s saga is the stuff of myth. 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, he did not achieve 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 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 Dec. 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 had only continued to grow.

The saga of Chuck Goggin, while less remarkable than that of Clemente, is still fascinating 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 the entire 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 ’73. 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.

Goggin was born in Tampa, Fla., but grew up in Pompano Beach. A standout baseball player at Pompano Beach Senior High School, he was signed by the Dodgers organization and began his professional career playing Class-A ball in 1964. Injuries would play a key part in slowing Goggin’s rise to the big leagues, and those troubles began in his first year when he tore knee cartilage.

Offseason surgery corrected the problem, and Goggin flourished at Santa Barbara in the California League in 1965. 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. “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 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 Paris Island, then infantry training at Camp Lejeune,” Goggin recounted. “I was an infantry rifleman, or what was called an MOS. I knew where I was going, and from there I soon got my orders to go to Vietnam. I went to bootcamp on Feb. 10, 1966, and was in Vietnam by the middle of July. I did a 13-month tour over there.”

Goggin, in a 1972 article in The Sporting News, 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 10 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 any place 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?’ ”

Fortunately, Goggin did not land 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 ’68 spring training. He performed well at camp and was dispatched to the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate in Albuquerque, where he had a good season.

How was he able to get back in form so quickly? Simple, he says. “As far as a comparison to being in Vietnam, there was no pressure in baseball.” With his career trending dramatically upward, Goggin decided to play ball in the winter instructional league in Arizona. His manager there 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 hitting safely in 12 of his first 13 at bats 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.”

The injury was a setback Goggin could handle, but it was another obstacle that threatened to prevent him from achieving his lifelong dream of reaching the major leagues — the curse of the utility player. Managers at Triple-A Spokane and Columbus had increasingly used Goggin as a utility player in the 1969 and ’70 seasons, and because of that he felt he was at a tipping point in his career prior to the 1971 season. It was at that point that Goggin proposed a deal with Pirates farm director Harding Peterson.

“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?”

Part II of this story will appear in a future issue of SCD.
Ronnie Joyner is an accomplished artist and author whose drawings have appeared in the pages of SCD for many years.

Ronnie Joyner is an accomplished artist and author whose drawings have appeared in the pages of SCD for many years.

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