Commentary

An American hero

Before he was a Pirate, a Brave and a Red Sox, Chuck Goggin was a Raider

Originally Published: November 13, 2013
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

GogginCourtesy of Chuck Goggin Vietnam veteran Chuck Goggin shared a special day with Roberto Clemente in 1972.

The first-time visitor to Cooperstown enjoyed walking through the Hall of Fame gallery last Memorial Day weekend with his two adult sons.

There were more than a few guys he played with: Don Sutton, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Juan Marichal. There was the plaque for Roberto Clemente, who got his 3,000th and last hit for the same team and on the same day that the visitor had gotten his first major league hit. There was Phil Niekro, whose no-hitter he saved with a diving stop at second in the eighth inning. There was Dave Winfield, who hit that ball. There were two of his managers (Eddie Mathews and Tommy Lasorda) and a player he managed, Rickey Henderson. There was even a player he was once traded for: Jim Bunning.

"I made those guys," says Chuck Goggin with a laugh. "Seriously, it was wonderful seeing my teammates immortalized. You know, I also had hits off Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton."

Goggin certainly got a lot out of his 72 games in the three years he played in the majors. But the real reason he was in Cooperstown can be found on the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card (#457), the only one he ever had.

On the front is Goggin in his Atlanta Braves uniform. Turn it over, look at his lifetime batting record, and you will see "IN MILITARY SERVICE" for the years 1966 and 1967. And under his vital statistics, there's one of those little cartoons Topps put on the cards back then. Goggin's is of a player with two medals on his chest, along with this legend: "CHUCK WON THE PURPLE HEART & BRONZE STAR IN VIET NAM."

Charles Francis Goggin, born on July 7, 1945, is the most decorated Vietnam veteran in major league history, and the Hall of Fame had invited him to its Classic Old-Timers Game because The Wall That Heals, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was being brought to Cooperstown as part of the Memorial Day festivities. "We lost 38 men in my outfit," he says. "Men who did not make it to the age of 21, all killed in my 13 months in Vietnam."

That outfit was Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment — a legendary band that was known as Ripley's Raiders, after company commander Capt. (later Col.) John Ripley. Before Goggin was a Pirate, a Brave and a Red Sox, he was a Raider, and therein lies a story of resilience and determination and luck — not all of it good. His tale is as rich as any in Cooperstown, or Hollywood, for that matter. Think "Forrest Gump" meets "The Rookie."

Goggin grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., using sports as an escape from an unhappy home life. "Baseball was my compass," he says. The Dodgers signed him as an infielder in 1964, right out of high school, and he split the year between Salisbury of the Western Carolina League and St. Petersburg in the Florida State League.

For someone born on 7/7, Goggin certainly had his share of misfortune. He hurt his knee that first season and had offseason surgery before reporting to Santa Barbara in the California League in '65. While there, he and some teammates, including Don Sutton, decided to join the Army Reserve, but Goggin was classified as 4F because of the knee surgery and told not to worry about being drafted. That November, after a season in which he hit 10 homers with 65 RBIs, he got his draft notice and discovered his 4F had been crossed out and replaced by a 1A.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the Marine Corps found that they had too few good men, so Goggin was drafted into the Marines and reported to Parris Island for boot camp in February 1966. At Camp Lejeune, he was trained to be an infantry rifleman, and by July, he was in Vietnam as a private first class in L Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment. "The fact that I was a baseball player impressed nobody," says Goggin. "They hadn't heard of me."

In December '66, Ripley made Goggin, by then a corporal, a platoon radio operator. The position carried a lot of weight figuratively (he had to be his commander's shadow) and literally (the radio weighed 30 pounds).

In a yet-to-be-released documentary about the war, based on the book "Ride the Thunder" by Richard Botkin, Goggin describes an encounter near the DMZ on March 1, 1967, in which Ripley instructed Goggin's platoon to "Fix bayonets." Says Goggin, "I don't think troops have done this since the Civil War … Captain Ripley gives us the order to charge, and I've never been so proud of 45 guys in my life. One or two guys start yelling, like a rebel yell, and pretty soon all 45 of us are yelling. We walked right over that hill — didn't run — firing with our rifles at our hips. It would have been an awesome sight if you were making a movie out of this."

[+] EnlargeGoggin
Courtesy of Chuck Goggin Goggin in a rare light moment in Vietnam with the legendary Captain John Ripley.

But that charge was only the precursor to a March 2 battle that Goggin described as "Frazier and Ali." L Company had happened upon an entire North Vietnamese regiment, and the firefight that ensued is described in harrowing detail in the Botkin book. Goggin, who had to assume command of his platoon that day, sums it up this way: "At 10 a.m., there were 250 of us and thousands of them. By 5 p.m. we were down to 15 men who weren't dead or wounded. And we won."

A few days later, the Marines read a newspaper account of the battle under a headline that referred to "Ripley's Raiders," and the name stuck. Goggin received a Cross of Gallanty from the South Vietnamese Army for his role in that battle and was promoted to sergeant. He was awarded a Bronze Star from the Marines for a later engagement.

But bad luck hit him again on April 13, 1967. On that day, he stepped on a land mine in the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As he told the Louisville Courier Journal a few years later, "I heard this thing explode and could feel the shock hit me. It lifted me up in the air 8 to 10 feet. The first thing I could remember thinking was, 'Damn, I've stepped on a mine' … Then I thought, 'What if I should come down on another one?'"

He didn't, but he did take 14 significant shrapnel wounds in his legs and back and left shoulder. He still had to walk three hours out of the jungle to Highway 9, where he was picked up and transported to receive medical treatment. Goggin spent several weeks aboard the hospital ship USS Repose, but that gave him time to steel his determination to get back to baseball. Once he recovered, though, he resumed command of his platoon.

At one point, Ripley offered Goggin a commission, but that would have meant putting baseball off for another year. His tour of duty was completed on Aug. 20, and upon his discharge on Feb. 10, 1968, he almost immediately traded in his Marine Corps uniform for one with "Dodgers" on the front. "The Dodgers did me a humongous service," says Goggin. "They allowed me to report with the pitchers and catchers on Feb. 19, which gave me extra time to get in shape."

Playing for Roger Craig in Double-A Albuquerque that year, Goggin hit .247 with 14 stolen bases, which was pretty good for a guy who would have to pull a long-lost shard of shrapnel out of his body every once in a while. Ray Lamb, who would go on to pitch in the majors for the Dodgers and Indians, was Goggin's roommate in the minors. "Some of us knew he had been in Vietnam," says Lamb, who still keeps in touch. "But if it ever came up, he never bragged, never came off as the hero he was. His back was sore because of the heavy radio he had to carry over there, but it was never an excuse."

Even in a baseball uniform, Goggin was a Marine through and through. In order to make himself more valuable, Goggin tried switch-hitting in the Instructional League for his manager, Tommy Lasorda, and indeed, he was hitting .336 and leading the league in stolen bases when bad luck intervened again. He broke his ankle sliding into second on a steal. "The doctor told me I would never play again," says Goggin.

"I remember driving him to the airport after the injury," says Lamb. "He had a cast up to his chest, it was so bad. Other guys might have thought about quitting, but not Chuck."

When he did return to the field, for Triple-A Spokane in the middle of the 1969 season, he hit .318 and made himself marketable enough to be traded, straight up, for Pirates pitcher and future Sen. Jim Bunning. But Goggin didn't have a good year for Triple-A Columbus in 1970, so, fearing that his value was slipping as a utility player, he went to Pirates farm director Harding Peterson with a proposal: Send me down to Waterbury to learn to become a catcher. "The only thing I asked for in return," says Goggin, "was two catcher's mitts. I couldn't afford them at $150 apiece."

He made the Eastern League All-Star team as a catcher in 1971 and was promoted to Triple-A Charleston, where he batted .316. The next season, 1972, he hit .297 for Charleston and finished second in the International League MVP voting to a guy named Dwight Evans. On Sept. 8, the Pirates called him up to fulfill the dream he harbored while on board the hospital ship.

CHuck Goggin
AP Photo/Bill HudsonGoggin, right, played a key role in Phil Niekro's no-hitter on Aug. 5, 1973.

But while the per diem sure beat field rations, manager Bill Virdon didn't use him much because the Pirates were still in a pennant race. On Sept. 30, with the division title clinched and Clemente stuck at hit No. 2,999, Virdon batted Goggin leadoff, playing second in place of Bill Mazeroski.

Goggin led off with a single to right off left-hander Jon Matlack, and second-base umpire Doug Harvey — another Hall of Famer — called time to give Goggin the ball from his first major league hit. He got another hit off Matlack but was erased on a force with Clemente in the on-deck circle. It was in the next inning that Clemente doubled off Matlack for No. 3,000.

After the game Clemente congratulated Goggin, who says, "I told him, 'At this rate, it's going to take me 1,500 years to catch you.'" A reporter suggested that a photographer take a picture of the two of them together, with their respective milestone baseballs. (The photo looks remarkably like one taken of Goggin and Ripley on a quiet day in Vietnam.)

Goggin played winter ball in Puerto Rico that offseason, so he saw and felt firsthand the despair on the island after Clemente's plane went down on New Year's Eve. His death impacted Goggin on the field, as well. Because the Pirates decided to move catcher Manny Sanguillen to right field for the '73 season, they bolstered their catching corps and reduced Goggin to an afterthought. Sent down to Charleston, he asked GM Joe Brown to trade him or release him, and Brown complied by selling him to the Atlanta Braves on May 24.

Goggin hit .289 in 64 games for manager Eddie Mathews that year, earning him that Topps card and inclusion in — ironically enough — the band of bench players known in Atlanta as "F Troop," after the TV sitcom about a comical cavalry unit. More significantly, Goggin got to participate in a little history: Phil Niekro's no-hitter against the Padres on Aug. 5.

"I was playing second as a defensive replacement for Davey Johnson," says Goggin. "Winfield hit a shot to my right to lead off the eighth, and I caught it on one hop and threw to first to get him. Davey was a much better player than I was, but I had better range at that time. Phil's always been nice enough to give me credit for saving that no-hitter for him."

Goggin also saw Hank Aaron hit his 713th home run, leaving him one shy of Babe Ruth, and Goggin was looking forward to witnessing a little more history with the Braves in '74. But wouldn't you know it? After surviving enemy fire, a land mine, a horrendous ankle injury and the caprice of baseball, he was done in by a situp. While warming up in the outfield during spring training, he ruptured a disc in his back. Traded to the Red Sox for catcher Vic Correll, Goggin struggled at Triple-A Pawtucket and got into only two games after he was called up to the Red Sox with Jim Rice and Fred Lynn that September.

That was the last time Goggin played in the majors. He hit .296 in his 72 games, while playing five different positions. He coached and managed in the minors, first for the Braves, then for the Reds — Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild was one of his players in Triple-A Nashville. In the winter of 1978-79, he won Mexico's Pacific League championship with the Navojoa Mayos, who had a young outfielder named Rickey Henderson.

Goggin says that "not too many" of his teammates or players knew about his Marine exploits. "You have to remember," he says, "I was playing at a time when America was trying to forget about Vietnam."

After moving into the private sector, he got into local politics in Nashville, and that led to his appointment by President Ronald Reagan as a U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee, a post he held from 1983 until 1995. He married a woman who had a son from a previous marriage, and he watched with pride as his wife, Wendy Goggin, became chief counsel to the Drug Enforcement Administration. They've been married 30 years, and their two sons have blessed them with four grandchildren.

In recent years, Goggin has devoted time and energy to building a memorial for Ripley's Raiders at the Marine Corps Museum in Triangle, Va. "We actually purchased four boulders from the area in Quang Tri Province between the Razorbacks and the Rockpile, and had them shipped over here," says Goggin. "We dedicated the memorial on March 7, 2012."

On the monument are the names of the Marines of Lima Company who were lost between 2/19/67 and 11/01/67: William Branock, Peter Liberati, Johnnie Mason, John Barker, Richard Blinder, Forrest Goodwin, Richard Graham, John Hanscom, Jackie Harris, Terry Heekin, Robert Martin, John O'Donnell, Richard Strahl, Robert Freed, Robert Hice, Jay Hensley, Jacque Ayd, Theodore Nelson, Richard Brown, George Mangrum, Paul Golembski, Francis Ludwig, Benjamin Romero de Jesus, Jimmie Dutcher, George Roland, Lee Jarvis, Albert Lawson, Kevin Ferguson, Barton Haynes, Morrell Crary, Michael Horner.

"They may not be as famous as the men in Cooperstown," says Goggin, "but they're heroes nonetheless. I wish they could have walked through the Hall of Fame with me."

As for Goggin, he doesn't claim hero status for himself, or bemoan his fate.

"Not many men can claim to be a Marine and a major leaguer," he says. "If I do have one regret, it's this: I never got to show people the ballplayer I might've become. I was just too banged up, from the war, from the injuries and all, to answer the question of how good I could have been.

"But right now, I'm sitting in a chair on the North Carolina coast, looking at a beautiful sloop going down the Intracoastal Waterway, enjoying the day. And I'm talking to you about a life not many people have had. I am a very lucky man."

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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