Cooperstown Confidential: Baseball and Vietnam

The recent withdrawal of U.S. military troops from Iraq has me thinking about baseball and its connection to war. While much has been written about the relationship between baseball and World War II, and to a lesser extent, the first World War and the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War has been virtually ignored in the discussion. Part of this dismissal stems from the controversial nature of the war, but another factor can be found in the lack of superstars, including the complete absence of Hall of Famers, who served in Vietnam.

The overlooked relationship between baseball and Vietnam remains an injustice to those who served. While there were few star players who lost parts of their careers to the war, the sheer number of players who served either in Vietnam or at stateside locations is impressive. Not including those who served in the Reserves, the list includes such notables as Mark Belanger, Bill “Soup” Campbell, Jim Kern, Jerry Koosman, John Lowenstein, Curt Motton, Bobby Murcer and Fred “Chicken” Stanley.

A number of the players’ stories are worth noting. Here are seven that I’ve found particularly intriguing, all of whom managed to find success, either in baseball or other career fields.

Jim Bibby: Signing with the Mets as an undrafted free agent, Bibby struggled badly in 1965, his first season as a professional. Improvement in his pitching would have to wait: Bibby spent the next two seasons in active military duty, employed as a Vietnam truck driver, particularly dangerous duty in wartime. Emerging from the war physically unscathed, the hard-throwing Bibby returned to the Mets’ minor league system in 1968. He worked his way up the Mets’ chain, but would never pitch for pitching-rich New York, as the Mets sent him to the rival Cardinals as part of an eight-player trade in October of 1971.

Delayed by his service in Vietnam, Bibby would not make his major league debut until the age of 27. He would not begin to have an impact until joining the Rangers in a 1973 trade for future big league catcher John Wockenfuss. Finding success under manager Whitey Herzog, Bibby drew comparisons to Nolan Ryan and became a household name when he threw a no-hitter, including 13 strikeouts, against the world champion A’s.

It was during his days in Texas that the 6-foot-5 right hander developed a second identity. During Rangers road trips, Bibby used the “stage name” of “Fontay O’Rooney” in hotels and other public places. No one seems to have understood the significance or meaning to the name, but it was an indication of Bibby’s colorful, offbeat nature.

Unfortunately, bouts with poor control resulted in Bibby being traded again, this time to the Indians. Benefiting from a new pitching coach in Harvey Haddix and a new manager in Frank Robinson, Bibby became a solid starter with the Indians. He then earned the biggest break of his career when the Indians inexplicably failed to pay him a bonus stipulated in his contract. An arbitrator made Bibby a free agent during the spring of 1978, allowing him to sign a contract with the Pirates, with whom he would earn a World Series ring in 1979.

In later years, Bibby became a successful minor league pitching coach. He passed away earlier this year, the victim of a lengthy struggle with cancer, at the age of 65.

Al Bumbry: A speedy center fielder with a short, quick hitting stroke, Bumbry started his professional career in the Orioles system in 1969, only to see it interrupted by military duty. Of all the major leaguers to serve during the Vietnam War, Bumbry had one of the most distinguished tenures. As a platoon leader and lieutenant, he earned the Bronze Star for heroism before receiving an honorable discharge in June of 1969. None of Bumbry’s men lost their lives while under his leadership.

Yet, Bumbry’s time in Vietnam left its scars. On one occasion, his Orioles teammates planned a trip to a local theater to see “The Deer Hunter,” a critically acclaimed film that was centered on the war. Understandably, Bumbry refused to go.

In contrast, the two-year military stint in Vietnam did little to erode Bumbry’s baseball skills. Returning to action in the middle of the 1971 season, Bumbry batted .336 for Aberdeen of the Northern League. He moved up quickly through the O’s chain in 1972, hitting in the .340s for two teams and earning a late-season promotion to Baltimore.

In 1973, Bumbry led the American League in triples and won Rookie of the Year honors, cementing his status as Baltimore’s leadoff man. He struggled to hit as well the next three seasons, but rebounded to bat .317 in 1977 and .318 in 1980. Bumbry became an important part of two World Series teams, including the world championship team of 1983.

Remaining with Baltimore through the end of the 1984 season, Bumbry left as a free agent and signed with the defending National League champion Padres. He played one lackluster season for San Diego before calling it quits.

After a two-year separation from the game, Bumbry became a coach with the Red Sox, played briefly in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, and then worked two different stints as a coach with the Indians. Now retired from organized baseball, Bumbry operates his own clinic and advises his son, Steven, a minor league outfielder in the Orioles system.

Ed Figueroa: Figueroa saw the resumption of his major league career delayed by military service in 1969. Originally signed by the Mets as an amateur free agent in 1966, Figueroa left temporarily to undergo a draft physical and then returned to minor league action, only to hurt his arm in his first game back. Lacking patience, the Mets released him.

Figueroa, a native of Puerto Rico, decided to join the Marine Corps, and soon after served a tour in Vietnam. The experience left him dazed. “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing (there),“ Figueroa told the New York Daily News in 2008, “but I was there. I learned that life, it’s beautiful to be alive. I saw a lot of people dead there. When I got out of there, I was happy I was out, happy I was alive.”

Figueroa missed all of the 1969 season while in the war, escaping with his life but losing a year of pitching development. After his tour ended, Figueroa forged a baseball comeback, signing with the Giants organization. Figueroa pitched three seasons in San Francisco’s system before being traded to the Angels for two minor league players. Figgy didn’t make the major leagues until 1974, when he was 25, having already compiled eight seasons of minor league time. It’s quite possible he would have arrived a year or two sooner if not for Nam.

Lacking the strikeout ability that both the mainstream and the Sabermetric types seem to favor, Figueroa struggled to make an impression. To make up for his lack of power pitching, he became a four-pitch pitcher, throwing a fastball, slider, curve ball and change-up. He featured a sinking fastball, which he liked to mix and match with his breaking and off-speed pitches. The Yankees liked his repertoire enough to ask the Angels to include him with Mickey Rivers in a trade package for Bobby Bonds.

The Yankees didn’t care about the lack of strikeouts or overpowering stuff. They came to appreciate his quiet effectiveness during his halcyon days from 1976 to ’78, when he emerged as the Yankees‘ No. 2 starter behind Ron Guidry. In 1978, Figgy won 20 games, becoming the first Puerto Rican to reach the milestone mark.

As good as he was during the Yankees’ mini-dynasty, Figueroa faded quickly. He threw a lot of innings in the mid-1970s—over a four-year span, he averaged 248 innings per season—and the substantial workload became exacerbated by an awkward motion. Figueroa tucked his left leg and left arm in toward his midsection; by the time he put himself in position to throw, he was pitching the ball across his body. Figueroa’s arm problems began in 1979; by 1981, his pitching days had ended. Though only 32, Figueroa had thrown his final major league pitch as a member of Billy Martin’s A’s.

Now out of baseball, Figueroa is a successful businessman in Puerto Rico, where he owns a pair of restaurants.

Chuck Goggin: A jack-of-all-trades utility man, Goggin has experienced a fascinating journey that has taken him from the military to the marshals. Goggin spent two years in the military, even though he wasn’t even supposed to have been drafted. Goggin had originally tried to enlist in the Army Reserves, but he was told he didn’t need to bother because of the condition of his knee. As a minor leaguer with the Dodgers, Goggin had torn up cartilage in the knee, a condition that now classified him as a 4-F, unfit to serve in the military.

Strangely and without explanation, the military crossed out Goggin’s 4-F status, changed him to 1-A, and drafted him into the Marine Corps after the 1965 season. Goggin reported to boot camp at Parris Island and then underwent infantry training at Camp LeJeune, all the while knowing that he would be headed to Vietnam.

Goggin served as an infantry rifleman, exposing him to first-hand battle. His tenure in Vietnam ended abruptly after 13 months, the result of stepping onto a landmine. Goggin felt his body thrown eight to 10 feet into the air; the incident left him with severe shrapnel wounds on his legs and back. As a result, Goggin spent numerous weeks recuperating aboard a floating hospital.

Determined to come back from his injuries, Goggin reported to spring training in February of 1968 and played well enough to earn an assignment to the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate. After the season, the versatile infielder-outfielder reported to the Instructional League, where he learned to switch-hit under the encouragement of his manager Tommy Lasorda. Goggin took well to the switch-hitting experiment, raising his average to .336, but then broke his ankle stealing second base.

Given the latest injury setback, Goggin could have been excused for quitting. Instead, he rehabilitated the ankle and returned to action in the middle of the 1969 season. The Dodgers failed to stick with him, however, packaging him with another minor leaguer in a trade to the Pirates for Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

The Pirates liked Goggin, but felt that he was destined to be a utility player, no more than a minor league insurance policy. Prior to the 1971 season, Goggin challenged Bucs farm director Harding “Pete” Peterson to make him an everyday catcher at Double-A as a way of expediting his journey to the big leagues.

Given his increasing versatility, Goggin finally made it to the major leagues in September of 1972. He reached base three times in eight plate appearances and then made the Bucs’ Opening Day roster in 1973, only to be sold to the Braves after playing in one game. While with the Braves, Goggin achieved his only level of major league notoriety: He became part of Atlanta’s celebrated bench brigade, known fondly as “F-Troop.”

Having compiled a .350 on-base percentage while backing up at five different positions (catcher, second base, shortstop, left field and right field), Goggin seemed like an important part of Atlanta’s future depth. But the Braves needed a fulltime catcher more than they needed a spare one; in the spring of 1974, they sent Goggin to the Red Sox for a defensive-minded receiver named Vic Correll. Unfortunately, Goggin did not fit the Red Sox’ plan. He spent most of the season in the minors, appeared in only two late-season games for the Sox, never again to return to the big leagues.

Undeterred, Goggin continued his baseball career as a manager at the Triple-A level, before moving on to the Mexican Pacific League, where he managed a young Rickey Henderson. Goggin then changed careers completely, leaving the game to serve as a U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Bobby Jones: As a teen-aged outfielder in the Washington Senators system from 1967 to 1969, Jones played so poorly that he didn‘t appear capable of sustaining a professional career. Stuck in Class-A ball, Jones batted .217, 246 and .227 in three seasons. His life changed in December of 1969, when he began a 14-month stint in Vietnam.

Assigned to the Army’s Americal Division, where he served in an infantry brigade artillery unit. Jones was stationed at LZ Siberia, a remote firebase, which was shelled for 45 consecutive days during the spring of 1970. A number of the division’s soldiers died during the constant barrage. Jones survived, but lost significant hearing in both of his ears. For his bravery throughout the ordeal, he received the Bronze Star. He also had to be fitted with two hearing aids.

Jones remained in Vietnam through February of 1971 before finally receiving his discharge. Although his hearing was permanently damaged, Jones emerged from the war a better ballplayer with a revived attitude. No longer content to go through the motions, Jones reported to Anderson in the Western Carolinas League and batted .321 with 20 home runs. The Senators moved to Texas in 1972, but Jones continued his steady climb up the Rangers’ ladder. He made his major league debut with an October cameo in 1974, marking the start of a fragmented nine-year career with the Rangers and Angels.

Like many of his fellow veterans, Jones continued to feel the effects of the war years after the experience. While on a road trip with the Rangers in 1985, Jones suffered nightmares and vivid flashbacks. For three nights, he struggled to sleep. As he sat down to eat with team trainer Bill Zeigler, he began to shake, visibly and uncontrollably. Moments later, he broke down and told Zeigler of his horrific experiences during the war.

Batting .221 as a backup outfielder over his career, Jones often returned to the minor leagues throughout the ’70s and ’80s. After retiring as a ballplayer in 1987, Jones would achieve far more success as a minor league manager. He has spent the last 23 years as a coach and manager in the Rangers system. Extremely popular with his players, Jones continues to guide the Triple-A Oklahoma City Red Hawks, where he resides as the most successful manager in the city’s 99-year history of professional baseball. In August of this year, the RedHawks honored him with “Bobby Jones Day” at the ballpark.

Garry Maddox: After making his professional debut in the Giants farm system in 1968, Maddox spent the next two seasons in the Army. While stationed in Vietnam, Maddox was exposed to chemicals that damaged his skin, leaving it highly sensitive to the touch. It became so difficult for Maddox to shave that he grew and maintained a full beard, which became a trademark during his playing career.

The stint in Vietnam did little to affect Maddox’ baseball skills. He returned to the Giants system in 1971, putting up banner numbers for Class-A Fresno. He slugged .562, hit 30 home runs and stole 21 bases. That performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A Phoenix in 1972. By late April, Maddox graduated to San Francisco, where he became the starting center fielder.

Maddox remained a Candlestick Park fixture until 1975, when a glut of outfielders made him expendable. In a regrettable trade, the Giants dealt Maddox to the Phillies for first baseman Willie Montanez. Maddox blossomed in Philadelphia, where he established a reputation as an all-world defender for six postseason-qualifying teams. Winning Gold Gloves every season from 1975 to 1982, Maddox earned the deserving nickname, the “Secretary of Defense.” He became a vital contributor to the Phillies’ 1980 world championship team. Though he walked only 18 times, Maddox hit 11 home runs, stole 25 bases and turned in his usual high-grade performance in center field.

Maddox retired after a six-game stint in 1986; the following year, he moved up to the broadcast booth as a color man on Phillies telecasts. Highly successful in his post-playing days, Maddox has attended classes at Temple University, become a CEO at an office furniture company, served as a director of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, and earned a reputation as an acclaimed barbecue chef.

Carlos May: Unlike the other six players featured here, May never actually saw time in Vietnam, but found unwanted action stateside. While stationed as a Marine at Camp Pendleton during the summer of 1969, May was swabbing out mortars when one misfired and literally blew off part of his right thumb.

Fortunately, doctors were able to perform several skin grafts, saving the use of his thumb and allowing him to continue his playing career in 1970. May went on to have several productive seasons as an outfielder and DH with the White Sox before less successful stints with the Yankees and Angels.

Given the loss of part of his thumb, May was never able to match the success of his rookie season in 1968, when he achieved a career high OPS of .873, albeit in only 100 games. A perusal of May’s lifetime hitting statistics provides some insight, including an amazing level of performance after the thumb injury. In 1972, May hit .302, with an on-base percentage of .405, for the White Sox. The following year, he reached career highs with 20 home runs and 96 RBIs. He did all of that with the equivalent of nine and a half fingers.

After a four-year tenure in the Japanese Leagues, May worked for the U.S. Post Office before returning to the game as a community representative for the White Sox.

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Comments

  1. Jason S. said...

    After looking up Chuck Goggin’s stats I have to say that I am absolutely amazed that he did not stick in the majors.  I wonder if there were some personality issues at work here or he is just one of those people who just didn’t get a break.

  2. Jim G. said...

    Bruce, There are a few great writers in sports media, but you always combine that with such compelling topics. Great job!

  3. salvo said...

    I worked with Carlos May in the early ‘80s; he was the “front door man” at a huge appliance/furniture store in suburban Chicago (Polk Bros.) where I worked as a “stock man” (“stock boy” was, apparently demeaning).

    Knowing his story, I was intrigued by the hand and the thumb, and sure enough, there was just a stub there.

    He was a really affable guy, he’d chat with everyone and would strike a mid-swing pose for people who recognized him. I remember him being huge—-I see he’s listed at just 5’11”—but he was “big” all over: huge butt and thighs squeezed into a pair of slacks. This must have been after he got back from Japan and before his USPS days…

  4. Michael Caragliano said...

    I remember putting together a 1972 Topps set years ago, and doing a double-take when I first saw Carlos May’s card; there’s the thumb in question in the lower left corner of the photo.

    When I hear May’s name, I think of him wearing his birthday (May 17) on his back. I’ve also heard a story about Harry Caray calling a Sox came in the early ‘70s, when Walt Williams, Pat Kelly and May, respectively, were the outfielders. Caray’s comment was: “So the Sox go with an outfield of No Neck, No Arm, and No Thumb.”

  5. jim vankoski said...

    Bruce, You are one of the most underrated if not the most underrated baseball writer in the country. Love reading your work.jim

  6. Sabertooth said...

    Nice article!  A couple of addenda:

    In 1969, Carlos May and his older brother Lee became the first pair of siblings to play in an All Star Game.

    When Garry Maddox became the Giants’ starting center fielder in 1972, he replaced the one and only Willie Mays.  Also, the Maddox for Montanez deal didn’t work out that badly for the Giants.  A year later they flipped Montanez to the Braves for Darrell Evans.

  7. Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

    Regarding Goggin, 13 months was the length of a full Marine tour in Vietnam.  If he was wounded after 13 months in country, that fits in well with his seemingly snakebit career.

  8. Garrett Hawk said...

    I think Ken Holtzman needs at least a passing mention. Because of the ongoing war, he was required to fulfill National Guard duties. In 1967, on days in which the Guard let him take a day off to pitch big-league baseball, he went a perfect 9-0 (ERA+ of 141). Not bad for a 21-year-old part-time player.

    During the Cub’s 1969 debacle, Holtzman was still working for the Guard, which might have kept him from winning 20 games that year (instead of the 17 he did win).

    I don’t mean to compare working on home soil to brave service in Vietnam, but there are many players who paid a price for being a young man in the late ‘60’s. Holtzman was heralded as “the next Koufax” when he came up, and it seems as if the extended time he served may have taken away some important grooming time from him. We’ll never know.

  9. steve cohen said...

    This is really great.  One note:  notice that those in the reserves are predominantly white, and those who served were overwhelmingly men of color.  That is another important aspect of the Vietnam War.

  10. Vlae Kershner said...

    Very informative article. I doubt there will be as many from Iraq/Afghanistan, with the end of the draft.
    On Ken Holtzman, his outstanding 1967 season is sometimes cited as evidence that a once-a-week pitching schedule for starters would improve performance, though it’s impractical except for non-contending teams or teams that have already clinched in September.

  11. Bruce Markusen said...

    Thanks, Peter, Jim, Steve, and the rest. I just hope that some attention is brought to the Vietnam baseball vets. They have been overlooked for too long.

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