Cooperstown Confidential: Who was Greg Goossen?

I was tempted to write this week about the death of Duke Snider, but his masterful career has been described more than capably at this web site, along with other Internet locations. Rather than rehash what has been said by others, I felt it appropriate to consider the career and life of another big leaguer who passed away last weekend. In contrast to the “Duke of Flatbush,“ relatively little has been written or said about Greg Goossen.

On the surface, a player who hit .241 in 514 plate appearances spread over six seasons might not seem interesting. Goossen, who died unexpectedly on Saturday, is the exception to that rule. Though he was basically a journeyman catcher and first baseman, Goossen led a fascinating life, both during and after his playing days.

Originally signed by the Dodgers as a six-figure bonus baby, Goossen never actually played a game for Los Angeles. After spending one season in the Dodgers system, the teen-aged Goossen was taken by the Mets in the archaic first-year waiver draft, an old transaction mechanism by which weaker franchises could pick up young players after their first minor league season. During Goossen’s first spring training with the Mets in 1965, he didn’t exactly impress manager Casey Stengel, largely because of his poor catching skills and lack of speed. When a reporter asked Stengel to give his opinion on Goossen, “The Ol’ Perfessor” provided one of his comic responses. “This is Greg Goossen,” said Old Case. “He’s 19 years old, and in 10 years, he’s got a chance to be 29.”

Stengel’s impolite remark would never fly in today’s more sensitive game, but if the crack ever bothered Goossen, he never let on. In fact, Goossen reveled in telling the story to friends and new acquaintances, almost as if he considered Casey’s words a badge of honor.

Goossen started the 1965 season with Auburn, the Mets’ affiliate in the Class-A New York-Penn League, but made a stunning ascent through the system, landing in Queens before season’s end. It wasn’t so much that Goossen tore up the minor leagues along the way; the Mets needed help badly at the major league level, especially at the catching position. Hey, when your catching options are the punchless Chris Cannizzaro, mediocrities like Jesse Gonder and John Stephenson, and a 40-year-old Yogi Berra at the end of his playing line, the decision to promote Goossen so quickly became more understandable.

Goossen held his own in 31 at-bats, hitting .290. That performance helped him earn a spot on the Mets’ Opening Day roster in 1966, but he struggled to hit in April and May, and found himself back in Triple-A Jacksonville. Goossen spent the next two summers on the Jacksonville-to-Queens shuttle, never gaining traction in New York, as he split his time between catching and first base, while dabbling in the outfield. Though considered a legitimate power-hitting catcher, Goossen failed to hit for either Wes Westrum or Gil Hodges, Stengel’s managerial successors.

Goossen did enjoy one moment of glory during the 1968 season. On May 31, the Mets found themselves on the short end of a possible perfect game against the Cardinals’ Larry Jaster. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, Goossen laced a single, ending the perfect game and the no-hitter.

Unfortunately, there were not enough moments like that. With the Mets’ brass considering the defensively superior Jerry Grote to be their catcher of the future, general manager Johnny Murphy decided to trade Goossen just before the start of spring training in 1969. Settling for a player to be named later in return, Murphy sent Goossen to the expansion Seattle Pilots, who didn’t feel that Goossen could catch but needed help at first base and in the outfield—and just about everywhere else for that matter.

The trade would deny Goossen his place on the “Miracle Mets” (and the World Series ring that eventually came with it), but it would give him the first substantial role of his big league career. In short, Goossen hit like a Hall of Famer for the Pilots. He batted .309 with a .597 slugging percentage and an OPS of .982. Unfortunately, those percentages came in only 157 plate appearances. Goossen actually spent the first three and a half months of the season at Triple-A Vancouver; he found himself the odd man out in the Pilots’ spring camp, blocked at first base by Don Mincher, in left field by Tommy Davis and in right field by Mike Hegan. As a result, Goossen would not make his Pilots debut until July 25. By then, more than half of the American League season had elapsed.

Goossen did his best to make up for lost time. Platooning with the lefty-swinging Mincher at first base, Goossen murdered much of the American League’s left-handed pitching. He took a particular liking to Sick’s Stadium in Seattle, where he hit all 10 of his home runs. One wonders what Goossen might have done if only he had received an earlier call-up, or if the Pilots had found a way to play him somewhere else—perhaps the outfield—on an everyday basis.

Though he played only two full months for the Pilots in their lone season of existence, he became one of the lasting characters in Jim Bouton’s iconic diary, Ball Four.

In the early pages of the book, Bouton recalled playing in a minor league game against Goossen. One of Bouton’s teammates bunted a ball back toward the pitcher. Springing from behind home plate, Goossen yelled clearly and repeatedly, “First base, first base, first base!” Ignoring his catcher, the pitcher threw the ball to second base, too late to nab the lead runner. As a disgusted Goossen returned to his position, Bouton yelled from the dugout, “Goose, he had to consider the source!” Goossen couldn’t help but laugh. When Goossen and Bouton became teammates, the ex-catcher jokingly reminded the pitcher of his sarcastic jibe. The two became fast friends.

Goossen enjoyed his season in Seattle—he especially revered manager Joe Schultz—but his situation would change drastically in the coming months. The Pilots fired Schultz, replacing him with the less agreeable Dave Bristol. And then, just five days before the start of the 1970 season, the Pilots were officially ruled bankrupt, sold to a used car dealer named Bud Selig, and moved to Milwaukee.

Goossen opened the new year as the Brewers’ regular first baseman, but did not find County Stadium as friendly a setting as Sick’s Stadium. He failed to hit with power, suffered another demotion to Triple-A, and was eventually sold to the Washington Senators, the third expansion franchise of his career. The trade afforded him a chance to play for Ted Williams, the leading hitting guru of his day, but the relationship had little effect on Goose’s hitting.

Goossen continued to search for his power stroke, but the Senators gave up on him after a half-season, sending him to the Phillies as part of the deal for the exiled Curt Flood. Goossen spent a strange 1971 season as a vagabond, splitting time with the Triple-A affiliates of three organizations: the Phillies, Cubs and Angels. Feeling like a man without a country, Goossen would never make it back to the big leagues.

And yet, Goossen’s adventures were just beginning. He was still only 25, plenty young enough to pursue a number of career options. He put in increased hours at his father’s private eye agency, a job that Greg had first undertaken during the baseball off-seasons. But Goossen took a greater liking to the Southern California boxing gym, Ten Goose Professional Boxing, being run by his brothers, one of whom fought professionally. Goossen became a trainer at the family gym, working directly with boxers in preparing them for upcoming fights. His crew of boxers included Rick Lindland, an amateur boxer-turned-actor, and Michael Nunn, the middleweight champion from the 1980s.

Goossen was working at the gym one day in 1988 when his brother Joe asked him to meet with actor Gene Hackman, who was doing research for a film called Split Decisions. Hackman and Goossen became immediate friends. The Oscar-winning actor hired him to work as his stand-in for the film. Hackman then had written into his contract that Goossen would serve as his stand-in for every film he did. The rugged Goossen also made brief appearances in 15 of Hackman’s movies, including The Package, Class Action, Get Shorty and Unforgiven, the Oscar-winning best picture of 1992. Hackman so appreciated Goossen’s friendship that he bought him a Mercedes for his 60th birthday.

With his work as an actor, boxing trainer, and private detective (and some time as a high school football coach), Goossen compiled one of the most diverse post-playing careers of any retired ballplayer. Given his accomplishments, it was no surprise that his alma mater, Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, named him to its inaugural Hall of Fame class earlier this winter.

The school planned its induction ceremony for last Saturday, Feb. 26. Goossen, like the other inductees, was scheduled to arrive early at the school for photographs. As a half-hour, then 45 minutes passed by, Goossen mysteriously remained a no-show. His oldest daughter Erin drove to his house in Sherman Oaks. It was there that she found him, gone without warning at the age of 65.

Goossen’s death serves as a reminder that more than 40 years have passed since the Pilots played their lone season. The list of deceased Pilots includes catcher Jim Pagliaroni, shortstop Ray Oyler, backup outfielder Jose Vidal, and pitchers Steve Barber, Gene Brabender, George Brunet, and Miguel Fuentes.

The cause of Goossen’s death remains unknown. Cruelly, he died only hours before receiving an honor over which he had expressed such great pride in recent weeks. If there’s any consolation, it’s that he seemed to fully enjoy his 65 years, doing things that most of us could only imagine.

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  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    A couple of other tidbits about Goossen:

    He was the catcher for Nolan Ryan’s first game, back in 1966.

    He was often assumed to be Jewish, but he was a lifelong practicing Catholic.

  2. Ron Kaplan said...

    Nice piece on a “renaissance” player, Bruce. That assessment by Stengel over Goossen’s prospects remains one of the best quotes about the game.

  3. vander said...

    I saw goosen at the baseball reliquiary in pasadena..last year..he was a friend of pete rose..who was being inducted (in absentee) & pete sent goossen to say thanks for him..somebody mentioned bouten & “ball four” &  goossen made a few jokes..God be with him & his family…

  4. Michael Caragliano said...

    Goossen’s Hollywood career turned out pretty good, if you think about it. IIRC, I saw somewhere that he appeared or had a hand in three Oscar winners for Best Picture in a the early ‘90’s. I know Unforgiven was one of them; I think Dances with Wolves and Forrest Gump were the other two, but I’ve never found his name in the full credits or on IMDB. Still a remarkable run.

  5. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I remember the name Greg Goossen from when I used tolisten to Giants games on the radio as a kid in the late ‘60’s.  I think it was when he was with the Mets. Kind of an odd, different name that stuck in my head.  I recognize some of the other names like John Stephenson, Ray Oyler, Jim Pagliaroni.  Those were great times listening to games on the radio with Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons describing the action.

  6. charles obert said...

    during greg’s big league career (65-70),he had 11 pinch-hits among his 111 base hits. he scored 33 runs and had 44 rbis.

  7. miniq said...

    Greg Goossen, the former Mets’ catcher who was the subject of a famed Casey Stengel quote and went on to a Hollywood career as a bit player in movies and Gene Hackman’s longtime stand-in, was found dead last Saturday at his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home. He was 65.

    Goossen, also a character in Jim Bouton’s groundbreaking baseball book “Ball Four,” played six seasons in the major leagues, including 99 games over four stints for the Mets from 1965-68. He had his best season for the Seattle Pilots in 1969 – the Pilots’ lone year of existence before they moved to Milwaukee – slugging .597 with 10 homers in 52 games. Overall, he had a .241 lifetime average and 13 homers in 193 games.

  8. glenn-troy ny said...

    there was a nice wire photo on ebay recently that showed greg taking a throw on first base with jerry grote watching him prior to a game…he sure did have an interesting life after baseball..

  9. Kimberly Goossen said...

    Greg is my father, and grandfather to my sons, Cody Gregory (18) and Brandon (11). He was the best daddy and pa-pa anyone could wish for. Cody is a lefty pitcher at LA Mission college (freshman) who wears my father’s jersey #10.  He will be missed so much by his family.

  10. Bruce Markusen said...

    Kimberly, thanks for your note. We were certainly sorry to hear about your father’s passing. But from everything I have heard and read, he was truly a nice guy who was well liked in and out of the game. I’m sorry that I never had the chance to meet him.

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