The Tale of Purnal Goldy, A Ballad of Us All

Purnal Goldy only played 29 MLB games, some of which were in Tiger Stadium.
(via Tony Spina, Detroit Free Press)

It’s impossible to say what percentage of a kid’s potential is merely observers’ perception of the same. Purnal Goldy suggests a good answer would be, “All of it.” A good answer would be “evolve or die.” A good answer would be, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Maybe Yogi Berra said that, maybe he didn’t, but whoever came up with the words was neither funny nor clever, but cruel, because when the road divides you must choose without knowing whether either path is right, wrong, both, or neither. It may be you are too limited to choose the right path regardless. Our lives are cruel this way, presenting us with an endless succession of rigged, no-win forks. As the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in 1868, “The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But we also know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.”

All of which is to say: If you can’t lay off the pitches out of the strike zone, well, your bad.

The story of an opportunity gained and lost begins in old Yankee Stadium, May 26, 1962, when Al Kaline, the Tigers’ star right fielder, made a diving catch of Elston Howard’s sinking liner with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. His momentum threw him into a tumbling spin, bouncing him over the ground. “I looked up and saw the umpire waving his hand that Howard was out,” Kaline told the Detroit Free Press. “I tried to move but I felt something rubbing together in my shoulder.” He called for the trainer and was carried off on a stretcher. He had broken his right collarbone and was expected to miss eight weeks.

“He’s the one guy we couldn’t afford to lose,” mourned Tigers manager Bob Scheffing.

The Tigers were a good team, one coming off a 101-win season in 1961, and expected to contend. They had future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning in the starting rotation, first baseman Norm Cash coming off a .361/.487/.662 season, and one of the best outfields in the game, with three-time 40-homer man Rocky Colavito in left, three-time NL stolen-base leader Bill Bruton in center, and Kaline, a career .309/.374/.485 hitter to that point, in right.

With Kaline’s injury, the outfield would now be Colavito, Bruton, and a platoon of Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell and Wycliffe “Bubba” Morton. This sounds like quite a comedown, but on paper it wasn’t too bad. Morton was a patient singles hitter (his lifetime on-base percentage was .351) and Maxwell, though aging at 35, was a former All-Star who slugged .465 in eight seasons with the Tigers. Unfortunately, Maxwell didn’t hit and was traded to the White Sox (where he went right back to hitting) at about the same moment that Bruton tore a tendon in his thigh while running the bases. It was then that the Tigers finally reached down to Triple-A Denver for the kid who had Scheffing talking of the second coming of Joe DiMaggio early in spring training, Purnal Goldy.

Purnal William Goldy, Jr. was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1937, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of men named also named Purnal Goldy. He grew to be a lanky 6-foot-5. Along the way, someone had the bright idea of making him a catcher. This was magical thinking; in those days, few baseball minds believed that 77 inches of backstop could be folded behind home plate. Just one catcher of that size, the violent Deadball-era alcoholic Larry McLean, had had a career of any length. While towering catchers like Joe Mauer have since had substantial careers, they are largely a modern invention. As such, by the time Goldy had left Temple University to join the Tigers organization in 1958, he had been transferred to the outfield.

The amateur draft was still years away, so there’s no panting coverage describing Goldy as a top prospect. There are only glimpses of an amateur career in which the young Goldy displayed more than his share of insouciance. For example, in 1957 the Philadelphia Inquirer observed that Goldy had, “an ever-present wisecrack on his lips,” which “may keep his Temple baseball teammates amused, but he isn’t always funny to Coach Ernie Casale.” In the season opener at Rutgers, Goldy hit a triple but was called out for neglecting to touch first. “Guess I wasn’t taught how to run the bases,” was as near to contrition as he could get.

Still, he hit .402 as a sophomore,.335 as a junior, and, at 20, gave up his last year of eligibility to sign with the Tigers. He had a better offer from the Yankees, but he thought he’d have less competition in Detroit. In 1959, his first professional season, he hit .307/.365/.487 in 94 games spent mostly with the Erie Sailors of the New York-Penn League. He moved up to the Knoxville Smokies of the Sally League in 1960 and hit .342/.387/.555 in 138 games, stroking 36 doubles, 10 triples, and 20 home runs. In 1961 he split time between Double- and Triple-A and hit a combined .338/.381/.486. He was starting to look like a coming star, but there was one glaring flaw: In 1,513 plate appearances, Goldy had drawn only 95 walks. The Tigers might not have faulted Goldy specifically on this basis, but they definitely noticed the impatience that led to the light walk totals.

Many superficial aspects of our lives are not destiny. Your parents could name you Captain Loser Garfinkel the moment you emerge from the womb and you still might end up being president of the United States. On-base percentage, though, that’s often destiny.

Until Goldy’s limitations made themselves clear, a .332 average was his best advertisement, and he received a non-roster invitation to camp in 1962. Playing a lot in the early going, he was the sensation of camp, carrying a .500 average for a few days and amusing teammates and beat writers alike by running out his home runs. (“I’m used to college and semi-pro parks where they don’t have fences,” he said. “You have to run fast or sometimes you don’t make it.”) Scheffing was asked if Goldy excited him. Darn right he excites me,” he replied. “Goldy looks like money in the bank to me.” More specifically, he looked like a certain Hall of Fame contemporary of Scheffing’s. “Do you know, he reminds you a little of Joe DiMaggio the way he runs… He takes those long, loping strides like Joe… I don’t think he’ll ever be a big home-run hitter… He’ll probably hit line drives like Al Kaline.”

As for Goldy, he was just enjoying his first big-league camp. “There’s no pressure on me,” he said. “so I can swing freely without worrying. I don’t think I’m going to make the club anyway. How can I? Detroit has one of the best outfields in baseball.”

He was right; he didn’t make it. The fast start faded as pitchers figured out Goldy would chase bad balls. By the time the Tigers went north to start the season, his average was down to .298. Scheffing was still enamored, but he knew Goldy still had work to do, saying, “I like everything he does except swing at too many low pitches. Once he learns to lay off them and wait for his pitch, nothing will stop him.”

Goldy was sent to the Denver Bears of the American Association, where his teammates included future Tigers stars Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich. He was hitting .304 with three home runs in 48 games when he joined the Tigers in New York on June 12. After making his debut as a defensive replacement, Goldy got his first start at home against Boston. Spring training duplicated itself in those first days. He went 2-for-4 in his first start. In the first game of a double-header on June 17 against the Red Sox he hit two home runs. The first of them came off of Don Schwall, and in retrospect, Goldy’s postgame comment—“Don’t ask me what Schwall was throwing. I was too busy swinging.”—seems like a bad sign. Nonetheless, he hit in each of his first seven games, going 12-for-30. At that moment, the peak moment, the earn-a-Topps-card moment (#516 in the 1963 set), he was hitting .400/.400/.700 and people were asking, “Kaline who?”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

No, seriously, they were. The words “small sample size” had yet to come to Michigan in 1962. Goldy, said Detroit Free Press columnist Joe Falls, “if he continues this sort of thing, will become the game’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams.” Goldy’s major league career was 10 days old. The next day, Falls reported on the first annual “Hudson’s-Tigers Ladies Day,” the ostensible purpose of which was “to enlighten the weaker sex on the finer points of the game.” One of the “girls” (as Falls identified them) asked Scheffing, “If Purnal Goldy keeps hitting .400, will you find a spot for him in your lineup when Al Kaline gets better?”

That same day, Goldy took his first 0-for-4, and over his next three games was only 1-for-12. Still, he went into the June 24 home game against the Yankees hitting .310/.310/.524. In an era in which batting average was the only statistic regularly published, cosmetically he still looked like a future star.

The game with the Yankees changed all of that. The Yankees scored six runs in the top of the first, making five hits including an RBI single by Mickey Mantle and a three-run homer by Clete Boyer. In the bottom of the frame, Yankees starter Bob Turley, customarily wild, walked leadoff man Steve Boros and the now-healthy Bruton, at which point Goldy cut the lead in half with a three-run homer. By the sixth, the game was tied at 7-7. It froze there for hours, both teams getting remarkable relief pitching from starting pitchers after working through their regular relievers. The Yankees got seven innings of shutout relief from Jim Bouton, a rookie who would win 21 games the next year, while the Tigers got 5.1 innings and eight strikeouts from Aguirre, then turned to their closer (inasmuch as closers existed in 1962) Terry Fox, who pitched eight scoreless innings.

In the press box, Matt Dennis of the Windsor Star got up in the 18th inning and said, “I’ve got to leave—my visa just expired.” The game rolled on. In the top of the 22nd, Roger Maris drew a one-out walk off of Phil Regan, and Jack Reed, whose main job was to take over for Mantle in the late innings, hit his only career home run. Bouton held the Tigers in the bottom of the frame, and the game was finally over.

It’s not often you see a box score with a “10” or “11” in the player at-bat column. There were four of them on the Tigers side. Colavito did a lot with his, going 7-for-10 with a triple. Goldy had the home run, and he was also hit by a pitch later in the day, but that was it. He went 1-for-10, and from then on there would be no superficial .300 average in the Sunday papers.

A spell seemed to have broken. The next day he took another 0-for-4. Then Goldy missed a few days with a strained elbow. When he returned, Scheffing gave him two more starts, during which Goldy went a combined 0-for-7, and then apparently decided he hadn’t given Bubba Morton a long enough look. Goldy hit the bench. When Kaline was reactivated he headed back to Denver. He was not recalled again, not even when rosters expanded in September.

Back in camp the next year, Goldy said he understood he had to wait for a pitch in the strike zone in order to succeed. Scheffing’s DiMaggio dreams had faded; he practically yawned when asked about Goldy’s chances of making the team. “Oh, we’ll look at him,” he said. “We’ll look at everyone.”

“Everyone” was an impressive list. Among the outfielders then in the Tigers system were Jim Northrup (116 OPS+ in 1,392 major league games), Mickey Stanley, a Gold Glove center fielder, Willie Horton, a four-time All-Star who hit 325 home runs in the major leagues, and Gates Brown, who achieved great notoriety as a platoon player, pinch-hitter (famously 18-40 with three home runs in that role for the world champion 1968 Tigers), and trencherman. Goldy’s moment was rapidly passing.

He made the team as a reserve, but barely played before being sent down again, this time to the Syracuse Chiefs. He was unhappy there, in part because he had become engaged to marry the daughter of one of the Bears’ owners and pined for Colorado. He hit only .261/.299/.436 (with 21 walks in 503 PAs). When he failed to make the Tigers roster in spring of 1964, he asked to be sent back to the Bears. The problem was that Denver was now a Braves affiliate. Let it not be said the Tigers were insensitive to young love: They allowed the Braves to borrow Goldy and play him at Denver in return for the loan of outfielder Mack Jones to Syracuse. This worked out very well for the Braves; Jones had failed to establish himself in three trials with the team, but hit .317/.413/.630 with the Chiefs. Revitalized, he would return to the majors and hit a robust .255/.350/.462 over the next seven seasons. As for Goldy, he hit only .245/.291/.353 in 127 games.

Then, as now, it was understood that hitting .245 with no power at Denver is kind of a hard thing to do. Goldy was now 27 and his shot at the majors had passed. Back at Syracuse for a final time, he hit .260/.307/.385 in 105 games and was often booed for not hustling, though he contended that, “Because I’m such a tall, gangling guy, the fans get the idea that I’m not really trying. But actually, I’m doing the best I can, all the time. That’s the only way I know how to play ball.” He retired the following spring to take a job with Celebrity Sports Center in Denver, “one of Walt Disney’s many enterprises.” His final major league averages were .231/.237/.385 in 80 PAs. He never did draw a walk in the bigs.

It would be overly harsh to say that Goldy did something wrong or that he deserved to fail. We simply don’t know, as we rarely know with anyone. He was derailed by a kind of stagnation that will at one time or another strike all of us, and in each case the reason is different—perhaps we lack the talent to lay off the low pitch no matter how we try, or maybe we make no effort at all in that direction but stubbornly keep hacking. Perhaps we’re in love with the boss’s daughter and just want to get home more than we want to get to home plate. We each reach our personal Gotterdammerung by a uniquely customized route.

That part is almost predictable. What’s more frightening is that we might arrive at Waterloo in the case of a single game or decision, in which a last home run is only a false dawn before the permanently deflating 0-for-10 that will come next, itself followed by a one-way ticket to Purgatory. Worse, you never know which of your games is that game. It could be today. It could be right now, and you’re fading away before your own eyes, without even a name as wonderful as “Purnal Goldy” to save you from obscurity.

References & Resources

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • The Camden Courier-Post
  • The Detroit Free Press


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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tramps like us
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tramps like us

I could picture his rookie card while reading this….it currently has a bigh book value of $25 in near mint value, not because it’s Purnal Goldy, but because high numbers from 1963 are kinda scarce. And halfway through, I realized the 18-inning game referenced was the one Jim Bouton talked about in Ball Four, and how Mickey Mantle laid out a “white carpet” for him in the locker room after the game. It would have been nice to have included a “where is he now” piece, although I understand this was not simply a story about Goldy, but about us.… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Anachronisms don’t bother me because the way it was is the way it was. It’s very easy to look back in time at how “unenlightened” everyone was back then, but what will people think about us in 50 years? Anyway, I suspect Joe Falls might have been speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek about Goldy being the next .400 hitter. Even in 1962, I think people realized that a couple of hot weeks didn’t necessarily transfer to greatness.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

I considered that for a second, but having read Falls’ stuff a lot, I doubt it.

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

There are plenty of Purnal Goldy’s in life outside pro sports. People who excelled in college, but were unable to translate the high grade point average to their chosen career. Sometimes it’s lack of self-awareness, or unwillingness to pay the price for success. Life is full of crucial moments, but the people who know how to respond after setbacks are the ones who prevail. The reality is much of our destiny is indeed within our control.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Arguably, having self-awareness or the ability to “pay the price” is itself a skill that some are born with. Some people are resilient because of their brain chemistry or something, while others are not. I’m not saying that everything we do is predetermined, but I think it’s too easy to say destiny is within our control. Mickey Mantle was a great player because he was born that way.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

+1……yeah, but most successful people don’t want to hear that. It doesn’t fit their inner narrative.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Maybe it’s lack of self-awareness that leads to success. If a player thinks too much, he might not be as good. Business people probably don’t spend much time reflecting on what they do. I would argue that many, if not most, “successful” people are utterly lacking in self-awareness.

87 Cards
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87 Cards

Thirty-seven year old Yogi Berra caught all 22 innings; he then sat and watched Elston Howard catch for the next five games. Yogi “only” caught 86 games in ’62, his second lowest career mark.

Jackelder
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Member
Jackelder

Al Kaline, Purnal Goldy, Waterloo, and Richard Wagner all pulled together in the same story? All I can say is BRAVO!

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

We can only speculate what modern analytics and the coaching that interfaces with them could have done, if anything, for the Golden Goldy. We can also indulge in creating a character Yoldy, a meld of the awesomeness of Goldy’s size and power combined with the Walking Man cool eye of Eddie Yost. Now go back to sleep.

cheekfullofchew
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cheekfullofchew

love the podcast Steven. it’s funny, I didn’t know you wrote the article until I was halfway through the first paragraph when it started transforming into your voice.