Garry Maddox, 1975

January 28, 2008

Born in the USA

Chapter One

I was born almost 40 years ago, March 1, 1968, into a loving family and an indifferent universe and a country that had never been defeated. We’d thumped the Redcoats once and then again for good measure and subdued the rebel South and pretty much wiped the savage Indians off the face of our expanding map and pummeled the Germans twice and nuked Japan into submission and on top of all that tallied several smaller victories along the way over anyone anywhere not willing to make way for freedom. Even in our recent tangle in Korea we’d been able to walk away like a champ still holding his star-spangled title belt high. Hey, you’re going to have to do better than a draw if you’re going to dethrone the champ! We the People had always kicked ass. We the People had always believed. And then, just a couple days before I came out of my mom feet-first and bloody and yellow with jaundice in a hospital in New Jersey, We the People had begun to wonder for the very first time if We were going to lose.

On February 27, news anchor Walter Cronkite, so widely respected that he was considered to have the ear of the entire nation, summed up his thoughts on his recent trip to Vietnam. To that point Cronkite had passed along without any notable editorial comment the assurances of military leaders and policy makers that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that the Vietnam War would soon come to a satisfactory end, yet another win for the Red, White, and Blue. Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam had been prompted by the recent Tet Offensive, a massive widespread attack by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces on South Vietnamese and American targets. The gigantic surge revealed that the enemy was far from teetering on the brink of defeat. They could throw a lot at us and still keep coming. They weren’t going to quit. So if they weren’t going to quit, who was?

“To say that we are mired in stalemate,” Cronkite concluded, “seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

By the time Walter Cronkite seemed with his prospective “did the best they could” epitaph to give voice to the budding national desire to give in, to quit, morale had begun to erode in certain sectors of the rapidly expanding United States military presence in Vietnam. Morale was particularly low among the infantrymen from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the 23rd American Division. A newcomer to the company named Michael Bernhardt described his impression of his new surroundings in Christian Appy’s excellent oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots:

When I was assigned to Charlie Company I knew there was something wrong. You could see it and smell it. . . . There was no sense of community, no sense of duty or responsibility, no sense of pride. . . . Anybody who says these guys were typical doesn’t know what they are talking about. . . . They were just a bunch of street thugs doing whatever they wanted to do. It was a group that was leaderless, directionless, armed to the teeth, and making up their own rules out there, deciding that the epitome of courage and manhood was going out and killing a bunch of people.

On March 15, 1968, according to Bernhardt, a combination briefing and memorial service for fallen comrades had turned into a “pep talk that was inflammatory” delivered by Captain Ed Medina, who had made clear to everyone that “it was payback time, that we were going to get revenge for the terrible things they were doing to us. . . .”

The next day, Charlie Company entered My Lai-4, a subhamlet of Son My, and killed almost everything in their path. A cover-up kept the massacre out of the public eye for nearly two years, but eventually three mass graves were uncovered that contained the corpses of five hundred villagers, including women, children, and the elderly. Even more lives would have been claimed had the three-man crew of an OH-23 helicopter not intervened, an act which, thirty years after the fact, gained them all the Solder’s Medal for Gallantry. The account of one of these men, Larry Colburn, is also given in Appy’s oral history.

“I’ve seen the list of dead,” Colburn recalls, “and there were a hundred and twenty some humans under the age of five.”

The year of my birth just kept getting bloodier. On April 5 Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking deadly riots in cities all across the country and also raising already high racial tensions among American soldiers in Vietnam. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s eloquent remarks about the assassination called on Americans “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Two months later he was assassinated, too. In August the pattern of chaotic violence erupted into brutal beating-filled clashes between city police and antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

We the People might not have lost yet, but we sure as hell weren’t winning. We the People weren’t even a We anymore.

As televisions across the splintering nation flickered with images of American cops clubbing American hippies, Garry Maddox was wrapping up his first year of professional baseball. Maddox played most of the season in Salt Lake City, but after logging 206 at-bats there he was promoted to the San Francisco Giants’ farm team in Fresno, where he batted a promising .316 in 19 at-bats. The back matter on the card shown at the top of this page shows no baseball statistics for the two years following his debut season in 1968. In the lines for both 1969 and 1970 there is just a statement that reads “In Military Service.”

(to be continued)


  1. 1.  bam.

  2. 2.  I was born in October ’68, and Garry Maddox was my favorite player growing up. I don’t really know why, since I was always a catcher. (I filled in when the fat kid got hurt, and stayed there, all the way through college.)

    This seems a bit insensitive, given the tone of today’s post, but it may be newsworthy to the regualr readers of Cardboard Gods. You can be a god yourself, for a small fee of course:


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  3. 3.  2 : Thanks for passing that info along. Sounds likes a winner. I’m particularly interested in seeing how non-baseball-playing customers are going to use the option of entering their own stats.

  4. 4.  Garry Maddox’s military service conjures up entirely different feelings than Phil Rizzuto’s or Ted Williams’, for example, for the reasons you noted.

  5. 5.  I’m sure you’re coming to this, Josh, and Joe has already hinted at it: the contrast between “gallant” military service for American baseball players, say, before 1963 and then afterwards must be stark, matching the overall experience of servicemen and women. Maddox’s noted ability to cover the earth did him very little good in Southeast Asia, but at least he lived to play another day.

    You and I are roughly the same age, so it is strange to think of concepts like involuntary military service (not so long ago, really) and apply them to today’s paradigm. Beyond all the political implications, can anyone picture the modern ballplayer in chocolate chippers, playing exhibitions in the sand or even carrying a rifle? It’s more than I can wrap my head around, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

  6. 6.  Who here has seen Jacob’s Ladder? Maybe the My Lai massacre has something to do with that?

    It is sad that they tore down the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where I live where RFK was killed. It should have been made a landmark since that killing single handedly changed the course of this country for the worse. I saw a great RFK documentary a few months ago and I had no idea how great of a president he would have made.

  7. 7.  I think there was a certain insanity to being in Vietnam compared to previous wars. The soldiers had a reason to be there and felt comforted by that at least. I wonder how serving in Vietnam affected Garry Maddox? Was he in the shit?

  8. 8.  4 , 5 :

    You could certainly argue that Maddox’s willingness to serve was more heroic than that of the guys in the 1940s, when pretty much everyone (even my pacifist dad, for example) was willing to go shoot and get shot at. I don’t know if Maddox was drafted, but the fact that he missed two entire seasons makes me think he made a larger sacrifice than the draft would have required; the tour of duty at that time was one year. Even if he was drafted, he still made a sacrifice his peers were finding ways not to make, as the great majority of pro baseball players (though maybe it was different in the minors, actually) seemed to find ways to stay away from Vietnam. I think a lot of them did so via the ol’ National Guard loophole that our current freedom-spreadin’ president slipped through oleageounosly in ’68, just when things were starting to get particularly dicey overseas.

    But yeah, I’m pretty sure nobody was having “days” for Garry Maddox (such as the kind that Tommy Heinrich and Ted Williams et al got back in the Good War). Not when he left and not when he got back, either.

  9. 9.  7 : I don’t know what Maddox did in Vietnam, and I don’t know how it affected him, but he has followed his excellent playing career with an extremely successful business career. He’s a Macher.

  10. 10.  From Baseball Reference:

    “Maddox served in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam, during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. Exposure to chemicals in Vietnam left his skin highly sensitive, and he has always since worn a full beard to protect his face.”

    I remember seeing him sitting a few rows in front of me at a Sixers game when I was probably 10 years old. My father prodded to go up to him and say hi and that I was a fan. I did go up to him, and I remember him being nice, but I mostly remember not wanting to interrupt him while he was enjoying the Sixers. (And how could you not enjoy the Sixers during the Dawkins era?)

    But I never really knew about his Vietnam service until now. Maybe in my pre-teen years, it just never sunk in. I have a new respect for him now.

  11. 11.  8 Wasn’t it only recently that the US government recognized the Vietnam War as a war and not just an exercise?

  12. 12.  10 Damn, I totally have respect for him after reading that. Maybe it was the promise of baseball when he returned home that helped him out.

    I saw first hand what that war did to one my uncles. One of the funniest mothers you could ever meet, but being in Vietnam fucked him up and he could never get over shooting at 14 year old kids who were trying to steal from their supplies. That isn’t to blame the Vietnam war on my uncles drug problems and eventual death from it, but I think it pitched in overall.

  13. 13.  I too was born feet-first and jaundiced, both literally and figuratively, but I spent my childhood (and most of my adulthood) confusing Garry Maddox with Garry Matthews.

    It didn’t hurt that they were always on the same team, having both been “drafted” by the Giants in 1968, and that both played the same position, batted right, threw right, stood 6’3″, consistently hit about .285, wore afros and beards, and had similar speed and power.

    Only Maddox was “DRAFTED” though.
    And he was better defensively, but what does that matter when you’re a ten year-old card-collecting kid who knows the players primarily from their cardboard likenesses?

    Even more confusing was that the civilian, Matthews, was known as “Sarge,” and just to exacerbate everything, Matthews later joined Maddox on the Phillies in the early ’80s, just when they seemed to be developing their own identities in card-flipping land, (or was it the other way around?).

    Furthermore each saw fit to sire a male namesake who pursued a career in professional baseball. (Obviously Matthews Jr. achieved a more lucrative stuation…. I think….)

    I am still confused, and apparently I’m not the only one.

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lists Matthews as a Vietnam Vet in a 1999 article about the firing of Blue Jay skipper Tim Johnson, ostensibly for having fabricated wild tales of his combat heroics in the jungles of ‘Nam. (He was actually a stateside reservist.)


    Did the author mean Maddox?… Am I just getting confused?… Actually, am I having deja vu? … Didn’t we already have this posting and discussion before?…

  14. 14.  Dear Josh,

    I never seem to get around to reading these, but Jenny sent me this one and I think it is a really fine piece of writing. I don’t want to say anything really fatuous, but I loved it! (so I did, anyway.)

    Warm regards, Con

  15. 15.  13 : I think the primal blurring of Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews did eventually separate for me, a little, maybe because since I’m a little younger than you and was still paying prepubescently rapt attention in the early ’80s when Sarge got clearly wider and slower than The Minister of Defense.

    14 : Thanks, Conrad! (A sample of my uncle Conrad’s poetry is available online at the site below.)


  16. 16.  Maddox is also one ex-player who was later associated with the Fed. Designated Runner Herb Washington is another.

  17. 17.  Another excellent piece, Josh. I used to know the difference between Maddox and Matthews, but I don’t anymore. I’m sure my brother, who is a life long Giants fan, and who is also named Gary, still knows the difference between them. But in 1968, when the Oakland A’s came to my city, I stopped caring much about the Giants and started loving the A’s.

    Oh, and, btw, if you’re going to bust out the three dollar words, make sure you spell them correctly, i.e. “oleaginously”. 🙂

    Just kidding, I love looking up new words in the dictionary. Hopefully I’ll never stop learning.

  18. 18.  17 : Yeah, I noticed the misspelling when it was too late and just as I was patting myself on the back for using it. D’oh!

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