The legend of Danny Goodwin

If Stephen Strasburg is indeed taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick of Tuesday’s amateur draft, he will be the most hyped No. 1 selection in the history of a selection process that dates back to 1965. If the Nationals then fail to sign Strasburg and he re-enters the draft in 2010, he will have a chance to do something that has been done only once in the history of the sport.

Danny Goodwin is hardly a household name, but he remains the only ballplayer to be taken with the first overall pick on two different occasions. In spite of being the most heavily desired amateur player in two separate and distinct drafts, Goodwin never became the star that most talent evaluators had anticipated. Such is the crapshoot that comes with any player who is drafted, no matter how high he is taken and no matter the accompanying level of hype.

In the late 1960s, Goodwin began developing a legendary reputation as a high school ballplayer in Peoria, Illinois. An athletic but powerfully built, left-handed hitting catcher who carried 195 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, Goodwin flashed the kind of strength that left fans—and teammates—in awe. Playing in a game for Central High School in late April of 1971, Goodwin delivered the signature moment of his amateur career. Leading off the game, he blasted a gargantuan home run to right-center field, the ball clearing a hill and a driveway before it hit the second deck of a swimming pool that lay well beyond the ballpark’s boundaries. To observers of the blast, the home run not only had stunning length, but remarkable height and hang time. By the time the ball touched down against the pool structure, it had traveled over 400 feet, an unfathomable distance for a high school player swinging a wood bat.

No one happened to film or videotape the Goodwin monstrosity, but the epic home run was not missed by major league eyes. About 20 big league scouts had gathered in Peoria to watch Goodwin that day. The home run, one of nine that he would hit in his senior season, confirmed what most scouts had already suspected: Goodwin, who would hit .488 in 25 games as a senior, would be taken with the first pick of the upcoming June draft.

The Chicago White Sox owned that pick. They already had a decent left-handed hitting catcher of their own in 24-year-old Ed Herrmann, but he was no star. The White Sox had not enjoyed a standout season from a catcher since their pennant-winning campaign of 1959, when Sherm Lollar hit 24 home runs for the famed “Go Go” Sox. More importantly, the Sox considered Goodwin the best available player in the draft, someone they simply could not bypass. Even in off-the-field areas, the likeable Goodwin graded out highly; he did well in school and owned a good attitude. On all counts, the draft direction pointed toward Goodwin.

After drafting him at No. 1, the White Sox offered Goodwin a contract paying him an estimated $60,000. He turned down the less-than-impressive offer, which he believed to be worth less than a college scholarship from Southern University in Louisiana. Goodwin opted to continue his education. A highly intelligent young man who possessed interests in science and math, he enrolled at Southern, eventually becoming a zoology major. As part of his four-year tenure at Southern, Goodwin earned collegiate baseball player of the year honors.

In giving Southern University a full commitment, Goodwin kept himself ineligible for the major league draft until 1975. By then, the California Angels owned the first selection, not the White Sox. The Angels needed catching help far more badly than the White Sox. With their catching cupboard barren—unless you considered Bob Allietta, Ellie Rodriguez, or an aging Andy Etchebarren suitable starting catchers—Goodwin made perfect sense as the No. 1 choice in the land. The Angels moved quickly to sign the player who was now labeled, at least by some observers, as “the black Johnny Bench.” Goodwin accepted a reported bonus of $125,000.

Goodwin spent most of the 1975 season at Double-A El Paso, but received a call-up to Anaheim in September when rosters expanded to 40 men. Receiving 10 at-bats as a designated hitter, Goodwin picked up just one hit. Given the small sample size, few pronouncements could be made on Goodwin’s ability to stick in the major leagues.

The following year, the Angels assigned Goodwin to Single-A, a strange decision considering he had already started his pro career in Double-A. He quickly worked his way back up to El Paso, but received no return ticket to California in 1976. At the start of the 1977 season, Goodwin slugged .520 during his first taste of Triple-A pitching, earning a promotion to California, where he struggled to hit for average or power. The shuttle continued the next season. Goodwin slugged .637 for Double-A El Paso, receiving another call from the Angels, where he hit better (an OPS of .843) than his first two stints, but not well enough in limited at-bats.

Even more significantly, Goodwin had injured his shoulder early in his professional career. The injury occurred shortly before he had reported to minor league camp for the first time in 1975. After two months of post-draft inactivity, Goodwin overtaxed his arm during pre-game drills. The injury, which did not require surgery but left him with a sore right arm, sapped so much of his arm strength that he struggled to throw out runners throughout his minor league career. In 1978, opposing baserunners stole 26 bases against him without once being caught. By the middle of that season, the Angels fully realized that Goodwin could no longer catch.

With Goodwin having failed to make a breakthrough during parts of three major league seasons and his catching career behind him, the Angels decided that he would never be the player they had once foreseen. They packaged Goodwin with Ron Jackson, a young first baseman with power, and sent both to the Minnesota Twins for Disco Dan Ford, at the time an accomplished outfielder.

Goodwin’s first year in Minnesota represented improvement over his struggles and lack of playing time in Southern California. During a late-season call-up in 1979, Goodwin slugged .497 while coming to the plate a career-high 172 times. That would prove to be his best major league season. Goodwin regressed badly the next two years, resulting in his release in November of 1981.

Then came a final opportunity: employment with Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s. The audition lasted only 17 games and 57 plate appearances. Goodwin never again played in the big leagues, moving to the Far East for a lackluster season in Japan before retiring.

So why did Goodwin, a young man with a good attitude who put up big minor league numbers, fail to flourish in the major leagues? There appear to be several intertwining reasons. The shoulder injury ruined his throwing arm, taking away part of the value that had as a catcher. He would never be the black Johnny Bench. No longer able to catch—in fact, he never caught a single game in the big leagues—the Angels and Twins slotted him as a DH/first baseman. Unfortunately, he lacked the agility and footwork needed to be a good first baseman. Furthermore, he never really hit in the limited opportunities he received with either club; the lack of a strong initial impression resulted in both teams giving up on him relatively quickly, a problem that became exacerbated by the Angels’ and Twins’ frequent change of managers in the late ’70s. I suspect that if Goodwin could have continued to catch, his teams would have waited longer for his bat to arrive in the big leagues, but when he became a DH, they expected immediate, high-impact results.

If there’s a bright side to be found here, it has been Goodwin’s endeavors in his post-playing days. With his positive personality and high I.Q., Goodwin moved on to a front office position with the Atlanta Braves, becoming the team’s director of community relations. Twenty years later, he now serves as director of the Braves’ foundation, developing programs for underprivileged children in the city. He has achieved long term success off the field where it eluded him in California, Minnesota, and Oakland.

So many variables play into the equation regarding the staying power of players drafted out of high school and college. Danny Goodwin had the talent, the intelligence, and the proper attitude, but lack of health and limited opportunities proved too much to overcome. When it comes to the major league draft, there are simply no guarantees—even for an amateur legend who became a two-time No. 1 draft choice.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

References & Resources
National Baseball Hall of Fame files

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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James Fries
10 years ago

great story

Robert Porter
9 years ago

Great article…I often wondered what happen to Danny. I actually played with Danny on that Southern team before I transfered back to Jackson State. He was a great prospect!!