Marv Goodwin’s professional baseball career began with great promise in the spring of 1916. With a blazing fastball, a puzzling spitball, and great control, the young man showed the potential to become a major league star. He was one of the 17 pitchers to benefit from the spitter’s “grandfather clause,” throwing the wet one legally after the pitch was otherwise outlawed in the majors. Yet just ten years into his pro career, his life came to a tragic end. Goodwin perished in a plane crash, his early potential left largely unfulfilled.
Marvin Mardo Goodwin was born in Gordonsville, Virginia, on January 16, 1891. Of English and French ancestry, Marvin was a son of Susie May Boughan and P. M. Goodwin. Marvin attended a Baptist elementary school in Gordonsville, graduated from Gordonsville High School, and attended college for two years in New London, Connecticut. An educated guess is that this was the U.S. Revenue Cutter Academy, which was renamed the Coast Guard Academy in 1915.
When Clark Griffith of the Washington Nationals offered him a contract to play Organized Baseball, Goodwin was already 25 years old. (He had tried out with the Hartford Senators of the Class B Eastern Association in 1914, but lacked control.) Marv was an established star with his hometown semipro team in Gordonsville and had a good position as a telegraph operator with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was not eager to give up his job unless it was for one with brighter prospects. Griffith told him that he had a great opportunity to make more money by playing professional baseball. To encourage the young man, the railroad agreed to let Goodwin off for several months to try his luck.
On March 27, 1916, Goodwin signed a contract with Washington, which optioned him to the Richmond club of the International League. Under the option agreement Goodwin remained the property of the Washington club. Goodwin was the first player to be optioned by Griffith, who believed that the youngster had a very good chance of becoming a major league pitcher. Goodwin did not last long in Richmond. Manager Billy Smith, claiming to be overstocked with pitchers, returned him to Washington on April 21. Griffith said he still had confidence that Goodwin in time would make a good pitcher and that he intended to place him with some other club where he would be given the opportunity to play regularly. That club turned out to be Martinsburg of the Class D Blue Ridge League. At Martinsburg Goodwin won 19 games, while losing 12. He led the league in wins, innings pitched, games, complete games, and shutouts. He started 31 games and completed all of them, with nearly one-third (10) being shutouts.
Toward the end of the 1916 season Goodwin was recalled to Washington and made his major league debut on September 7, 1916. He appeared in three games for the Nationals, all in relief, and pitched a total of five and two-thirds innings, during which he gave up two earned runs.
In 1917 Goodwin started the season with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Clark Griffith appealed to the national baseball commission to overturn Milwaukee’s draft claim, saying he had never relinquished Washington’s rights, but the decision went against him. By July Marvin had won eight games against nine losses, but had a sparkling 1.91 earned run average. On July 19, he was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for a reported $6,000 in cash and four players. The Brewers made the deal in part because Marv — as an expert telegraph operator with no dependents — was likely to be drafted to serve his country in World War I. After his return to the majors, Goodwin won six games and lost four for the Cardinals that season. He completed six (including three shutouts) of the 12 games he started and had an earned run average of 2.21.
Before the calendar year 1917 was over, Goodwin had joined the United States Army Air Corps. On December 6, 1917, The Sporting News reported his enlistment with these words:
“Pitcher Marvin Goodwin of the St. Louis Cardinals, just entering upon what had every indication of being a brilliant major league career, has sacrificed all that means to a young man and with the statement that he couldn’t feel right by holding back when his country called, had joined the army’s aviation department. His loss will be a severe one to the Cardinal owners, but they unite in bidding him good luck and congratulations. Goodwin was the most expensive player purchased last year, the Cardinals paying Milwaukee $15,000 in cash and player value for him. In his short career as a Cardinal he pitched good ball and was considered well worth all he cost. Goodwin expects to take a six week training course and then join the American flyers going to France. May he do his full duty and yet be spared to return and play ball is the wish of every fan.”
On February 21, 1918, a St. Louis newspaper published a cartoon of an airplane pilot throwing a baseball out of the cockpit and hitting a German soldier on the ground, a photograph of Goodwin in his army uniform, and this note about the young man:
“Marvin Goodwin, St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, who gave up prospects of a major league baseball career to take a chance with Old Uncle Sam, was in St. Louis the other day on his way from a ground school in the East to San Antonio, where he will get his second course in flying as a member of the Army aviation corps. It so happens that the Cardinals, his old team, train at San Antonio and so Goodwin will be with them, though not of them. If steadiness, gameness and devotion to purpose are the things that go to make up a successful aviator then Goodwin should make his mark in the clouds. He showed all these qualities in his brief career as a Cardinal. He was sent right to the firing line when he reported as a minor leaguer and he performed like a seasoned veteran. Over night he became a popular favorite with the fans of the Mound City and the news that he had quit the team for the Big Game caused a pull in their hearts. Their best wishes go with him. They know he has the stuff heroes are made of and that he is just what Uncle Sam needs, and they will watch and pray that when his duty has been well done and the war won, he will come back to them, spared to again take his place in the old pitcher’s box none the worse for wear.”
After the war Goodwin pitched for the Cardinals in 1919 and 1920. Though he had a solid year in 1919 (11-9, 2.51 ERA), he was not very effective in 1920 (3-8, 4.95). This may explain why, according to the New York Times (May 13, 1922), St. Louis offered him to either the Washington Nationals or the Philadelphia Phillies, but sent him to their farm club, Houston of the Texas League, when neither of those proposals was accepted. Marv split the 1921 and 1922 seasons between the Cards and Houston, but he pitched just 14 major-league games in 1921 and a mere two the next year. He spent the entire 1923 and 1924 seasons with the Buffaloes. On May 29, 1924, he replaced Hunter Hill as manager, also going 17-17 on the mound.
In 1925 Goodwin had one of his most successful seasons in his entire baseball career. Poor health had held him back early the previous season, but that spring he was 15 pounds heavier than at any time in 1924, and was expecting a fine year. He delivered: As manager he guided the Buffs to a second-place finish in the Texas League — but as a pitcher he won 21 games and lost only nine, the only 20-win season in his professional career. Shortly before the end of the season he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, on the condition that he stick with the Reds at least 30 days the following season before the deal would become final.
The last game Goodwin pitched in Organized Baseball came on the final day of the season in 1925. The newly crowned National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates came to Cincinnati and closed out the season with a doubleheader on October 4. Marvin pitched a complete game in the opener, but lost 4-2. After his great season in Houston, at the age of 34 Goodwin was going to get another chance at the major league stardom that had thus far eluded him. His performance in Houston was evidence that he still had the ability to be an good pitcher. His acquisition by the Reds must have given him reason to be optimistic about the future in the autumn of 1925.
Then tragedy struck only two weeks after Goodwin pitched his final game for the Reds. Following his wartime service Marvin had remained in the Army Air Service Reserve. On October 18 First Lieutenant Marvin Goodwin, an excellent flyer, took a plane up at Ellington Field, Texas. At an altitude of 200 feet the plane went into a tailspin and crashed. Early reports said that only the pilot’s superb handling of the plane saved his life and that of his mechanic, Staff Sgt. W. H. McGrath, who suffered only slight injuries.
Goodwin (who was never married) lay badly injured in a Houston hospital, but it was not known immediately that the crash would prove fatal. However, he was so badly mangled that he lived less than three days. Both his arms and his legs were broken in several places, and he received terrible internal injuries. He died at Baptist Hospital in Houston at 5:05 a. m. on October 21 at the age of 34. The official death certificate listed the cause of death as fracture at the base of the skull with multiple fractures of the limbs as contributing factors. Goodwin was the first active big-leaguer to lose his life in a plane crash. (Tom Burr, who played one game with the Yankees in 1914, died when his U.S. Army Air Service plane went into a lake in Cazaux, France just before the end of World War I.)
The Sporting News paid tribute: “Marvin was a gentleman and an athlete of whom baseball can be proud… Lieutenant Goodwin sacrificed his life in behalf of his country. No person can do more.”
This biography is adapted from the chapter on Marvin Goodwin in Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 2006.
Goodwin’s file, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY
The Sporting News
New York Times
Galveston Daily News