“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
The late 1940s Boston Red Sox consisted of larger-than-life, highly paid, talented baseball men who could accomplish just about anything “except win pennants,” according to Al Hirshberg in a 1951 Saturday Evening Post article on Billy Goodman. Goodman had made his major-league debut in the spring of 1947 and was “not a glamorous slugger, not a colorful, flamboyant personality, not a magnet for autograph hounds.” In fact, he was “built like an undernourished ribbon clerk. …. Billy Goodman neither looks nor acts like a baseball star. He just goes out every day and plays the game.”
Goodman is remembered for being extraordinarily versatile, a trait that originated from his very early years; being the youngest and smallest in the neighborhood, “playing regularly” was his goal, which usually meant playing wherever and whenever he was asked to. Billy played every position on his Concord, North Carolina, high-school team. During his senior year he was part of a so-called “reversible battery” with a teammate, pitching one day and catching the next. Earl Kelly, sports editor of the Concord Tribune, told Hirshberg that the right-handed-throwing Goodman once pitched a game left-handed and did very well. He was always a left-handed batter.
Billy reported to Red Sox manager Joe Cronin at Sarasota, Florida, in March 1947 for spring training. The Red Sox had a championship team returning for the 1947 season, so little regard was given Goodman that spring. Billy’s first look at major-league pitching was in a Red Sox intrasquad game against Boo Ferriss, who had finished 25-6 the previous season. In his first time at bat, as Boston Globe reporter Roger Birtwell described it in an April 2, 1947, article in The Sporting News, Goodman reached for an outside pitch by Ferriss and with “the ease of a grocer’s clerk reaching for a package of biscuits, ripped a line double to left.”
When the 1947 season opened, Goodman was on the bench. He played in just 12 games with two hits – both singles – in 11 at-bats before being optioned in June to the Red Sox’ Triple-A Louisville farm club. Goodman started in the outfield for the Colonels, but took over at shortstop on July 15. He hit .340 for the year and finished among the top five American Association hitters. Goodman’s successful season at Louisville brought him back to Sarasota for spring training in 1948, with a new Red Sox manager in place of Cronin. Longtime New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy had come out of retirement to join the Red Sox for 1948 and faced the dilemma of where to play the versatile Goodman. When the 1948 season opened, Billy was once again perched on the bench.
He saw little action at the start, except for occasional fill-in work for Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky at second and third. When the Red Sox spiraled into a nosedive on their first Western trip – winning only one of their first seven games – McCarthy had Goodman take over at first base for the slumping Jake Jones. Billy started at first base against St. Louis on May 25, and remained there for the rest of the season, batting a solid .310 with a .414 on-base percentage and a .993 fielding average (eight errors). He was declared the club’s Rookie of the Year by the Boston baseball writers.
In spite of Goodman’s exceptional rookie year, McCarthy made slugging rookie Walt Dropo the starting first baseman in 1949, and Goodman was riding the bench again. When Dropo slumped to start the season, Goodman again got his job back, and the Red Sox began to improve. Though the club lost the pennant on the season’s final day to the Yankees, Goodman had another good season, batting .298, but missed several games in August because of a fungus condition he had contracted with the Navy that weakened and blistered his hands and legs. Goodman received strong fan support in the All-Star voting, placing second to first baseman Eddie Robinson of the Washington Senators. He substituted for Robinson at first base in the eighth inning of the July 12 game, but he did not have an at-bat.
Based on his solid performance, Billy finally had first base locked up going into the 1950 season. But fate once again struck; in the April 30 game with the Philadelphia Athletics, Goodman sustained a chip fracture to his ankle in a collision with Ferris Fain. He was batting .333 at the time. Walt Dropo was called up from Louisville and performed phenomenally, crushing home runs at a steady pace and hitting for average. Dropo won American League Rookie of the Year honors. Goodman returned after a few weeks but had lost his first-base job.
Goodman’s strength – and resiliency – was his ability to play almost anywhere defensively, infield or outfield, which enabled him to be in the lineup more often than was expected of him. When Boston players went down with injuries, Goodman was there to spell them, and he performed well most of the time. On May 24 he began substituting for injured second baseman Bobby Doerr. He played so well there that he remained in the lineup for a while after Doerr had recovered. When third baseman Johnny Pesky went down, Goodman filled in so admirably that there was speculation that Pesky had lost his job. By June Billy had already played all four infield positions, going counter-clockwise around the diamond as each regular dropped out because of injury. When Pesky returned Goodman went back to his “sub” role as a one-man bench.
On July 11 Red Sox slugger Ted Williams fractured his elbow in the All-Star Game. New Red Sox manager Steve O’Neill first tried Clyde Vollmer in left field, but turned to Goodman on July 16. He had a sensational run and appeared to be made for the left-field job. In one stretch of eight games he struck for 32 hits, a .531 pace, and was playing left field “as if to the manner born,” wrote Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, on July 28, 1950. On August 15 Dropo was beaned by the A’s Hank Wyse, knocking him out of the lineup. Goodman took over at first with Vollmer going to left. Dropo returned in four days, and Goodman – who was batting .354 – returned to left field.
Remarkably, Goodman was the league’s leading hitter and naturally people began to wonder what to do with him when Williams returned. The rest of the team was hitting well and the Sox were on a roll, winning 44 of 61 games during Ted’s absence from the regular lineup, their .721 clip moving them two games behind the league-leading Yankees. Goodman went to third base on September 15, replacing Pesky. He went on to win the American League batting title with a .354 average. He is recognized as the only major-league player ever to win a batting title without having a regular position. The Red Sox finished third, four games behind the first-place Yankees.
For his heroics on the diamond, Goodman was recognized as a candidate for the 1950 top male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. He finished 11th in the voting – Jim Konstanty of the Philadelphia Phillies won the award – among many sports notables of the day, amateur and professional. Goodman also finished second in the league MVP voting to New York shortstop Phil Rizzuto.
1953, was not looking to be a good year for the Red Sox, but it was a happy one for Billy Goodman because he bacame the full-time second baseman. This was the first time in the major leagues that Billy could call a position his own, and he was doubly pleased because he was taking over from his idol, Bobby Doerr. Goodman played on mediocre Red Sox teams from 1954 to 1956. They finished fourth each year. He continued his steady play, batting .303, .294, and .293, respectively, while often being used in utility roles. In 1957 he was being used sparingly by manager Mike Higgins, and the Red Sox traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Mike Fornieles.
Billy Goodman played in 1,623 games in his major-league career, collecting 1,691 base hits and a .300 lifetime batting average. He played in two All-Star games and one World Series. He ranks 10th all-time for on-base percentage in a season by a rookie, with a .414 percentage in 1948. In 1969, Goodman was honored by his native state, North Carolina, by being inducted into its Sports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame, inducted in 2004.