Celebrating MLB's Black Aces: How Dwight Gooden became the youngest 20-game winner in incredible 1985 season with Mets

Doc Gooden is one of the 15 members of the exclusive baseball fraternity known as the Black Aces

In 2006, Jim "Mudcat" Grant wrote a book titled "The Black Aces: Baseball's Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners." Celebrated in its pages were the members of an exclusive club: The African American or Black Canadian pitchers who had won 20 or more games in one MLB season.

At the time of publication, 13 men had become Black Aces, and Grant, the first Black 20-game winner in the American League, included a chapter on each of them, as well as several Negro Leagues pitchers he believed would've accomplished the feat had they been allowed to pitch in MLB. Two other pitchers, CC Sabathia (2010) and David Price (2012), have joined the Black Aces since the book’s publication.

In this series, Yahoo Sports is highlighting the stories of the Black Aces and the seasons that made them members of this exclusive fraternity.

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The 11th Black Ace: Dwight Gooden

In 1983, Dwight Gooden started to mentally prepare himself for a demotion from the Class A Lynchburg Mets to the New York Mets’ Low-A affiliate. The then-18-year-old pitcher had started the season 0-3, and Gooden began to question whether the Mets had moved him up too soon.

But John Cumberland, who had joined Lynchburg as a pitching coach the year before, intervened and told the front office that he hadn’t had enough time with Gooden.

“‘Let me work with him,’” Gooden remembers Cumberland saying. The two then had a sit-down, and the major-league veteran asked Gooden why he didn’t try to throw inside.

The simple answer? Gooden was scared of doing so and hadn’t since his high school days in Tampa, Florida.

“In high school, I hit a kid in the head, and the paramedics came on the field, so I was afraid of pitching inside,” Gooden said in a phone interview in February 2023. “But [Cumberland] told me, ‘You got to pitch inside.’ He said, ‘If the guy's coming off of you, the next guy, just hit him in the leg and knock him down.’

“Just by pitching inside, after starting 0-3, I ended that season 19-4 with 300 strikeouts … and I got called up to Triple-A.”

[Read more: How Vida Blue's 24 wins in 1971 helped bring success back to the Oakland A's]

From Class A to the big leagues in one offseason

Gooden finished that 1983 season in Class A with a 2.50 ERA in 191 innings, 15 consecutive wins, 10 complete games and six shutouts. With one more win, he would’ve set the Carolina League record. And even though Gooden pitched 11 fewer innings than Nolan Ryan had in 1966, Gooden came up just a few strikeouts short of the Hall of Fame pitcher’s minor-league record (307) for strikeouts in a season.

Gooden won the Class A pitching Triple Crown — leading in wins, strikeouts and ERA — and Minor League Player of the Year. Then Davey Johnson, the manager of the Triple-A Tidewater Tides, called him up as the Tides prepared for the postseason.

“I won two big games for him in the playoffs, and then we won the Triple-A [International League] World Series,” Gooden said. “And [Johnson] actually told me wherever he managed the following year, he was gonna take me with him. I was thinking at least I'll be in Triple-A.”

As it turned out, Gooden’s path to the big leagues was fast-tracked. Mets manager George Bamberger had resigned during the 1983 season, and interim manager Frank Howard was not offered the full-time job after the team finished last in the NL East. Instead, Johnson was promoted, and so Gooden circled back to remind him of his promise.

“Jokingly, I said, ‘Dave, remember what you said?’” Gooden said. “He goes, ‘Oh, you're coming to spring training.' …

“[It was] the last day of spring training when Davey told me I had made the club. Once he said that, it was like I was excited, but I was more excited to tell my dad and see the expression on his face that we had made it.”

In 1985, Dwight Gooden became MLB's youngest 20-game winner at just 20 years old. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
In 1985, Dwight Gooden became MLB's youngest 20-game winner at just 20 years old. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Dr. K rises and falls in the Big Apple

For Gooden, a 19-year-old in New York City, just about everything went right from the second he arrived in Queens and put on his Mets jersey. The No. 5 pick in the 1982 MLB Draft made the rare successful jump from Class A ball to the majors in just one winter.

"Dr. K" or “Doc,” as he became known, helped the Mets make a playoff push in his first season with the big-league club in 1984. Gooden won 17 games, earned the first of four All-Star selections, won National League Rookie of the Year and led the league with 276 strikeouts. The Mets missed the postseason but finished second in the NL East with a 90-72 record.

The following year, Gooden won the NL Cy Young and the pitching Triple Crown with a league-best 24 wins, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts, along with 16 complete games. At age 20, he was the youngest pitcher in MLB history to reach the 20-win plateau. With Gooden becoming a Black Ace, the Mets went 98-64 but again finished second in the division, missing the playoffs.

Heading into the 1986 season, one of the few accomplishments left for Gooden to pursue was a World Series title, and in his third season in the bigs, he and the Mets finally got it done. The team won the division with a franchise-best 108-54 record in the regular season, and they topped the Red Sox in seven games to win the organization’s second World Series title.

Then things fell apart for Gooden, starting with his missing the team's World Series parade. As he would later admit, he was doing drugs with his dealer at the time of the celebration. The following spring, a positive test for cocaine resulted in Gooden entering a rehabilitation facility and missing a third of the season. He still finished with 15 wins that year.

The following season, in 1988, he went 18-9, and the Mets faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, losing in seven games. The remainder of Gooden’s time with the Mets was marred by substance abuse, a shoulder injury and diminished performance, and his tenure with the team ended with his suspension for the entire 1995 season due to repeated violations of MLB’s drug policy.

Gooden signed with the New York Yankees in 1996, and in addition to throwing his first career no-hitter that season, he was a serviceable member of the Yankees' rotation. That team went on to win the World Series, though Gooden was left off the postseason roster due to injuries. The no-no and championship, Gooden said, felt like a small piece of redemption after the mistakes that sent his career off-track.

Gooden also pitched with Cleveland, Houston and Tampa Bay before he retired in 2001 after being cut by the Yankees in spring training. Nine years later, the Mets inducted him into the team's Hall of Fame.

Doc Gooden threw a no-hitter with the Yankees in 1996. (Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Doc Gooden threw a no-hitter with the Yankees in 1996. (Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Gooden becomes a Black Ace with help from Mets’ bats

To the surprise of his manager and teammates, Gooden didn’t have his best fastball against the San Diego Padres on Aug. 25, 1985. After he threw 140 pitches in his previous start, maybe that should’ve been anticipated. But the Mets pitcher, winner of 13 consecutive games at that point, had been so exemplary in his brief career that such a heavy load wasn’t given much thought.

“It had a postseason atmosphere to it,” Gooden recalled of the game. “There was a lot of tension, and I was a little nervous, to be honest. But once you get that close to it, you smell it, and you're just real excited, but you're trying to keep your composure.”

The Mets were accustomed to winning easily because Gooden's fastball usually sat in the mid-90s, and opponents often couldn’t touch him. Even if New York didn’t score many runs, it regularly came out victorious because of its pitching.

But on that August day, the second-year ace needed every bit of the offensive support he received from his teammates. And knowing that Gooden was searching for his 20th win, the Mets’ bats came up huge. New York scored four runs early, led by Darryl Strawberry, who went 3-for-3 with a home run and four RBI in the game.

By the time Gooden exited after six innings, having tossed four strikeouts on 97 pitches, the Mets’ early lead had dwindled to a 4-3 edge, but the offense provided insurance in the later innings on the way to a 9-3 victory. With that, at 20 years, 9 months, 9 days old, Gooden became the youngest pitcher in MLB history to win 20 games in a season, bypassing Cleveland’s Bob Feller in 1939 (20 years, 10 months, 5 days old).

“The thing is, and this may be cheesy, but I was taking deep breaths to relax my muscles and everything,” Gooden said. “I give a lot of credit to a lot of people – my teammates, my dad, obviously. It was just very exciting being in that position. And when it happened, it was like winning the World Series — well, not winning the World Series, but close to that, so just a milestone and something that you accomplish that no one can ever take away from you.”

‘It’s a privilege and a pleasure’

Gooden’s introduction to the Black Aces began, he said, with a visit Jim “Mudcat” Grant made to his house in 1984. After watching Gooden win 19 games in his rookie season, Grant visited Gooden and his father, Dan, to discuss the history of the Black Aces, a group Gooden was on the precipice of joining. That conversation stuck with Gooden, who was 19 at the time.

“Obviously, doing it for my own career is great,” he said. “But when you’re in a minority and doing it, and you’re thinking about the guys that have done it — Vida Blue, Bob Gibson, all these guys — it’s a great honor to be mentioned in that. It’s something that you can always share with your kids and grandkids.

“To me, that’s bigger than just baseball. It’s a very small fraternity. It's definitely a great honor because you’ve accomplished so many things in your career. You have such a small group like that, it's a privilege and a pleasure, not only with great players but great people as well.”