Gomez, Vernon Louis ("Lefty")

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GOMEZ, Vernon Louis ("Lefty")

(b. 26 November 1909 in Rodeo, California; d. 17 February 1989 in Larkspur, California), quick-witted, left-handed Yankee pitcher of the 1930s and one of the top World Series pitchers of all time.

Gomez was of Irish-Spanish extraction and descended from the early settlers of California. His father, Manuel Gomez, was probably a dairy farmer; his mother's name is listed in sources as both Mary and Elizabeth. Gomez grew to be a six-foot, two-inch string bean with a throwing arm that attracted scouts by the time he was sixteen and pitching for semiprofessional teams near San Francisco. Nick Williams, the manager of the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals, signed him to a professional contract and sent him to Salt Lake City of the Utah-Idaho League in 1928. Promoted to the Seals in 1929 at age nineteen, he put together an 18–11 record in 267 innings, prompting the Yankees to purchase him at the end of the year for a reported $35,000. Although he made the Yankees out of spring training in 1930, the manager Bob Shawkey sent him to the American Association's Saint Paul team for more seasoning and to put on weight after his first fifteen appearances with the big club produced a disappointing 2–5 record. With Saint Paul, Gomez won eight while losing four.

Gomez made the Yankees again in 1931 and quickly became one of the top pitchers in the American League, winning twenty-one games and losing only nine in 243 innings. His 2.63 earned run average was second in the league to the great Lefty Grove. When Cy Perkins, a long-time catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics, joined the Yankees as a coach, he turned Gomez into the team's ace, helping him harness his wildness. The following year Gomez led the Yankees to the World Series with a 24–7 record, defeating the thrice-defending champion Athletics seven times on the way to the pennant. He began his World Series dominance that year, defeating the Chicago Cubs 5–2 in game two as the Yankees swept the series.

In 1933 Gomez was the American League starting and winning pitcher in the first All-Star game. During his career he started five All-Star games, winning three and losing one. He finished 16–10 as the Yankees failed to repeat, finishing seven games behind the Washington Senators. On 26 February of that year he married the Broadway star June O'Dea. Although they had a well-publicized breakup in the early years of their marriage, they reconciled, were married fifty-five years, and had four children together.

The newly married Gomez pitched brilliantly in 1934, winning twenty-six games while losing just five. He led the league in seven major categories including wins, winning percentage (.839), earned run average (2.33), complete games (25), innings (282), strikeouts (158), and shutouts (tied with 6). After a mediocre 1935 the Yankees, bolstered by the rookie Joe DiMaggio, returned to the World Series in 1936, aided significantly by Gomez's 13–7 record. Gomez won game two (18–4) and game six (13–5) of the series as the Yankees defeated the New York Giants four games to two.

Gomez's on-field antics were legendary and earned him the nicknames "El Goofy," the "Gay Caballero," and the "Singular Castilian." It was during the second game of the 1936 World Series that he stood on the mound and watched an airplane fly overhead, delaying the game. He had a quirky personality off the field as well. One rainy day he tried to call Johannesburg, South Africa, just to talk to someone there. On another occasion he came up with the idea of a revolving goldfish bowl "to make life easier for the older goldfish."

Gomez roomed with DiMaggio for several years and was his closest friend on the team. It was to DiMaggio that he mainly referred when asked to what he attributed his success. "Clean living and a fast outfield," was his classic reply. Another time after an inning in which three hits were run down and caught by his outfielders, he quipped, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

In 1937 Gomez reentered the twenty-win circle, putting together a 21–11 record to lead the Yankees to their second straight pennant. He again led the league in wins, earned run average (2.33), strikeouts (194), and shutouts (6). The Yankees again defeated the cross-river Giants in the World Series, this time four games to one, as Gomez opened and closed the series with victories in game one (8–1) and game five (4–2). Both of his wins were complete games and his earned run average for the series was a sparkling 1.50.

The following year, the Yanks won their third consecutive pennant as Gomez went 18–12. In 1938 they again swept the Chicago Cubs and Gomez won his sixth World Series game without a defeat, winning the second game 6–3 in come-from-behind fashion. Down three to two, he escaped a bases-loaded jam; then in the top of the eighth he left for a pinch hitter still trailing in the game. But the Yankees rallied to win, thanks to a two-run homer by the light-hitting Frankie Crosetti; the reliever Johnny Murphy saved the victory for Gomez. In the latter years of Gomez's career, Murphy became almost his appendage, saving countless ball games for him. Gomez was appreciative and used his wonderful wit to show it. Once when asked how long he planned to pitch, he answered, "As long as Murphy's arm holds out."

Gomez struggled with various ailments during the last years of his career, managing to post a 12–8 record in 1939 despite a pulled muscle and stiff neck. After a sore arm almost completely sidelined him in 1940, he came back with a 15–5 record in 1941. The problem returned in 1942 when he threw only eighty innings on his way to a 6–4 record. During that year a sportswriter asked Gomez about the manager Joe McCarthy: "Smart manager, isn't he Lefty?" Quick as a wink, Gomez replied, "He must be. He hasn't asked me to pitch in over a month."

Gomez finished his active playing career in 1942 by pitching and losing one game with the Washington Senators. For his career he compiled 189 wins against 102 losses for an outstanding .649 winning percentage. He won twenty more games four times and opponents could manage only a .242 batting average against him overall.

He never lost his quick wit. Shortly after his retirement from baseball, he was called upon to fill out a job application form. In the "reason for leaving last employment" blank, Gomez wrote, "Couldn't get anybody out." He managed Yankee farm clubs for several years, lending his humor to the enterprise. Once while coaching third base for the Binghamton Triplets, his team had runners on first and second when the batter singled to center. The lead runner rounded third, then hesitated and came sliding back into the base just as the runner from first slid into third from the other side. Gomez let out a loud whoop and joined them with a slide into third from the coach's box.

He worked for many years for the Wilson Sporting Goods Company before retiring to the banquet circuit, where current events gave him new material. When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, he and other scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were puzzled by an unidentified white object on the surface. Gomez quipped that he immediately knew what it was, "A home-run ball Jimmie Foxx hit off me in 1937."

Gomez kept his sense of humor to the end of his life. He suffered from congestive heart failure and, about a week before his death, a doctor leaned over his hospital bed and asked him, "Lefty, picture yourself on the mound and rate the pain from one to ten." Gomez looked at the doctor and replied, "Who's hitting, Doc?" Gomez died on 17 February 1989 and is buried in Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, California.

Lefty Gomez was one of the finest clutch pitchers of his generation and the ace of many of the great New York Yankee teams of the 1930s. Most notable in addition to his prowess on the mound was his legendary sense of humor, most often aimed at himself. He was one of the great wits in the history of sports.

No full-scale biography of Gomez exists, but the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, houses material on his career. See also chapters on Gomez in Arthur Daley, Times at Bat: A Half Century of Baseball (1950); Tom Meany, Baseball's Greatest Pitchers (1951); and Tom Meany, The Greatest Yankees of Them All (1969). A more recent article focusing on Gomez's wit is "Lefty Gomez: The Life of the Party," Elysian Fields Quarterly 18, no. 1 (2001).

C. Paul Rogers III

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