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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Lefty Gomez: The Life of the Party
By C. Paul Rogers III

Part of the richness of baseball is the humor the great game has generated over the years. The baseball season is a long one, with many ups and downs for even the best teams, and players, managers, and coaches have long tempered the travails of the game with healthy doses of humor directed at opponents, each other, and even themselves. One of most clever individuals in baseball history was also one of its best pitchers—Lefty Gomez of the great New York Yankee teams of the 1930s.

Vernon Louis Gomez was born in the small North Bay town of Rodeo, California on November 26, 1908, and enlivened the planet for over eighty years. He was a bit of a screwball, hence his "El Goofy" nickname, but his oddball demeanor and self-deprecating wit did not overshadow his ability as a pitcher. For thirteen years he provided his Yankee teammates with a lot of laughs and, more importantly, with topflight pitching, appearing in five World Series and winning six games without a loss for the Bronx Bombers. Lefty was certainly not goofy when the chips were down.

But, to the consternation of Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, Gomez did once stop a World Series game to watch a plane flying overhead. It was the second game of the 1936 World Series, and when Lefty came to the bench at the end of the inning, McCarthy spewed forth, "Whaddaya tryin' to do out there, ya nut! Are ya tryin' to lose the game for us?"

To which the unflappable Gomez replied, "Listen, Joe, I've never seen a pitcher lose a game by not throwing the ball."

As it was, Gomez and the Yankees won the game by the tidy score of eighteen to four. He also won the sixth game by a thirteen to five count. Afterwards he said, "I pitched two games and the Yankees could only get me 31 runs. See what I mean by hurling for the right club?"

Only Bob Feller and Lefty Grove would have been considered harder throwers than Gomez during his tenure in the major leagues. Considering how spare Lefty was at 6'2" and 165 pounds, he had remarkable velocity. Former teammate and longtime American League rival Bill Werber remembers that Gomez was so scrawny that he would have sworn Lefty could not break a pane of glass. According to Werber, "In a high wind, only the size of his feet kept him from blowing over. He was so thin that if he turned sideways to you, he would disappear from view."

The Yankees acquired Gomez in 1930 from the San Francisco Seals for the tidy sum of $35,000. Yankee general manager Ed Barrow was told that Lefty weighed about 175 pounds, but when Gomez reported to spring training he was closer to 150 pounds. He spent much of the season with St. Paul in the American Association before joining the Yankees near the end of the year, where he compiled an unimpressive 2–5 record along with an equally unimpressive 5.55 earned run average. Barrow told him to go on a milk and egg diet in the off-season to put on some weight.

"Put on twenty pounds, young man," said Barrow, "and you'll make them forget Lefty Grove."

Lefty later said, "I put on the twenty pounds and damn near made them forget Lefty Gomez." The story, like many that Lefty told on himself, is apocryphal. He went 21–9 in 1931, his first full season in the majors.

Lefty won twenty or more games four times, peaking with a 26–5 record in 1934. His lifetime record was 189 wins against only 102 losses for a remarkable .649 winning percentage. Asked to what he attributed his success, he gave the well known line, "Clean living and a fast outfield." Another time when asked about an inning in which three hard-hit balls were run down and caught by his outfielders, Lefty quipped, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

After his stellar pitching record in 1934, Lefty slumped to 12–15 in 1935. Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert proposed cutting Gomez's salary from $20,000 to $7,500. Lefty's response was "you keep the salary. I'll take the cut."

Lefty was reportedly all business on the mound, with left foot anchored and his big right foot kicking high, the skinny left arm snapping like a willow tree branch in a high wind. On a hot August day, one would have thought he would melt out there. According to Werber, however, the guy never seemed to break a sweat and enjoyed pitching in the heat, watching everyone else swelter. The legendary Grantland Rice once wrote of Gomez after Lefty defeated Carl Hubbell in the 1937 World Series: "[H]e is on the nervous side but when the showdown arrives he has the nerves of an oyster or a clam."

Early in his career he began dating his future wife, June O'Dea, one of the stars of the successful Broadway musical comedy Of Thee I Sing. Later they would marry and spend their lives together, but after they got engaged, June came to watch Lefty pitch for the first time. In fact, it was the first major league game she had attended. Lefty lost 1–0 in extra innings, and afterwards June sought to console him.

"Don't let it worry you," she said. "You'll beat 'em tomorrow."

"Tomorrow!" exclaimed Gomez. "Who the hell do you think you're marrying—Iron Man McGinnity?"

Not only was Gomez great with the one liners, he had a genuinely quirky personality. One rainy day in Philadelphia he tried to put through a telephone call to Johannesburg, South Africa. Lefty did not know anyone there but thought it would be interesting to talk to someone in Johannes-burg. Another time while lobby-sitting and watching some goldfish swim around in a bowl, he came up with the idea of a revolving goldfish bowl to make life easier for the older goldfish.

Lefty was pretty much a washout with the bat. Babe Ruth once bet him $500 that he could not get 10 hits in an entire season. According to Lefty, he got four hits on opening day and then "went into a 42-game hitting slump."

He could always see the humor in his travails at the plate. "They throw, I swing," he said. "Every once in a while they're throwing where I'm swinging and I get a hit."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2001 issue.

C. PAUL ROGERS III is co-author with his boyhood hero Robin Roberts of The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, and with Bill Werber of the forthcoming Memories of a Ballplayer: Bill Werber and Baseball in the 1930s. His real job is as a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

© 2001 C. Paul Rogers III

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