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Up-Close Bio of a Hall of Famer
on June 6, 2012
They didn't call Vernon Louis Gomez "Goofy" for nothing. The New York Yankees pitcher was never much of a hitter, especially when up against the likes of Bob Feller, the young fireballer for the Cleveland Indians. In a late afternoon game on a misty day, when Feller's fastball was hopping and the sun was going down, Gomez came to the batter's box and pulled out a match. As he lit it, the umpire asked, "You think that's going to help you see the ball?"
"No," said Gomez, "I just want to be sure Feller can see me!"
"Lefty" Gomez was one of the great wits of baseball, as much loved and admired for his humor and generosity as for his skills on the mound. He was the backbone of the New York Yankees pitching staff through the 1930s, winning twenty games or more in four of his fourteen Major League seasons. With Gomez on the mound, the Yankees won five American League pennants and five World Series (1932, 1936-39, finishing second in the league in 1931 and 1933-35). Lefty also was the winning pitcher in the first Baseball All-Star Game in 1933, and he would be named to the American League team for the six following seasons. Gomez's career stats are not spectacular - overall he won 189 games and lost 102, with a 3.34 earned run average (per nine-inning game) - but that's still the fourth highest winning percentage, .649, among pitchers who started their careers between 1900 and 1950 and had 200 decisions or more, and fifteenth highest among 200+ pitchers all-time.
Lefty was born in 1908 to a big American family (Spanish-Portuguese father, Welsh-Irish mother) on the shores of San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco. Early on, he found a passion for baseball and developed into an effective southpaw with a blazing fastball. After several years of sandlot and semipro ball in the Bay area, he played for a minor league team in Salt Lake City and then for the fabled San Francisco Seals of the old Pacific Coast League before the Yankees bought his contract prior to the 1930 season. The Lanky Yankee played alongside such pinstripe legends as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie "Red" Ruffing, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, and many others who graced Yankee Stadium in the `30s and early `40s. It was not a long career - eight really productive seasons before a shoulder injury in 1939 precipitated a slow decline. He pitched only twenty-seven innings in 1940, then went 15-5 in helping the Yankees win the 1941 pennant. But Lefty was so erratic that year that he didn't pitch in the World Series victory over Brooklyn, and after a 6-4 season in 1942, the Yankees cut him loose. Lefty would pitch one game for the Washington Senators in 1943 - his last loss - before hanging up his cleats.
Fortunately, Lefty's life off the field was largely a happy one. In 1933 he married June O'Dea, a New York showgirl, and they would eventually have four children in more than fifty years of wedlock. Out of the majors, Lefty worked a few odd gigs before latching on to a long-time job doing sales and promotional work for the Wilson Sporting Goods Co., a position he held for almost four decades before his death in 1989. Lefty's ingratiating personality and humor made him a favorite on the after-dinner speaker circuit, and he also traveled abroad extensively, especially in Latin America, as a baseball instructor and coach.
One might be justifiably wary of any biography written by a son or daughter, but Vernona (Lefty's oldest child) and her collaborator, Lawrence Goldstone, keep a respectable distance from the father-daughter relationship. There's no doubt that this is an affectionate, even adoring portrait of her father and mother (indeed, the book might better be titled "Lefty and June" because of the prominence the ballplayer's wife receives in some chapters). But the authors also include some less pleasant episodes - marital discord, a miscarriage, the death of a son, Lefty's bout with alcoholism in his later years - and handle them openly and without sensation. Vernona must have worked on this book for many years, as she includes accounts based on interviews with a host of old-time players, wives, and other observers, most now regrettably gone.
LEFTY is not only a good picture of this talented, entertaining ballplayer - who finally won admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 - but gives a flavorful view of the Yankees in the `30s, struggling in the early part of the decade and then roaring back in the late `30s to the glory days of Joltin' Joe and the Bronx Bombers. Fans of baseball, and baseball history, will find LEFTY a worthwhile read.