In these days of political correctness and binders, we have fewer and fewer real characters among our ballplayers. The Yankees haven't had a first-class wiseass since David Cone left the building. The world has become more buttoned down and baseball has become a solemn business, so it's refreshing to look back on perhaps the most eccentric character to ever wear pinstripes.
Vernon "Lefty" Gomez was the greatest wiseguy in Yankee history. He was the Yankees' first Hispanic star and a Hall-of-Fame pitcher with the Yankees from 1930 to 1942. His career totals are 189-102 with a 3.34 ERA, and he played his entire career with the Yankees except for one start for Washington in 1943. In the World Series, he was 6-0 with a 2.86 ERA and played on six world-championship teams (1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1941).
He was an even better comedian:
- His philosophy? "I'd rather be lucky than good."
- The secret of his pitching success? "Clean living and a fast outfield."
- How did he approach pitching? "Make your best pitch and back up third base."
- Even among pitchers, he was a lousy hitter: "I never even broke a bat until last year when I was backing out of the garage."
- On losing a few feet off his fastball: "I'm throwing as hard as I ever did, but the ball just isn't getting there as fast."
Gomez coined the term gopher ball (although Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain may now own the trademark). When Gomez had been roughed up in a game, a reporter asked what he had thrown. He said it was a special pitch, "nobody else uses it either." He called it his "go-fer" ball. "I just throw it natural," he said. "You saw it go-fer two bases, go-fer three bases, and three times it went for a home run."
Gomez was one of the few people - maybe the only one - who could bust Joe DiMaggio's chops.
When DiMaggio broke in, he and Gomez were roommates on the road (the Yankee Clipper and the Yankee Quipper). On Sundays, Gomez would take DiMaggio to early-morning Mass. One time, Gomez asked the ushers if he could help take up the collection. Being baseball fans, they readily agreed. Gomez made sure he had DiMaggio's pew. The notoriously cheap DiMaggio put $1 in the basket, and Gomez kept the basket in front of him. DiMaggio put in $5, and Gomez tapped him on the chest with the basket. DiMaggio dug deeper and put in $20. By this time, DiMaggio was beet red and the other parishioners were snickering.
DiMaggio loved comic books but didn't want fans to know because he thought it was undignified. Once, the Yankees' train arrived in the terminal and Gomez went to the nearest newsstand, picked up the most lurid comic book he could find and yelled, "Hey, Joe, is this the one you wanted?" Again, DiMaggio turned beet red.
No occasion was too solemn for Gomez's wit. On May 2, 1939, when Lou Gehrig removed himself from the lineup after 2,130 consecutive games, Gomez consoled his buddy, "Hell, Lou, it took 15 years to get you out of the game. Sometimes I'm out in 15 minutes."
On rare occasions, he would even screw around during a blowout game. He had taken notice of newspaper stories praising second-baseman Tony Lazzeri as a heady player. On one occasion, with no runners on, a ball was hit back to Gomez, who turned and threw to an understandably surprised Lazzeri. "I keep hearing what a smart player you are," Gomez yelled, "so I just wanted to see what you'd do with the ball."
In the late ‘40s, Gomez was managing Whitey Ford in the minors and had a 10 p.m. curfew. The carnival was in town and the players were at the carnival. At about 9:30, Ford decided to take one last ride on the Ferris wheel before going to bed. Seeing this, Gomez snuck up to the ride operator and slipped him a few dollars to keep the Ferris wheel going until 10:15. When Ford got back to the team hotel, Gomez was waiting for him. Ford explained what had happened, but Gomez rolled his eyes, shook his head in disbelief and fined him a few dollars for breaking curfew.
Gomez didn't lose his touch in retirement. When the first men landed on the moon in 1969, Gomez said that if Neil Armstrong found an unidentified white object on the lunar surface, it was probably the long home run Jimmie Foxx had hit off him in 1933.
Even as Gomez's health declined in his later years, his sense of humor remained. In the 1980s, he went to the hospital for chest pains and had to walk up a significant hill to get to the hospital. "Helluva way to admit a heart patient," he told the admissions desk. He underwent surgery. When he awoke in the recovery room, the doctor told him that he had just had a triple bypass. "First triple I ever got," Gomez replied.
Gomez was a gossip-column star, too. His on again/off again marriage to actress June O'Dea filled the tabloids in the 1930s with trips to Reno and Mexico for quickie divorces and other shenanigans. They reconciled and remained married for nearly 56 years. As Gomez lay on his deathbed, O'Dea whispered to him, "Vernon, I loved being Mrs. Lefty Gomez. Every minute of it."