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This Day in Yankees History: A Leap of Faith with Lefty Gomez- August 17, 1929

Lefty Gomez on his 1936 Goudey Gum baseball card (now in the public domain).
Lefty Gomez on his 1936 Goudey Gum baseball card (now in the public domain).

Although the New York Yankees are more well-known for their legendary hitters like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, they have certainly had their fair share of terrific pitchers too. Whitey Ford is unquestionably the greatest pitcher in team history, but prior to his success with the Yankees, another southpaw could have made a claim on that title. It was on this date 83 years ago that the Yankees purchased him from the same team that DiMaggio would star for a few later--the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. That pitcher's name was Vernon Gomez, better known as simply "Lefty."

Like DiMaggio, he was a California native, but unlike DiMaggio, he actually had an affable personality. Gomez was nicknamed "Goofy," and in his later years, he could spin a yarn as well as any old-time ballplayer. Even in his Hall of Fame induction speech, he said, "I want to thank all my teammates who scored so many runs; Joe DiMaggio, who ran down so many of my mistakes, and Johnny Murphy, without whose relief pitching I wouldn't be here.'' Gomez was modest. Run support, defense, and relief pitching can only go so far to preserving wins. Gomez did not win the pitching triple crown twice on a fluke.

Back in '29 though, Gomez was just a kid of unusual Spanish/Irish roots from California. Before joining the Yankees, he made a name for himself as a 19-year-old with the Salt Lake City Bees of the Class C Utah-Idaho League. Though he sported a 12-16 record, his 3.48 ERA stood out in a hitter-friendly league, and he jumped to his hometown Seals in '29 after they recruited him. In another league more generous to hitters than pitchers, the 20-year old excelled again, winning 18 games with a 3.44 ERA in 267 innings. The Yankees had scouts in the area, having signed second baseman Tony Lazzeri from the PCL's Salt Lake City team several years prior, and they were seeking arms to replace some of the stalwarts of their great 1920s rotation. In '29, both Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock posted their worst seasons by ERA+ (91 and 79 respectively) since they were young pitchers in Boston more than a decade ago. The Yankee recognized the value of a good lefthander like Gomez in Yankee Stadium, where he could neutralize lefties aiming for the short porch in right field and not be victimized by long drive to "Death Valley" in left field.

The Yankees tracked Gomez and liked what they saw, so on August 17, 1929, they purchased him from the Seals. Originally, the Yankees were going to send two players to the Seals as well, but that did not come to fruition. Accounts of how much Gomez was sold for has varied, with one report from '29 stating the price as $30,000 and his '89 obituary mentioning a $35,000 price tag. Further confusing matters is Gomez's Baseball-Reference page, which kicks the price even higher, to $45,000. Regardless of what the price really was, the Yankees would certainly get their money's worth. They let him finish the year in San Francisco before reporting to them in 1930.

Gomez struggled in his first year, pitching to a 2-5 record with a 5.55 ERA in 60 innings before he was sent down to AA St. Paul, where he straightened himself out the rest of the year (8-4, 4.08 ERA in 86 innings). He returned to the Yankees the next Spring, and went on to have one of the best seasons of his career in '31, winning 21 games while pitching to a 2.67 ERA (150 ERA+) and striking out 150 batters. Wins were a more legitimate statistic to cite in that era since pitchers often completed their outings, granting them further chances to win; Gomez completed 17 of 26 starts in '31. The Yankees finished second in the AL behind the 107-win Philadelphia Athletics, but Gomez was entrenched in the rotation. He did not pitch quite as well in '32 due to an increase in H/9 from 7.6 to 9.0, and his ERA jumped to 4.21 (97 ERA+). The 1,000-run offense helped him in 24 games anyway, and the Yankees won the World Series in a sweep over the Chicago Cubs with Gomez winning Game 2 by a score of 5-2 in a complete game effort.

From '33-'39, Gomez was dominant in his prime, winning 118 games and pitching to a 3.08 ERA (139 ERA+) with 989 strikeouts. He also made each of the first seven AL All-Star teams. As previously mentioned, he twice won the pitching Triple Crown, pulling the trick in both '34 (26 wins, 2.33 ERA, 158 K) and '37 (21 wins, 2.33 ERA, 194 K). Gomez completed approximately 57% of his starts in this seven-year period, and he led the league in shutouts three times. The Yankees won four World Series in a row with Gomez and righthander Red Ruffing leading the pitching staff, and Gomez improved his postseason pitching line to a sterling 6-0 with a 2.86 ERA. Had the World Series MVP been awarded then, Gomez might have won in '37 for defeating the New York Giants in both the opening and closing games of the five-games series with complete games performances, combining the two starts for a stellar 1.50 ERA. His performance declined in the '40s and he left the Yankees after '42, only to retire a season later.

When Gomez left the game, he had the best K/9 rate in team history (5.29), the third-best ERA+ (125) and trailed only Ruffing in wins (189 to 219) and strikeouts (1,468 to 1,483). It should be noted though that Ruffing added these extra counting statistics in 670.1 more innings, an extra two seasons. Gomez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in '72, and the Yankees gave him a Monument Park plaque in '87. The prolific Yankee offense certainly helped him, but given Gomez's superb ERA+ (still sixth in team history among starters), it is evident that he likely would have succeeded in any era.

The Yankees would have faced a more difficult time succeeding the '30s without Gomez, and they signed him 83 years ago today.

Aside: I highly recommend checking out this YouTube video discussing a book that recently came out about Gomez written by Lawrence Goldstone with the help of Gomez's daughter, Vernona. It looks like it would be a great read, and the home video footage of DiMaggio and Ruth in the video is just awesome.