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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #23 Lefty Gomez

A full life lived — from world traveler to World Series Champion.

Lefty Gomez Photo By: Tom Watson/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Name: Vernon Louis “Lefty” Gomez
Position: Pitcher
Born: November 26, 1908 (Rodeo, CA)
Died: February 17, 1989 (Greenbrae, CA)
Yankee Years: 1930-42
Primary number: 11
Yankee statistics: 367 G, 2498.1 IP, 189-101, 3.34ERA, 125 ERA+, 34.0 fWAR, 39.8 rWAR

Biography

Lefty Gomez was a quick-witted man with a knack for winning in the biggest moments. His sense of humor and joy for the game represents the type of ballplayer he was—but his stats exemplify a pitcher whose own self-depreciation could not downplay his dominance on the mound. One of the better pitchers during the power era of the 1930’s, Lefty Gomez was a six-time World Series Champion and was named to the All-Star Game seven times. Son of a cowboy, his humble rancher roots paved the way for what would be a Hall of Fame career. Lefty Gomez is #23 on our Yankees Top 100 list.

Blue Collar Beginnings

Lefty Gomez grew up in Rodeo, California, northeast of San Francisco. You would think that being the youngest of eight children would come with the perks of avoiding manual labor in the family, but not for Lefty. His father—whose nickname was Coyote—managed a ranch, and his mother owned dairy cows. From the earliest of ages, Lefty and his siblings were tasked with working on the ranch and at their families’ homestead before attending school.

If anyone was to fuel the narrative of what the youngest child of a family represents, it was Lefty. He was open-minded, witty, and saw the world through a lens of possibility and not restraint. From a young age, Lefty used his blue-collar roots to fund his growing list of hobbies and passions. His love for the saxophone prompted eight-year-old Gomez to get a job at the local butcher to raise money for lessons. Butchering and plucking the feathers off of chickens to play the saxophone at just nine-years-old—that takes motivation. And motivated he was, following a trip to the San Francisco World’s Fair, to explore the world beyond the confines of Rodeo, California. It is a motivation that would not only lead to success on the baseball field but also open up a life of discovery and curiosity.

From Sandlots to Seals

Lefty’s life oftentimes felt more like a movie script than reality. He found his passion for baseball at a young age, eventually making his name on the sandlot baseball fields of California. Even with a father who did not support his love for baseball, at just 14-years-old, his talent was undeniable. While his abilities were evident, his slender frame was holding him back. It would be a theme that followed him throughout his entire baseball career. Impressive enough to get a tryout in the Pacific Coast League, but too slender to be given a chance, Gomez got a summer job scraping sludge for Union Oil.

The local kid with big-city aspirations was not deterred. Even a train ride to a high school outside of Rodeo, because the local school did not have a baseball team, wasn’t enough to prevent Gomez from pursuing baseball. After turning down a scholarship to college, Gomez signed a contract with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. However, scouts were still concerned about his physical attributes and he was sent to the Utah-Idaho League for the season. His big break came in an exhibition game the following spring when the Seals played the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gomez came on in relief after the starter got shelled, giving up only two hits in over eight innings of work. The following season Gomez remained with the Seals full-time. A strong summer caught the eye of the Yankees, who acquired the rights to the young southpaw for $35,000.

1939 WORLD SERIES - New York Yankees v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

The Big Break

This story always seems to find its way back to odd circumstances and odd jobs. 1930 was a unique year for the budding baseball star. The Yankees never advanced a train ticket to Gomez before his first big-league spring training, thus forcing Lefty to get a job at Universal Studios in Hollywood the winter before to save enough money to get to St. Petersburg, Florida. Gomez’s career got off to a fast start, but not in the way he would have hoped. During his first spring training with the Yankees, a line drive hit him in the mouth during a game against the Cardinals, which required extensive dental work. Despite the adversity, Gomez made the team and made his first major appearance out of the bullpen on April 29, 1930, in a tied game against the Washington Senators. He gave up one run over four innings but took the loss as the Yankees failed to score the remainder of the game. His first start—and first major league win—came on May 5th of that same year against the Chicago White Sox. He pitched a complete game, surrendering only one run.

His hot start would be short-lived. The oral surgery used to fix his broken teeth in spring training was botched. The infection resulting from the surgery, and continued low body weight, resulted in struggles on the mound. After a long road trip in June 1930, Lefty received a second surgery to fix his teeth. The surgery was successful but the recovery left Gomez weak. He continued to underperform on the mound and the Yankees sent him to the St. Paul Saints in the American Association. The demotion gave Lefty the chance to pitch regularly and get back into shape. This time would serve Gomez well and set the foundation for the remainder of his career.

Consistent Commodity

In 1931, Gomez rebounded from a disappointing season the year prior. While the Yankees finished in second behind the vaunted Athletics, Gomez would top 20 wins, finishing with a 21-9 record and a 2.67 ERA. He held opponents to a .223 average and cemented himself as a starter in the Yankees rotation. While the underlying numbers were elevated from the year prior, Gomez struck out nearly six batters a game and finished with 24 wins in 1932. His win total and Yankee team success elevated Lefty’s status in the game, ultimately leading to a fifth-place finish in the MVP race.

The Yankees would face the Chicago Cubs in the World Series that season after winning their first pennant since 1928. Gomez would be on the mound for Game 2—a complete game, two-run performance—his first World Series win of his career. Lefty was on his way to gaining the reputation as one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

Gomez’s win totals in 1933 would not rival his gaudy numbers of the years prior, but he still posted a solid 3.18 ERA and led the league in strikeouts. The highlight of 1933 was Gomez’s selection to the inaugural All-Star Game. Lefty was selected as the starter and the American League would go on to win the game 4-2. He pitched three shutout innings and was credited with the win. Gomez drove in the first run of the game as well, notching an RBI single in the second inning.

The ’34 season saw Gomez post arguably the best season of his career—leading the league in all major categories—including wins (26), ERA (2.33), and strikeouts (158). It would be the first of two times that Gomez would achieve the pitching Triple Crown. Gomez would finish third in MVP voting and was again named an All-Star. Unfortunately, the Yankees would finish in second behind the Tigers that season.

Joe DiMaggio and Tony Lazzeri Holding up Lefty Gomez

Travel the World (Series)

The man of many hobbies took advantage of an exhibition baseball tour of Japan with fellow league All-Stars, parlaying the trip into an impulsive world tour with Babe Ruth and his wife. The three-month escapade was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the trip left Gomez out of shape heading into the 1935 season. Gomez battled a sore arm and inconsistency throughout the ’35 and ’36 seasons, which many, including Yankees management, felt was because he traveled across the globe before ‘35. Despite his struggles, the arrival of Joe DiMaggio spearheaded the Yankees to a World Series appearance. Gomez again would perform on the biggest stage, winning his two World Series starts with the support of a powerful Yankees offense. The Yankees would go on to win four straight World Series titles.

The 1937 season saw Gomez return to form. With a new contract in hand, he arrived at spring training in great shape, finally having shed the additional weight he had gained years prior on his world tour. He again led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, posting a staggering 193 ERA+. He was named an All-Star and collected another two World Series wins. Gomez would post a historic 6-0 record and a 2.86 ERA in his World Series career.

After posting a solid 1938 season, including his sixth-straight All-Star game selection, Gomez faced injury issues throughout 1939. Arm trouble and a torn muscle in his side derailed his season, as his career began to decline. More injuries affected Gomez in 1940, as he only appeared in nine games. He was not the same pitcher anymore, but willed his way to solid numbers in 1941, including a 3.74 ERA over 150+ innings. He was used sparingly in 1942 as his career was coming to a close.

Following the 1942 season, Gomez’s injuries prevented him from being drafted into World War II, where he was instead sent to work for General Electric in Massachusetts. Soon after, the Yankees released Lefty after 13 years, six World Series titles, and seven All-Star games for the club. Gomez was signed by the Boston Braves in 1943 but did not make an appearance and was released in May. He was then picked up by the Washington Senators, made one appearance, and then was cut. His career was over.

After working for defense companies throughout the war, Gomez was asked to be the pitching coach for the Yankees farm team the Newark Bears, and then eventually the manager of the Class-A Binghamton Triplets. The Triplets struggled throughout his tenure, and Gomez left coaching to join Wilson Sporting Goods. He eventually became their top salesman—the perfect gig for a former major leaguer with an outgoing personality.

Lefty was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and honored at the old Yankee Stadium with a Monument Park plaque in August of 1987.

Yankee Players and Wives

Bright Lights, Big City

Lefty Gomez fully embraced the life of living in the big city. He immersed himself in the fashion, culture, and nightlife of New York. He eventually married Broadway lead actress June O’Dea in 1933, and endured a public separation from the actress in 1937, only to rekindle the relationship in 1938. The couple had four children together.

After his hot start in 1934, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine and appeared on “The Tonight Show twice with Johnny Carson” after his playing career. His quirky one-liners such as “I’d rather be lucky than good.” and “clean living and a fast outfield.” became legendary in baseball. He even had a gig throughout New York City in 1932, performing short monologues that included a few minutes of stand-up comedy.

Lefty Gomez was not only one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball—with an ability to perform at the highest level when needed the most—but lived life on his own terms. A far cry from his humble beginnings on a farm in California.

A true Yankee legend.

Staff rank: 24
Community rank: 15
Stats rank: 28
2013 rank: 22

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Rogers III, C. Paul. SABR Bio

Baseball Hall of Fame

Vernona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone. Lefty: An American Odyssey. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012.

Previously on the Top 100

24. Elston Howard
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