The Iron Horse
VERNON "LEFTY" GOMEZ
JOLTIN' JOE DiMAGGIO
Vernon "Lefty" Gomez was born and raised on his family's 1,000-acre ranch just outside of Rodeo, (pronounced roh-day-oh) California which lies on the southern coast of San Pablo Bay, just a few miles northeast of San Francisco. He pitched for the Richmond High School Oilers, a train ride to the west because the local Rodeo high school didn't have a baseball team. As early as 1923, at age 14, Gomez was pitching for semi-pro teams as far away as Monterey and Fresno to the south and Mt. Shasta and Eureka to the north, to gain experience. Along with his older sister Gladys, he traveled on the weekends mostly by bus. At age 15, Gomez pitched both ends of a double-header for the Rodeo town team against the great Satchel Paige in an exhibition series. Each pitcher won a game apiece. Paige got a percentage of the gate receipts. "Lefty" was promised a new pair of shoes which he never received. During the summer of 1927, at age 17 "Lefty" took a job with PG&E as a post-hole digger that began in Yuba City and ended in Point Reyes. He was hired on the recommendation of his older brother Milfred, an electrical engineer and foreman who ran a crew of 200. At Pt. Reyes, "Lefty" tried out for and made the Point Reyes semi-pro town team which competed against other Sonoma County and Bay Area semi-pro teams including arch-rival Novato. In an earlier meeting, "Lefty" had shutout Novato 9-0. In the season's finale, a grudge match, Novato coach Bill Gnoss brought in "ringers" including paying San Francisco Seal pitcher Gus Oliva $25 to match up against Gomez. Lefty gave up a 2-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, however, Gnoss convinced Seal manager Nick Williams that Gomez was the pitcher of the future and not Oliva. Williams, who had previously managed the Moose Jaw Robin Hoods of the Western Canada League, had seen "Lefty" at tryouts before. He was impressed with his blazing fastball but could not get past the fact that Gomez was a beanpole standing 6'2" tall and weighing a mere 125 pounds. Williams relented and signed Gomez to a Seal's contract. It was hello to professional baseball and goodbye PG&E.
They might as well as have called the 1936 Yankees the Northern California Yankees. Besides "Lefty", new pitcher Monte Pearson, brought over from Cleveland, was from Oakland, Ca. by way of UC Berkeley. He went 19-7 with a 3.71 ERA while leading the Yankees and the American League with his fewest hits allowed (7.7/9 inn.) Outfielder Myril Hoag from Davis, Ca. hit .301 and 2nd baseman Tony Lazzeri from San Francisco hit .287 with 109 RBI's. Lazzari combined to hit .292 with 178 HR's during his 14 years in the major leagues, mostly with the Yankees. In 1991, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was a member of the famous "Murderers' Row" which included Ruth, Gerhig, and Bob Meusel. Shortstop Frankie Crosetti was also a San Francisco native and hit .288 with 15 homers for the 1936 Yankees. He'd go on to complete a 17-year major league career, all with New York with a career .245 average. Add rookie "Joltin'" Joe DiMaggio from Martinez, Ca. and more than half of the starting Yankee lineup was from Northern California. DiMaggio hit .323 with 29 HRs and 125 RBI's. Catcher Bill Dickey hit .362 while Gehrig led the team with his .362 average, 49 home runs and 152 RBI's as he was named American League MVP. The 1st place 102-51 Yankees hit an even .300 as a team with 182 HRs. Gomez was victorious in 13 of 20 games with a 4.39 ERA and won 2 games in the World Series as the Yankees bested the New York Giants four games to two. The WS title was the first of four straight world championships. The Yankees were back!
The Yankees were back and so was Lefty Gomez. In 1937, he again won the American League pitching trifecta by leading the league in wins (21), ERA (2.33), and strikeouts (194). He also led the AL in shutouts (6), K's/9 inn. (6.3), K's/ BB ratio (2.09) and fewest hits allowed/9 inn. (7.5). He went 21-11 and logged a staff leading and career-high 278.1 innings. Lou Gehrig again led the team in hitting with his .351 average while Joe DiMaggio hit .346 with a team-best 46 HR's, 167 RBI's and .673 SLG. The 102-52 Yankees cruised in the World Series besting the New York Giants again, this time 4 games to one. Gomez picked up two more WS wins, including the final 4-2 with Hoag and DiMaggio hitting homers. 1938 was much the same for the Yankees as they won their 3rd straight World Series, this time sweeping the Cubs 4 games to none. Gomez picked up his 6th WS win without a loss ( a WS record) with a 6-3 victory in game two. He started the season slowly, most likely due to another contract dispute, the death of his mother, and divorce proceedings with his Broadway star/tap-dancing wife June O'Dea. A divorce never happened. Rumors of Lefty's infidelity was fabricated by the Press. Gomez finished the season strong with an 18-12 record and 3.35 ERA. He again led the AL in shutouts with four. The ebbing, 35-year-old Gehrig only hit .295, however, the emerging Joe DiMaggio led the team with his .324 average, 32 HR's and 140 Rbi's
Only two starting members of the 1931 Yankees hit under .300. Lou Gehrig hit .341 with 46 home runs and 185 RBI's. The aging 36-year-old Babe Ruth was a liability in right field but he hit .373 with 46 homers and 162 RBI's. The Yankees hit .297 as a team with a .457 slugging percentage, yet they finished 2nd in the American League with a 94-59 record. Twenty-two-year-old Vernon "Lefty" Gomez led the pitching staff with his team-best 21 wins (3rd in AL), .700 winning % (21-9), 2.67 ERA (2nd in AL), and 150 strikeouts (3rd in AL, 5.56/9inn., 2nd in the AL). Only the great Lefty Grove put up better pitching stats. Vernon "Lefty" Gomez had arrived.
The following year, 1932, Babe Ruth earned $75, 000, Lou Gehrig $25,000, and "Lefty" Gomez $7,500, about par with the rest of the Yankees. Ruth hit .341 with 41 HRs and a .661 SLG. Gehrig hit .349 with 34 HRs and 151 RBI's. Lefty led the team with his 24 victories (3rd in the AL), .774 win % (24-7, second in the AL) and innings pitched (265.1). His 5.97 K's/9inn. was 2nd best in the AL. Red Ruffing led the team in ERA (3.09) and strikeouts (190). The 107-47 Yanks swept the Cubs 4 games to nil in the World Series with Leftywinning game two 5-2. In 1933, New York slipped to 2nd place and so did Gomez. He slipped to 16-10 but tallied a 3.18 ERA and led the American League in strikeouts (163), K's/9inn. (6.3) and K's/BB ratio (1.54).
The following spring, Lefty reported to the Salt Lake City Bees of the level-B Utah-Idaho League. He led the league in strikeouts with 172 but had a losing record at 12-14 with a 3.48 ERA. Base stealers made a living because of his high leg kick. Still, at age 20, Gomez got a promotion the next year, 1929, to San Francisco of the AA Pacific Coast League where his 3.44 earned run average led the PCL and his 18 wins (18-11) was 3rd most on the team while his 267 innings pitched ranked 4th for the 7th place Seals. During the middle of the season, after winning his 11th game in a row, his contract was bought for $35,000, but he was left to finish the year with the Seals. He had beaten the odds. Lefty was a New York Yankee! In the off-season, he was sent to a health spa in California to put meat on his bones but to no avail. He weighed 147 pounds upon entering spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. There, he took a line drive to the chops which required dental surgery. After getting into 15 games with a 2-5 record and 5.55 ERA as a Yankee, Gomez was sent to the St. Paul Saints of the AA American Association to hone his skills and hopefully, put on weight. There, he posted an 8-4 record with a 4.08 ERA. It would be 16 years before Lefty saw the minor leagues again, albeit for only 9 innings as a manager for the 1946 and 1947 Binghampton Triplets of the Class-A Eastern League.
San Francisco Bay Area native "Lefty Gomez is Northern California's winningest major league pitcher of all time. The Hall-o-Famer had a career winning % of .649 (189-102) with the Yankees and one game with the Senators. Twice, he won the triple crown of pitching by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Thrice he led the American League in strikeouts and shutouts. Gomez was a World Series champion 5 times with the Yankees including a perfect 6-0 mark (WS record) and 2.86 ERA. The Lefty Gomez Award, presented annually by the American Baseball Coaches Association and Wilson Sporting Goods, represents significant achievement by an individual involved in the game of baseball at the local, national, and international levels.
HERMAN "BABE" RUTH
The Sultan of Swat
In 1934, "Lefty" Gomez led the American League in seven major categories--Wins (26), Win % (.839) 26-5, ERA (2.33), Complete Games (25), Shutouts (6), Innings Pitched (281.2), Strikeouts (158) and allowed the least number of hits per 9 inn. (7.1). Lefty's heroics landed his picture on the cover of Time Magazine, the 1st time for any pitcher. His triple crown of pitching marked one of the greatest years in major league history by a left-handed pitcher even though his efforts were overshadowed. The Yankees finished 2nd in the AL while "Dizzy" Dean and his "Gas House Gang" from St. Louis defeated the Detroit Tigers in a 7-game World Series. Dean, who was knocked dizzy and hospitalized by a line drive, went 34-7 with 7 shutouts and 195 strikeouts, including a WS championship.
During the off-season, Gomez and Gehrig took a cruise around the world which included an 18-game exhibition series in Japan where Lefty picked up a side-arm delivery. There was a lot of wining and dining and Gomez ballooned to 180 pounds, much to the delight of the Yankee brass, who, after a brief holdout, made "Lefty" the highest-paid pitcher in baseball at $20,000/annum. Dizzy Dean had signed a month earlier for $17,500 and Carl Hubble reportedly earned $19,000. The result was another 2nd place finish, the Yankees third in a row and 5th in the last 7 years. The "Babe" was gone and Gehrig had an off-year, according to his standards, and "Lefty" had a tough time getting into shape and developed a sore shoulder. He finished the season at 12-15 with a 3.18 ERA. Attendance had dwindled and to make matters worse, Lefty's father Coyote died that winter of heart disease. The Yankees needed a jolt.
CALIFORNIA BASEBALL HISTORY NORTHERN CALIFORNIA BASEBALL
LEFTY IN CUBA--While in Cuba, Gomez acted as pitching coach for the University of Havana baseball team and reported to Manolo Castro del Campos, director general of national sports in the Ministry of Education. Manolo was also a leader of the Movimiento Socialista Revolucionario. Fidel Castro, a university law student at that time, (no relation to Manolo) was a minor figure in the movement and supposedly wanted the leadership. Newspaper box scores report that a pitcher indicated only by F. Castro had limited success as a university intramural pitcher. According to his daughter's book, Lefty's wife June recounts that on February 22, 1948, Lefty attended a faculty conference meeting at the request of Manolo. While leaving the theater, Manolo was assassinated during a drive-by shooting and five others were injured. Lefty, who was walking directly behind Manolo escaped unharmed. Many, including Earnest Hemingway, were convinced that Fidel Castro was behind the assassination. He was never arrested. Lefty's team Cienfuegos, (which means 100 fires) was in 1st place at Xmas during the 1947/'48 Cuban League but later fell to finish in 3rd place.
Cuba has had a long history associated with Major League Baseball and was used for player development. In 1946, the Havana Cubans were affiliated with the Washington Senators and competed in the Florida International League. In 1954, the team was renamed as the Havana Sugar Kings and became a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The '59 Sugar Kings won the Minor League's World Series by defeating the Minneapolis Millers, champions of the American Association. In 1961, professional baseball was banned in Cuba by Communist Prime Minister (later "El Presidente") Fidel Castro following the 1959 Cuban Revolution which was led by Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara. In 1960, Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned enterprises in Cuba and the Sugar Kings moved to New Jersey where they became the Jersey City Jerseys and finished dead last.
Fidel Castro was a long-time baseball fan and was a right-handed pitcher with a mediocre fastball and slow swooping curveball. He pitched for his own team, Barbutos (bearded ones), in exhibition games against military police teams prior to Havana Sugar Kings' games. Most of his team consisted of former revolutionaries. It's highly unlikely that he was ever offered a $5,000 contract by the Washington Senators or a tryout with the New York Yankees while he was in the U.S for political reasons. It's most likely that the rumors were fabricated by a sport's journalist as "fake news" in order to sell a story.
1939 marked the year that 36-year-old team captain Lou Gehrig ("The Iron Horse") removed himself from the starting lineup and never returned. It wasn't due to old age, but instead because of the deadly disease which later became known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Also early in the season, Joe DiMaggio ripped leg muscles from the bone which took more than a month to heal and later played through an eye infection which cost him a shot at hitting .400 even though the Yankees were running away from the rest of the field with a 17-game lead. Lefty got run over while covering 1st base and injured his back. The injury changed his pitching motion and resulted in another shoulder injury. He pitched with pain and finished the season with a 12-8 record, 8th best on the team and his worst since his rookie year in 1930. Still, the Yankees finished the year at 106-45 and swept Cincinnati in the World Series recording a Major League record 4th straight world championship in a row. Perhaps inspiration played a role as the Yankees .702 winning % ranks as the teams 3rd best in history bettered only by the 1998 Yankees at .704 (114-48) and the 1927 Yankees at .714 (110-14). Some consider the '27 Yankee team as the best in all of baseball which included a 32-year-old Babe Ruth with his 60 home runs and Gehrig in his prime with 47 homers and a .371 batting average.
In 1940, Lefty Gomez only pitched 27 innings and slipped to 3-3 with a career-worst 6.59 ERA as the Yankees slipped to a 3rd place finish. Only one Yankee starter hit over .300--Joe DiMaggio hit .352 with 31 HRs and 133 RBI's. It appeared that the Yankee dynasty and Lefty's career was over however in 1941, Gomez bounced back with a 15-5 record and led the American League in winning % (.750). Joe D'Mag again led the Yankee attack with his .357 average, 30 HR's, 125 RBI's and an incredible 56-game hitting streak, a major league record that still stands today. The 101-53 Yankees went on to win their 4th World Series in 6 years by defeating Leo Durocher's upstart Brooklyn Dodgers 4 games to 1. Lefty didn't pitch in the Series and his career was all but over. He returned the next season however only logged 80 innings with a 6-4 record and 4.28 ERA. His fastball was gone. He was given his unconditional release that winter and only pitched 4 innings for the 1943 Washington Senators.
After an unsuccessful stint coaching and managing at the lower minor league level and for Cienfuegos of the Cuban League, Lefty became an ambassador for the game traveling the globe with speaking engagements and conducting baseball clinics. He worked tirelessly for Wilson Sporting Goods, a job that eventually sent him to the hospital with exhaustion and heart disease. During the Communist conflicts of the 1950s, the U.S. government sent Lefty to Central and South America on a goodwill mission in the guise of baseball. When Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba, Lefty was in Havana conducting clinics and visiting Earnest Hemingway, who owned a villa on the city's outskirts. In 1972, Vernon "Lefty" Gomez was enshrined into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. In 2012, his daughter Vernona Louise Gomez collaborated with author Lawrence Goldstone and published a book--LEFTY An American Odyssey.