In defeating the Texas Rangers last week at the Stadium, Andy Pettitte reached a significant Yankee milestone: tying Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez on the franchise’s all-time wins list. There’s something odd about Pettitte and Gomez having identical totals of 189 wins in pinstripes. These two left-handers couldn’t be any different in terms of personality and persona. Pettitte, outside of his dalliance with HGH, has led a pretty straight-laced life in New York. Gomez was anything but straight-laced. In fact, he may have been the most offbeat Yankee of all-time.
As the southpaw pitching ace for the Yankees of the 1930s, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez stood in contrast to several of his reserved and businesslike teammates. Unlike Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, the native Californian had an outgoing nature, with a priceless comic touch. Gomez even did the unthinkable in needling Joe D., who was usually spared from the normal clubhouse ribbing. Somewhat surprisingly, DiMaggio allowed Gomez to include him in the razzing, in part because he considered the eccentric left-hander to be genuinely funny.
Outside of baseball, the entertainment world took notice of Gomez’ personality. After the 1931 World Series, he was invited to join vaudeville for a three-week run. Unfortunately, his act didn’t pass muster, but Gomez didn’t allow failure to dampen his sense of humor. “I lasted three weeks,” Gomez told a reporter, “but the audiences didn’t.”
Throughout his career, Gomez produced a litany of classical quotations for both his teammates and the media. Gomez once proclaimed that he had come up with a new invention. “It’s a revolving bowl for tired goldfish.” Much like Mark “the Bird” Fidrych of a later generation, Gomez claimed that he often conversed with the baseball. “I talked to the ball a lot of times in my career,” Gomez contended. “‘I yelled, ‘Go foul, Go foul!’” And then there was his philosophy with regard to relief pitching. “A lot of things run through your head when you’re going in to relieve in a tight spot. One of them was, ‘Should I spike myself?’”
Tall and gangly, Gomez could be as clumsy as he was zany, especially when in the uncomfortable territory of the batter’s box. Always a poor hitter, Gomez at least tried to act the part of an accomplished slugger. During one at-bat, he adjusted his cap, tugged at his uniform, and then attempted to knock the mud from his spikes with his bat. Instead, he whacked his ankle with the bat, putting himself in the hospital for three days.
Gomez’ behavior could be as bizarre as his words. Pitching in the second game of the 1936 World Series, Gomez held up play because of his preoccupation in watching a plane fly overhead. Seething Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, who demanded professionalism from his players at all times, could only watch in stunned amazement from the dugout. When Gomez returned to the dugout after retiring the side, McCarthy berated his star pitcher. Gomez quickly defended himself. “Listen, Joe, I’ve never seen a pitcher lose a game by not throwing the ball.”
On at least one other occasion, Gomez felt that holding onto the ball was clearly the best strategy. Throughout his career, Gomez struggled in matchups against Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx. During one at-bat against Foxx, Gomez shook off every sign called by catcher Bill Dickey. Visiting the mound, Dickey asked Gomez what pitch he wanted to throw to Foxx. “Nothing,” Gomez said to his batterymate. “Let’s just stall around and maybe he’ll get mad and go away.” Gomez eventually did make a pitch to Foxx, who promptly swatted the Gomez offering over the outfield fence.
Unlike some star pitchers who act as prima donnas, Gomez displayed little ego. He liked to poke fun at himself, all part of his effort to pick up some laughs. He also understood his limitations—and when it was time to leave the game. Shortly after his retirement from pitching, Gomez applied for a job with the Wilson sporting goods company. The employment application included a space that asked why he had left his previous job. Gomez answered the question with brutal honesty. “I couldn’t get the side out.”
For most of his career, though, Gomez did well in getting the side out. His major league accomplishments, almost all of them coming with the Yankees, earned him election to the Hall of Fame in 1972. That honor will probably escape Andy Pettitte, but at the very least he’ll be able to say he matched Gomez in the win column.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.