Memories ‘Left’ Behind

Lefty Gomez’s daughter documents life of Hall of Fame pitcher

November 27, 2012
Vernon Lefty Gomez baffled the opposition with a blazing fastball and sweeping curve, while entertaining teammates with his wit and good humor. (NBHOF Library)

Vernona Gomez always had the memories of her father. But in writing a book about Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez, Vernona discovered a treasure trove of artifacts he left behind.

Lefty: An American Odyssey was written by Vernona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone and published this year as a tribute to the former Yankees and Senators pitcher. Lefty Gomez, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, posted a 189-102 record and 3.34 earned-run average in 14 big league seasons from 1930-43. In the postseason, Gomez was even better – going 6-0 with a 2.86 ERA while winning five World Series titles with the Bronx Bombers.

All the while, Gomez became a dedicated documentarian – filling scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and shooting more than 40 reels of 16 millimeter black and white film. Vernona Gomez found all this in Lefty’s home after he passed away on Feb. 17, 1989.

As a result, Lefty’s legacy is still as vibrant today – during the week when he would have celebrated his 104th birthday – as ever.

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio… My father was friends with them all,” said Vernona, who visited Cooperstown this fall with her son John Banas. “And so much of the film he shot is very personal footage because he was such close friends with the Babe and the others.

Gomez’s big league career bridged the first two Yankees dynasties. The 6-foot-2 fireballer went 21-9 in his first full big league season in 1931, then improved to 24-7 in 1932 – leading the Yankees to a World Series sweep of the Cubs and finishing fifth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting.

Gomez was named to the first of seven straight All-Star Games in 1933, and in 1934 Gomez won the American League pitching Triple Crown – leading the league in wins (26), ERA (2.33) and strikeouts (158). Gomez repeated his Triple Crown performance in 1937 (21 wins, 2.33 ERA and 194 strikeouts) – making him one of just seven men in history to have won the pitching Triple Crown twice.

In five All-Star Game starts, Gomez was 3-1 with a 2.50 ERA.

“The secret of my success is clean living and a fast outfield,” said Gomez, one of baseball’s most famous quote artists and the man who is credited with coining the phrase “I’d rather be lucky than good.” But Gomez’s story featured much more than luck.

Born Nov. 28, 1908 in Rodeo, Calif., Gomez was raised on a dairy farm. His father was a cowboy.

“His dad’s name was ‘Coyote,” Vernona said. “They always had enough to eat because they lived off the land, but they never had any luxuries.

“My father crafted the life he wanted.”

Despite a thin build that left him well under 150 pounds, Gomez impressed teams with his fastball speed and went 18-11 for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1929. That summer, the Yankees purchased Gomez’s contract for the hefty sum of $45,000.

By 1934, Gomez was one of the biggest stars in baseball and he was invited to participate in a postseason tour of Japan. The tour is often credited with sparking the Japanese passion for the sport, and Gomez documented the trip with hundreds of feet of 16 mm film.

After his playing career was over, Gomez often participated in goodwill tours of Latin America and became an executive at Wilson Sporting Goods as well as one of the founders of Babe Ruth League baseball.

“Lefty just gave back to baseball as much as he could,” Vernona said. “Someone asked him once: ‘Don’t you feel bad that you didn’t make as much money as these players today?’

“My father said: ‘Baseball doesn’t owe me anything. I owe everything I have to baseball.’”

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Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum