LEFTY GOMEZ LIFE STORY
by Lee Lowenfish
Before I recommend a new book out this month of May, some brief thoughts on what has already happened in a 2012 Major League Baseball season barely a month old. **We have seen a perfect game thrown by onetime Mets farmhand PHILIP HUMBER of the White Sox against the Mariners.
**An astounding four-homer game by the talented Rangers outfielder JOSH HAMILTON against the Orioles.
**And Baltimore two days earlier winning a 17-inning game at Fenway in which both the winning and losing pitcher were position players: Baltimore first baseman CHRIS DAVIS and Boston outfielder DARNELL McDONALD.
Davis actually pitched two innings to get the win. The last time position players figured in decisions was in 1925 and that was more of a publicity stunt: Detroit’s Ty Cobb and the St. Louis Browns’ George Sisler taking the mound on the last day of the season.
After the breath-taking May 6 win in Boston the Orioles soared to 10 games over .500 bringing momentary joy to victory-starved Baltimore fans, including yours truly.
But two embarrassing home losses to the defending American League champion Texas Rangers has brought us down to earth. Now all I ask is: Just play hard and smart and stay above .500, fellas, OK?
The Yankees lost their peerless closer MARIANO RIVERA for the season in a freak batting practice accident as he was chasing a fly ball in the outfield before a game in Kansas City. His successor DAVID ROBERTSON blew his second save opportunity
on Wednesday May 9 against the contending Tampa Bay Rays and it remains to be seen whether the genial and impressive Alabaman can fill the huge shoes of the Panamanian Rivera.
Who knows what other thrills and twists and turns await us in the days and weeks and months ahead? That’s why they play the games and let’s enjoy them all with the necessary anxiety that is the lot of the true fan.
AND NOW THE REVIEW!
The jacket photo on LEFTY: A BASEBALL ODYSSEY (Ballantine Books) proves the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. A smiling Lefty Gomez sporting a Yankee cap beams at us, his face strongly suggesting good humor and impishness. His teeth do seem a trifle too white and in one of the marvelous tidbits in the book we learn that early in his Yankee career he lost his front teeth to a line drive. Given what passed for sports medicine in the pre-World War II years Gomez then had all his teeth removed as a supposed aid to putting weight on his very slender frame.
After reading LEFTY, a collaboration between Lefty’s daughter Vernona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone, it becomes very clear that Gomez’s false teeth were the only non-genuine part of his character. He was not just a great future Hall of Fame pitcher with a career record of 189-102, all but one with the Yankees from 1930 to 1942, but also an American original with a great sense of humor and sense of destiny.
He was born Vernon Louis Gomez in the small town of Rodeo, California northeast of San Francisco on November 26, 1908, the youngest of the eight children of Lizzie Herring and Francisco Gomez, who everyone called Coyote because of his early life as a ranch hand adept at lassoing steers.
At the age of 6 Gomez knew that he wanted to be a major league baseball pitcher. He was not above finding a skunk and slipping it under the schoolhouse door to allow him and his friends to spend the day playing ball. “He jumped out of the cradle wanting to win,” one of his childhood buddies memorably recalls in one of the many interviews that sprinkle LEFTY.
Coyote Gomez never graduated from high school and wanted his baby to go to college and become an electrical engineer, an understandable parental ambition given that electricity didn’t come to the Gomez homestead until 1924. The boy was determined to follow his own path in life, convinced that the rocket left arm attached to his slender body would prove to be his passport to the big time.
LEFTY traces carefully and lovingly the emergence of young Gomez from the ranks of Bay Area amateur baseball talent to his signing by the Yankees and his development in the minor leagues in Salt Lake City and St. Paul. Such was Lefty’s loyalty and kindness that he always stayed in touch with the landlady who housed him in Salt Lake.
At the age of 21 in 1930, he arrived at Yankee spring training in Florida and he became the team’s Big Game pitcher as they went on to win the World Series in 1932 and four straight from 1936-39. “Lefty loved to pitch against the tough clubs,” his manager Joe McCarthy gratefully said. Out of loyalty and his burning desire to win, Lefty also pitched hurt, contributing to his burnout at the age of 33.
But what a life Lefty lived in his heyday, and the authors have done a great service to history to detail his saga on and off the field. For a young man who used to wear only one pair of corduroy pants, he made the best-dressed list of young men early in his career. With his natural sense of humor he also knew how to create good press, developing another nickname as Goofy and El Senor Goofy.
Not many Yankees can claim to have been teammates and confidants of both Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Gomez became one of the few friends of the notoriously reclusive and suspicious DiMaggio, a fellow Northern Californian, who Lefty knew how to relax and make laugh.
In 1933, Lefty married a star of Broadway musical theater June O’Dea, and the story of the courtship, early marriage, near-divorce, and reconciliation of the young celebrity couple is one of the most valuable parts of the book. It is never easy for stars in the sporting and the theatrical professions to make marriage in the public eye work. Back in the late 19th century New York Giants’ shortstop and players union leader John Montgomery Ward could not make a go of it with actress Helen Dauvray and most famously Joe DiMaggio did not succeed in making the union work with Marilyn Monroe. (Early in LEFTY, however, the authors tell us that DiMaggio told Gomez on the day that Marilyn committed suicide that he was hopeful of remarrying her.)
It was smooth sailing in the first years of Lefty and June’s marriage. They had a great time traveling to Japan after the 1934 season with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other players. But June wasn’t going to give up her career. She had been on the stage since she was a little girl and even had to change her name a few times to keep the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also known as the Gerry Society, off her trail.
When Lefty wanted her to retire, she snapped, “I’ve been in front of the footlights all my life and I have no intention of standing in front of a stove.”
After the Yankees’ triumph over the Giants in the 1937 World Series, their marital rift became tabloid fodder and the marriage was on the ropes for almost a year.
But they reconciled and after a miscarriage June was able to bear children including future author Vernona, who is quite a remarkable figure in her own right.
She was a child piano prodigy who made her debut at the Carnegie Recital Hall at the age of 8 and still continues to work as a teacher of music with her own studio in Connecticut. Though the reading might have been more brisk if she had chosen to bring herself into the story in the first person, I respect the choice she and her co-author have made. In this age of tell-all literature with the more lurid details the better, it is refreshing to read LEFTY and learn about family tribulations with discretion.
For the Yankee fan in your life and the lover of history and baseball history, I recommend LEFTY: A BASEBALL ODYSSEY. It is a fine tribute to an undeservedly forgotten great pitcher who was an even better human being blessed with both courage and the priceless gift of humor. When near death he was asked by his doctors about rating his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, he replied, “Who’s batting?”
That’s all for now. Remember: Take it easy but take it!
To learn more and enter to win a copy of LEFTY: A BASEBALL ODYSSEY this week on BookTrib just -CLICK HERE-
Lee Lowenfish, a jazz and baseball journalist and historian of American culture, teaches sport history in Columbia University’s graduate Sports Management program in New York City. He is the author of The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars, and he collaborated on Tom Seaver’s The Art of Pitchingand is a regular contributor to Fresh Ink on Booktrib.