Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez claims the only place anybody ever called him by his given first name of Vernon was in his hometown of Rodeo, Calif. (population 300 or so, give or take a few chickens). Usually it was either Lefty or Goofy, a kind of dubious tribute to the flip remarks Gomez sometimes laid on managers, players, and, oh yes, umpires! While most of the players Lefty targeted with his tongue had to grin and bear it, managers and umpires had a way of fighting back. They called it the $100 fine.
``Actually, Rodeo never did seem too impressed with me,'' Gomez said the other night at the annual baseball fund-raiser at California Polytechnic, Pomona. ``I remember coming back to Rodeo in 1931 after winning 21 games with the Yankees, and I don't mind telling you I was feeling pretty good about myself.
``Well, the first fella I met coming down the street sort of slowed me up and said, `Vernon, I can't recall seeing you around here very much lately. You've been away for the summer?' I didn't like it, but I guess it kept me from getting a big head.''
Although baseball now seems to rush any 20-year-old with the talent for hitting or throwing hard right into the majors, it wasn't like that when Gomez played. Kids usually spent six or seven years honing their talents in the minors before they got a call from the parent club.
But Gomez had so much natural ability that he was actually an exception to that rule, coming up to stay with the Yankees before he was 21. Lefty says he has no idea how it happened so soon, except that he was scouted like everybody else.
His quick promotion to the majors probably occurred because he possessed a fastball once clocked at 100 m.p.h. and a curve he could bend around a hitching post. He also had that most precious of all gifts for a pitcher, the ability to get the ball over the plate consistently.
Overall, this big left-hander with the high kick won 189 big league games, was 6-0 in five World Series, and 3-1 in four All-Star Game appearances.
``Baseball was different in those days,'' Gomez explained. ``If you were a rookie, the regulars wouldn't even speak to you until they decided you'd done enough to win your spurs. I remember somebody on the Yankees trying to introduce me to Herb Pennock, who was a left-handed pitcher like me, so we at least had that in common.
``Well, Pennock wouldn't even look at me, although he did tell the guy who tried to introduce us that he seldom spoke to bushers [bush-leaguers], and then only at the ballpark,'' Lefty continued. ``But later, of course, we became good friends, and it was Pennock who taught me how to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of every opposing hitter in the American League.''
Asked if he remembered when Joe DiMaggio joined the Yankees as a rookie in 1936, Gomez replied, ``Listen, I was the first roommate DiMaggio ever had on the Yankees, and why manager Joe McCarthy put us together I'll never know. We were opposites. I talked all the time, and Joe didn't talk at all.''
Gomez also spent five years with the Yankees as a teammate of Babe Ruth's, before the rights to the Bambino were sold to the old Boston Braves in 1935 at the twilight of his career.
``The Babe and I were always good friends, and so were our wives,'' said Lefty, a four-time 20-game winner. ``Actually we had a lot in common. Babe's wife had been a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, and my wife at the time was George Murphy's dancing partner on Broadway in `Of Thee I Sing.''' Later Murphy would make it big in Hollywood musicals before eventually becoming a United States senator.
Actually, show biz seemed to run in the Gomez family. Lefty's biggest thrill off the diamond was watching his daughter perform on the piano at Carnegie Hall when she was only nine years old.
Gomez, who was not known for his hitting, recalled how Ruth once made him a friendly wager that he wouldn't get five hits all season.
``Well, I was down to pitch the opener that year for the Yankees against the old Washington Senators and I was ready,'' Lefty told me. ``Not only did I win, but I got four hits in five trips to the plate. I told the Babe after the game that I was already counting my money. Know what? I didn't get another hit all year!''
Gomez also talked briefly about McCarthy, who had been his manager during most of his years with the Yankees, and who was a stern disciplinarian.
``McCarthy was tough all right,'' Gomez said. ``He liked to win, but on an everyday basis all he really asked for from his players was hustle.... I had a few run-ins with Joe, because I was a little more independent than most players, but nothing too serious except for the time he caught me inside a phone booth in Boston.
``I was in uniform like I was supposed to be, and when he asked me what I was doing in this phone booth, which was at the top of the grandstand, I made the mistake of telling him.
``You see, Fenway Park in Boston is awfully small, and if you were a pitcher who had to face some of those Red Sox sluggers like Jimmie Foxx, it could get you down mentally. So I told Joe I was staying in the phone booth until game time as a confidence builder, because by the time I got out, the dimensions of Fenway Park would look twice as big to me.
``All McCarthy said was, `That'll cost ya a hundred!'''