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Bob D’Angelo

Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.


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Lefty Gomez biography tells the right story

Posted May 17, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Sep 14, 2013 at 11:23 PM

As a young sportswriter in August 1980, I had the chance to interview Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez at the Babe Ruth World Series in Williston, N.D. I was covering a team from St. Lucie County that was making its second straight appearance as Southeastern U.S. champions, and on this particular day, Gomez agreed to do one-on-one interviews with reporters.


So I waited behind a partition at a Best Western motel in Williston, playing Space Invaders in a makeshift game room as I waited my turn. Williston was a charming place located on some gorgeous terrain in the heart of cattle country, but in the middle of nowhere, 60 miles south of the Canadian border and about 15 miles from the Montana border. Bozeman was the next biggest town.

Gomez was the grand marshal for the 1980 Babe Ruth World Series and had thrown out the first pitch at Ardean Aafedt Stadium. He rode in the parade with the players. He posed with Babe Ruth League president Dick Case wearing a Sioux headdress (I still have photos from all three of those events). He was everywhere and doing everything, and without fanfare. The official program of the 1980 World Series lists “Vernon Gomez, Novato, California,” as one of the 15 members of Babe Ruth Baseball’s board of directors. Nothing elaborate, just one of 15 mug shot photographs.

And now he was giving interviews. Let me correct that — he was telling stories, and was enjoying every minute of it. We talked — well, he talked — for 30 minutes.

About his manager, Joe McCarthy: “He had the personality of a dead fish.”

About the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig: “He kept to himself, was always quiet and smoked a pipe in the locker room.”

About the moment in the 1936 World Series where he gazed up from the mound at an airplane flying over Yankee Stadium: “McCarthy came storming out of the dugout, yelling at me, but I told him no one had ever hit a home run with the ball still in the pitcher’s hand.”

Those are the kinds of stories and observations contained in “Lefty: An American Odyssey,” (Ballantine Books, $28, hardback, 396 pages). But there is much more to discover about Vernon “Lefty” Gomez. Written by Gomez’s daughter Vernona, and author Lawrence Goldstone, it’s certainly a loving tribute. But it’s certainly not a slack-jawed, hero worship kind of book.

Lefty had his faults, and Vernona does not gloss over them. His seemingly idyllic marriage to Broadway star June O’Dea had its rough spots, and Gomez battled bouts of alcoholism after retiring from the game.

Drawn from countless conversations with her father and more than 300 interviews with family members, friends, teammates and opponents, “Lefty” lifts the veil of the wise-cracking baseball player and reveals a tough-as-nails competitor who won 189 games between 1930 and 1942 and won 20 or more games four times. He wanted the ball and constantly badgered McCarthy about getting more work. Ultimately, that shortened his career.

But Gomez was a presence, a teammate who could hobnob with Babe Ruth, console Gehrig when his consecutive games streak ended, and keep the secret thoughts of Joe DiMaggio to himself. After he retired. Gomez worked for Wilson Sporting Goods and traveled worldwide promoting baseball.  He managed in Venezuela, becoming the first American to lead a mixed race team.

This book goes beyond statistics and shows the events that shaped Gomez’s life. Tall and skinny but equipped with a blazing fastball, he owned one pair of pants the day he joined a semipro baseball team in California. Within five years, he would be touted as one of the best-dressed men in the country.

He was the youngest of eight children, the son of a California cattleman. He worked odd jobs to earn money for his baseball equipment, and over his father’s objections, finally took up baseball as a career. He would help the New York Yankees win five pennants during the 1930s and was the American League starter in the first All-Star Game.

There are plenty of stories from Gomez’s career with the Yankees, including the contract squabbles, the banter between players, and life on the road. It’s an interesting look at baseball as it was played during the 1930s.

Because the book is written by Gomez’s daughter, there is a unique perspective. But Vernona Gomez and Goldstone also did their research and reward the reader with a fuller picture of an engaging, funny man who was dead serious about baseball.

It’s the kind of story Lefty would have enjoyed telling. But Vernona got it right.

 

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