January 25, 1943 – The Boston Braves purchased Lefty Gomez from the New York Yankees for $10,000.
Vernon Louis Gomez would end his career as one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time. He won all but one of his seven World Series starts (he left his last Series start with a stomach injury after one inning). He twice led the American League in ERA and in both years captured the pitching Triple Crown.
But the end of the 1930’s had not been kind to Gomez. The innings had taken its toll on his shoulder and he would throw just 263.2 innings between 1940-1942. His manager, Joe McCarthy, had lost faith in him to such a degree that he didn’t use possibly the most dominant World Series starter in the ’41 Series and in 1942, the only action he saw in October was as a batting practice pitcher.
By the end of 1942, with the Yankees coming off five-game World Series loss to Cardinals, Lefty Gomez was one of many players for the Yankees who would not return the following year. Many would enlist and serve the military in some fashion in World War II. Others, like Gomez, would get the boot.
Like the addition of Babe Ruth eight years before, the Boston Braves were adding Lefty Gomez’s name more so than his arm. The idea of pairing Gomez, who had earned the moniker Goofy, with Braves manager Casey Stengel was sure to be a match made in -isms heaven. There are numerous examples of Gomez’s hilarious remarks. After Carl Hubbell struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in an All-Star Game, Bill Dickey singled. That brought up Gomez, who struck out. Gomez’s response? “If Bill had struck out, Hubb would have struck out seven of the greatest hitters in history.”
My favorite story about Gomez also involves Lou Gehrig. After Gehrig removed himself from the starting lineup and took the lineup card to home plate before the game, everyone knew it was likely the last time he’d ever play after 2,130 consecutive games. It was a somber and emotional feeling when he returned to the dugout. Finally, Gomez walked over to him and said loudly enough for all to hear, “Hell, Lou, it took fifteen years to get you out of the lineup. Sometimes I’m out in fifteen minutes.” It was the kind of levity that Gomez was known for.
He was still that Gomez on this day in 1943, but he was no longer the pitcher who dominated the best the National League had to offer. How Gomez came to the Braves is also a story. The general manager of the braves, Bob Quinn, had a son who dated the cousin of Gomez’s wife. Yeah, that’s how these things start. With nothing to lose and some of baseball’s best lost to the war effort, Quinn gave Gomez a chance to maybe find some magic with Stengel.
None of this was lost on Gomez. He said, “What a nine we had. Stengel as manager and all of us non-draftable because of dependency, injuries, or bad health. We couldn’t see, couldn’t walk. Casey had been hit by a taxi and, after the accident, he hobbled around the field. Every two weeks this team of lame ballplayers left Braves Park and marched in back of Stengel with his bad wheel next door to the Commonwealth Armory to have an up-to-date army physical to see if we could make the list.”
Gomez would take a veteran role with the Braves and guided many of their younger pitchers that year such as Al Javery. That would end up being his downfall, ironically enough. Before he had even appeared in a game, he was released so that the Braves could open a roster slot for a younger pitcher helped by Gomez. The southpaw had spent a month on the bench waiting for his first game as a Brave, but never appeared in one.
His release also came soon after a bit of a disagreement with Stengel. Back in the days of National/American League pride, Stengel wanted to do things like John McGraw did things. Gomez, a lifer in the American League, finally spoke up. “Case, the trouble with this National League of yours is that McGraw’s been dead for ten years and you fellows don’t know it.” He was cut less than a week later.
Gomez would appear just once more as a major leaguer – a start with the Washington Senators in which he walked five and struck out nobody in 4.2 innings against the White Sox.
Lefty Gomez was not only one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time, he was one of baseball’s best ambassadors. His time with Boston was short and a blip in an otherwise wonderful career, but even without pitching, Gomez’s mentorship helped to push the Braves from 7th in ERA (out of 8 teams) to 4th.