Saturday, February 6, 2010

11 Days Until Spring Training: Lefty Gomez

Yankee history is teeming with all-time great offensive forces: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle. But its history of hurlers is a little less prolific. There are several former Yankee pitchers in the Hall of Fame, most of them there primarily for what they accomplished in pinstripes. But the Yankee pitchers in the Hall of Fame lack the "inner circle" status of their offensive brethren.

The earliest Yankee pitcher in the Hall is Jack Chesbro. Poached from the Pirates when the Highlanders began play in 1903, Chesbro pitched for the club during their first six seasons of existence. He led the AL with 41 wins, 48 complete games, and 454.2 IP in 1904, but notoriously uncorked a ninth inning wild pitch on the season's final day, costing the Highlanders the back end of a double header against the Boston Pilgrims and handing the pennant to their future arch rivals by a game and a half.

Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock led the pitching staff through the 1920s, as the team won their first pennants and World Series titles. But both were acquired from other organizations, as was Red Ruffing, a Hall of Famer himself, who joined the club in 1930. For the next thirteen years Ruffing would team the Yankees first homegrown ace to lead the team to seven pennants and six World Series championships.

Vernon Louis Gomez was adorned with the same nickname virtually every southpaw pitcher answered to in that era: "Lefty". Purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1929, Gomez followed Tony Lazzeri from the same talent-rich northern California pipeline that the Yankees would later use to acquire Frank Crosetti, Joe DiMaggio, Gil McDougald, and Billy Martin. Gomez was of Mexican descent, but he was fortunate to be fair skinned enough to play in the Majors in the years before integration.

He made his Major League debut early in the 1930 season but also spent part of the year at the Yankees' AA affiliate in St. Paul. His Major League line wasn't pretty, just 2-5 with 5.55 ERA over 60 innings, most of them coming in relief. Gomez rebounded in a big way for his sophomore campaign, becoming the staff ace and leading the club in IP, wins, strikeouts, and ERA. His ERA slipped slightly below league average the following year, but he still led the club in wins and ERA, and finished fifth in MVP voting as the Yankees won their first World Series in four years. In post season play for the first time in his career, Gomez went the distance in Game Two of the Series, allowing just ten baserunners and a lone earned run on the way to a sweep of the Cubs.

Lefty turned in another solid campaign in 1933, again leading the Yankees in wins and ERA, falling just a third of an inning shy of tying Ruffing for the club lead, and leading the AL in strikeouts for the first of three times in his career. He followed that with the best season he would ever have. He led the American League in wins, winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts, and WHIP, earning him a third place finish in the MVP voting.

Gomez' record slipped below .500 in 1935, but his peripheral numbers were still excellent as he and Ruffing again fronted the pitching staff. The two would combine to carry the staff to an unprecedented four straight World Series titles from 1936-1939. Gomez went 64-38 (.627) over that stretch, with a 138 ERA+. He led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts in '37, marking the second pitching Triple Crown of his career. He also led the League in shutouts in '37 and '38. He won five World Series games over that run, leaving him with 6-0 record and 2,86 ERA in seven starts in the Fall Classic.

Gomez began to fade a bit towards the end of that historic run, falling just under 200 IP for the first time in his career in 1939. He was limited to just nine games in 1940, but rebounded pitch on pennant winners in 1941 and '42. He didn't see any action in those World Series, and was sold to the Braves in early 1943. Gomez never appeared for them, landed in Washington for one last start, and called it a career.

At the time of his retirement, Gomez was likely the best pitcher the Yankees ever had. A seven time All-Star, Gomez got the start in the first three All-Star games in history, five overall, and earned three wins in the Mid-Summer Classic. He had three top ten MVP finishes in the days before the Cy Young Award, and retired second to Ruffing on the Yankees all time wins, innings, strikeouts, games started, complete games, and shutout lists. His ERA+ of 125 bettered Ruffing (119) and still ranks ninth on the team's all-time leaderboard.

Always a quick thinker and quipster during his playing career, Gomez became a favorite on the off-season banquet circuit after his retirement. He remained in the Yankees organization as a manager, skippering the AA Binghamton squad in the late forties. Whitey Ford would go on to replace Gomez and Ruffing as the best pitcher in franchise history. Both Gomez and Ford were honored with plaques in Monument Park in August 1987. Ruffing would join them there in 2004. Gomez was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1972, five years after Ruffing and two years before Ford.

11 Days Until Spring Training: Buck Showalter

When Buck Showalter was growing up in the 1960's in small town called Century on the panhandle of Florida, Little League games drew a crowd. The town had a beautiful, well-lit baseball field, so on countless summer nights hundreds of townspeople would gather to watch the kids play. Considering Buck's childhood home bordered on the field, perhaps it isn't much of a surprise that he took a liking to the game at a very young age. It also helped that, in addition to being the principal of the local high school, his father was also coach of its baseball team.

Buck took his smooth and level left handed swing to college at Mississippi State and was named an All-American in 1977. He batted .459 that year, splitting his time on defense between first base and the outfield. Despite having little to no power, he was drafted by the Yankees in the 5th round that year and assigned to A-ball in Fort Lauderdale.

As his college pedigree predicted, Showalter had the ability to hit for average and that skill carried him steadily through the Yankees' minor league ranks. Buck slapped his way to a .324 average at AA Nashville and led the Southern League in hits during the 1980 season which earned him a call up to AAA in 1981.

Unfortunately, Buck hit the wall in Columbus. He spent all of '82 back in Nashville, led the Southern League in hits for the second time and earned himself one final shot at AAA in 1983 where he struggled against superior pitching once again. Even if he had figured out International League pitching, Showalter's path to the Bronx would have been blocked by Don Mattingly.

He was briefly converted to a pitcher himself in an effort to salvage his playing career but it seemed as though Buck's life in baseball wasn't meant to take place on the field.

Having always displayed a natural baseball acumen, Showalter moving right into coaching after his playing career was over. He started off with the Yankees' New York Penn League team in Oneonta in 1985 and led the squad to a 106-41 record in his two years at the helm. That earned him a promotion to Fort Lauderdale where he presided over two consecutive winning squads.

His continuted success earned him a promotion to the Albany Colonie Yankees (AA) in 1989. It was that season in Albany that really jump-started his managerial career. His team went 97-46, he won Baseball America's Minor League Manager of the Year and was given the position of third base coach for the Yanks in 1990. Showalter replaced Stump Merrill as manager of the Big League club in 1992.

After going 76-86 in '92, Showalter guided the Yankees to a second place finish in 1993 with 88 wins. When the strike stopped the 1994 season, their winning percentage was even better (.619) and they were on pace to win over 100 games. Showalter was named AL Manager of the Year but they would have to wait a bit longer to break the Yanks' long playoff drought.

In the strike-shorted 1995 season, Showalter led the Yankees to their first postseason in 13 years. Although they lost to the Mariners in 5 games, it was clear that the organization was healthier that it had ever been. They had plenty of young talent on the team with much more waiting in the wings in the minors. However, this wasn't enough for George Steinbrenner. The Boss demanded that he fire two of his coaches after losing to the Mariners, but Showalter refused. Instead, he got the axe himself.

It didn't take long for Buck to land on his feet. He was quickly snatched up by the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks two years before they were scheduled to play a game. He was active in the construction of their roster and eventually served as their first manager. He led them to a 100 win season in 1999 and left after an 85 win campaign in 2000, just before the D-Backs unseated the Yanks in the 2001 World Series.

His last managerial tenure came in Texas from 2003-2006. He was 10 games under .500 during that stretch and was eventually replaced by Ron Washington. Since then, he has served as a senior advisor for the Indians and an analyst for ESPN.

Much of Showalter's success was attributable to a strong work ethic which, along with he stern demeanor, he was said to have inherited from his father. He worked so much that according to legend, he found himself inside a grocery store for the first time in 5 years during the 1994 strike.

Due to some unfortunate timing, Showalter never really got the credit he deserved for the role he played in turning the Yankees around. Had Steinbrenner not demanded that he unload two coaches after leading the team to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, Buck could very easily have been at the helm of the late 90's dynasty. He ducked out of Arizona just a bit too early as well.

Showalter has begun to make appearances at Old Timer's Day and was included in the video montage during the last game at the Old Yankee Stadium. Perhaps Buck will never receive the adulation that many contributors to the Yankees dynasty do, but fans who watched the team closely during the early 90's or understand the club's history know how much he meant to the franchise.

More On Yankee Numbers

A special Saturday good morning Fackers. After today we'll have just ten days left in our Countdown to Spring Training, meaning we'll be sixty percent of the way through the countdown that started back when there were twenty five days to go.

We'll have today's posts a little later on. But as we start off this morning I wanted to give a big tip of the hat to the awesome The site is a comprehensive source on the history of Yankee numbers, for players, coaches, and managers alike. It's a cool place to go to kill some time when you're bored and it's been a great resource for Jay and me as we go through the countdown.

One of the interesting things to note in looking through the site is that when uniform numbers were first introduced that weren't really utilized in the ways we're accustomed to now. These days, a player's number is part of his identity. For the bigger names in the game, their numbers can become synonymous with their names. But when the Yankees first introduced permanent numbers in 1929, they served a different purposes.

In the days when the game was brought to the public almost exclusively through print, in the infancy of radio, and long before the existence of TV, cable, internet, Extra Innings, and, the fans in the park knew far less about who was whom on the field, particularly for the visiting team. Adding numbers to the uniforms helped in identifying the players. As well all know, the Yankees issued their numbers based on the batting order: Earle Combs was number one, Mark Koenig two, Babe Ruth three, Lou Gehrig four and so on. While this worked well for the regulars, it was a bit more nebulous for pitchers and reserves.

As such, the concept of a number "belonging" to a player hadn't yet been established. If the batting order changed from year to year, or if players worked their way from the bench to the starting line up, the players' numbers changed. Later on, when players went off to World War II, in their absence their numbers were issued to new players. With the exception of the unique and tragic circumstances surrounding Lou Gehrig, the Yankees didn't retire anyone's number until Babe Ruth in 1948.

Thus, uniform numbers were very fungible until the 1950s. Top players like Tony Lazzeri and Herb Pennock switched numbers multiple times in the early thirties. Established veterans like Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, and several others wore multiple numbers over the course of their careers, compounded by their numbers being reissued during their service in the second World War. As a result, when we look at candidates for posts for a given day in the countdown, we often several deserving candidates, but find it difficult in some cases to determine which number best represents a given player.

Even the legends aren't immune to this. The great DiMaggio saw his number five reissued during his military service. Players like DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle all broke in wearing one number, only to be immortalized in Monument Park wearing another. Eight different players wore Babe Ruth's number three between his release after the 1934 season and his number retirement in 1948.

One interesting thing I came across in researching the Gil McDougald post is that while he held number 12 for the entirety of his career, from 1951 through 1960, a player by the name of Woodie Held is also listed as wearing number 12 in 1957. At no point was McDougald out for more than a few games in '57, and he wasn't sent down at any point. So how could two players have had the same number? Checking Held's gamelog, he appeared in just one game before getting traded to Kansas City. The game was on May 8th, and while Held pinch hit in the ninth, McDougald played the whole game. Could two Yankees have worn the same number in the same game? I don't know, but these are the mysteries one can find when poking around