What Does Luck Have to Do with It?

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” Those famous words were uttered by Lefty Gomez, a left-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees who played primarily in the 1930s. Take a minute to let that quote soak in. Would you rather be lucky or good?

I guess if you had to choose between the two, you probably couldn’t go wrong with either one. Choose the former, and you’re a lucky person. Choose the latter, and you’re just plain ol’ good. Neither one sounds too bad. Take your pick, and things will be alright.

It makes me wonder why Lefty Gomez would choose being lucky or what prompted him to utter those words. I can tell you that he was good. He was named to the Major League All-Star team seven consecutive times. He won five World Series championships in his years with the Yankees. And twice he led the American League in wins, ERAs, and strikeouts. He was really good, yet he’d rather have been lucky.

I was prompted to think about Gomez’s words after reading about Dave Sime (pronounced “sim”), an Olympic sprinter from the 1950s and 1960s who recently passed away. The headline of a New York Times article about his death read, “Dave Sime Dies at 79; World’s Fastest Sprinter, but Far From Its Luckiest.” I was curious why he wasn’t considered lucky.

According to the article, written by Frank Litsky, a few weeks before the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Sime tore his groin while on horseback for the first time. The injury ended his pursuit of what many expected to be a gold medal—if not several—at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Undeterred, Sime continued his sprinting career and participated in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he competed in the 100-meter dash. After coming out of the blocks slowly, Sime caught up and was racing neck and neck with a German sprinter. Sime’s foot hit the finish line first, but it’s not the foot that counts. What counts is the sprinter’s torso, and it was ruled that the German’s chest crossed the line before Sime’s. He had to settle for second place and the silver medal.

But Sime still had a shot at a gold medal as the anchor of the U.S. 4×100-meter relay team. When Sime received the baton, his team was in second place, but he dashed to the front and crossed the finish line in record time, only to discover that his team had been disqualified because the first baton handoff occurred outside the allowed zone.

I guess we know why Litsky doesn’t consider Sime very lucky. First the groin injury that kept him from participating in the Olympics, then a loss by an eyelash, and finally a disqualification in an apparent victory. Maybe Lefty Gomez was right—it’s better to be lucky than good—because Sime certainly was good, but luck didn’t seem to be on his side.

But just when I began to think Sime probably wished luck had been on his side a bit more, I read something he said to a reporter a number of years ago. He doesn’t attribute his success to his abilities—he attributes it to good luck. Sime, someone many would consider very unlucky, had a different view. His words? “I was very highly motivated, and I was in the right place at the right time. I worked hard, but a lot of people work hard. There are a lot of Einsteins driving taxicabs.”

Sime was in the “right place at the right time.” He recognized that there are a lot of talented people in the world but that what often sets someone apart from the crowd is a little luck. It seems Lefty had it right when he said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

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