By Marty Appel
Forty summers ago, it became official. The hallowed ground of center field in Yankee Stadium, to which everyone thinks “DiMaggio,” “Mantle” (and for younger fans, Bernie Williams), was in fact hallowed ground going back to 1925.
That’s because 40 years ago, Earle Combs, the gentlemanly, pre-maturely grey center fielder on the Murderer’s Row team, was elected to the Hall of Fame.
The man with the same lifetime batting average as DiMaggio, .325, the table-setter at the top of the lineup for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, had earned his place.
Combs was the leadoff hitter for the great Yankee teams of the ‘20s, and as the leadoff hitter in that magnificent lineup, he wore #1 when numbers were introduced in 1929.
He was an unlikely ballplayer, encouraged by his father to go to college and become a teacher. Well mannered and trouble-free, Combs was obedient and headed off to Eastern Kentucky State, pursuing a teacher’s certificate. But on the side, he played ball for pickup teams and for a local coal company’s industrial league team, and demonstrated to observers that he had a gift for the game.
One of these observers was Joe McCarthy, manager of the local Louisville Colonels, a Class AA team. McCarthy wanted Earle to sign a pro contract. His father, to Earle’s delight, agreed. “You’ll never be satisfied until you do,” he sighed.
And so in 1922 began a pro career for Combs. He hit .365 in two minor league campaigns, and by 1924 was with the Yankees, taking his place in a lineup that would include Ruth, Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt and manager Miller Huggins, future Hall of Famers all. When that great roster put it all together in 1927 and became recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time, it was Combs, at the top of the lineup, batting .356 with 231 hits – including 23 triples. His 331 total bases trailed only Ruth and Gehrig in the American League, despite hitting only six home runs.
Combs played 12 big league seasons, all for the Yankees. He lived clean but played hard, and in 1934, he broke his shoulder and knee and suffered a skull fracture hitting the wall in St. Louis in pursuit of a long fly. He came back as a player-coach in ’35, but the following season began the DiMaggio era.
Earle helped transition DiMaggio to the depths of the Yankee outfield while serving as a coach, a position he held until 1943. He later came back to coach the Browns, Red Sox and Phillies, and then went on to serve as state banking commissioner and as a member of the Kentucky State Board of Regents.
It was easy to get lost in Babe Ruth’s big shadow during the roaring ‘20s – even Lou Gehrig would find that. For a quiet performer like Combs, who was not a home run hitter, it was even more of a challenge. (He did reach double figures in triples for nine consecutive years, scaling 20 three times during that run).
At his induction speech, with typical modesty, he said he thought the Hall of Fame was for “superstars, not average players like I was.”
Those who knew their baseball would disagree with his self-assessment. Average players don’t hit .325 lifetime and .350 in post-season.
Combs died in 1976 at the age of 77.