DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY (Earle Combs Edition)
It’s funny who history chooses to build a cult around. When I was a kid, you used to hear a lot about the tragic career of Pistol Pete Reiser who, though his name was actually Harold, was actually a terrifically talented Dodgers player who wrecked his career by running into walls (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=6747). Reiser’s age-22 breakthrough 1941 season is so pretty that if you saw it hung on the wall of the Brooklyn Museum of Art it might make you weep—.343/.406/.558, the batting average and slugging percentage both leading the league, and black ink in runs scored (117) doubles (39) and triples (17) as well as 14 home runs. Center fielder Reiser finished second in the MVP voting to a teammate, first baseman Dolph Camilli. It was a travesty.
Between World War II service and various series injuries—Reiser was once given last rites in the clubhouse after running into the center field wall at Ebbets—his career was brief and disappointing—he had other good years but never came close to repeating his brilliant 1941. Reiser helped perpetuate his own legend by serving as a major-league coach for 15 years, which meant he was around to be interviewed and tell his own story again and again. The Dodgers’ move out of Brooklyn also helped, as that created a market for Dodgers nostalgia stories, and Reiser was a tragedy within a tragedy, the lost player of the lost franchise. Reiser even passed away at a relatively young age (62), which puts a bow on the story.
There’s no cult for Earle Combs, even though his career was shortened by a defective wall-avoidance warning system as well. The difference is that Combs was able to get in nine more or less full seasons, lead off for the 1927 Yankees, and go to the Hall of Fame thanks to a generous Veterans Committee. He died full of honors at 77 years old—no tragedy here, nothing to mourn. Yet, Combs could have had a little more than he did, 1455 games, 1866 hits, .325/.397/.462 rates in the inflationary 1920s and 30s: he came up late and finished early.
Combs excelled at baseball as a student, but because he came from a poor farming family, he initially took a more secure route to financial success, going to college and becoming a teacher. As John Mosedale, author of The Greatest of All: The 1927 Yankees, wrote, “The important thing to understand about the meanness of the family finances is that a career as a one-room school teacher was seen as a step up on the economic ladder.” It didn’t take Combs long to realize that this was not actually true and turned to playing ball for a factory team—for more money. Noted for his terrific speed, he soon had a contract with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association, playing under future Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy, who thought the world of Combs. In his first season, he hit .344; his sophomore year he went wild on the league, hitting (approximately) .380/.437/.566 with 46 doubles, 15 triples, 14 home runs, and 42 stolen bases. That winter, the Yankees sent outfielder Elmer Smith (a solid veteran hitter) and a then-impressive $50,000 to Louisville for Combs’ contract.
Supposedly on first arriving in the majors, Combs bragged to manager Miller Huggins about his speed: “Down in Louisville, they called me ‘The Mail Carrier.” Huggins had a quick rejoinder for that. “Up here we’ll call you ‘The Waiter.’ When you get on first base, you just wait there for Ruth or Gehrig or one of the other fellows to send you the rest of the way around.”
If the story doesn’t ring true, it’s only because Combs had the reputation as a mature, quiet man, not given to boastful or brash behavior. In 1970, Casey Stengel asked Bill Dickey of his teammates, “Was they gentlemen?” “No,” Dickey answered, “but they could all hit .350. Wait a minute. We had at least one gentleman, Earle Combs.” Huggins once said that if you had nine Combses on your club you could go to bed every night and sleep like a baby, while Yankees GM Ed Barrow called him one of the finest human beings ever to set foot on a baseball field. The story does, however, suggest why a player whose reputation for speed is borne out by his nine seasons of double-figures in triples, including three with over 20 three-baggers, averaged only 11 steals per 162 games played.
The speed, though, was real and a major defensive asset for those Yankees teams. Bob Meusel and Babe Ruth could throw, but they weren’t the rangiest outfielders. Combs was the opposite—he didn’t have much of an arm, but he could run. Combs’ ability to cover ground in center allowed the Yankees to worry less about their relative lack of mobility in the corners. Ty Cobb once taunted Combs for having to play between the two sluggers. “Those two big guys just stand out there and point out the ball so that you can go after it. In another season you’ll have your legs worn off clear up to the knees.”
The 25-year-old rookie initially sat for the veteran Whitey Witt. In sporadic playing time through mid-June, he hit exactly .400 (39 PAs). At the moment that an indefinite suspension of Meusel opened up the possibility of regular playing time (batting cleanup behind Ruth no less), Combs’ season came to a premature end—on Sunday, June 15 in Cleveland, Combs caught his spikes on home plate as he was sliding home on Wally Schang’s RBI single. “It was evident at once that Combs had a fracture, for the right foot was twisted far to one side, and the leg seemed to swell visibly in just the short space of time he remained on the ground,” reported the New York Times. In the four consecutive starts he got around Meusel’s absence, he had gone 7-for-16; regular work seemed assured.
So far in our story, Combs hasn’t run into any walls, but if you’re keeping score he’s missing two segments from his career—the school-teaching years, and 80 or 90 games in 1924. Combs returned in good form in 1925 and had his true rookie season, taking over for Witt, playing in 150 games, and hitting .342/.411/.462, which in translation looks like mid-career Johnny Damon—.306/.373/.456 with 14 home runs. His career rolled on for a few years, with milestones like a 29-game hitting streak (1931) and 1000 hits in his first five seasons, one of the few players to do so, but he continued to be a friable player. In 1928, just before the end of the season, he ran into the left field wall in Detroit and fractured his right wrist. He missed the last few games of the season and all but one plate appearance of the World Series. How he even got that one PA with a fractured wrist will have to remain a mystery of 1920s sports medicine.
Starting in 1929, Combs regularly missed from 12-20 games a year, though there doesn’t seem to have been a major injury but several of the “nagging” variety. In 1933, the now 34-year-old outfielder missed 32 games, although never very many consecutively; the simple answer may be that he opened the season in a slump by his standards (.267/.353/.458 in the first half) and the Yankees had a good prospect, Dixie Walker, vying for playing time. The major injuries arrived in 1934. In the seventh inning at St. Louis on July 24, Browns rookie third baseman Harlond Clift touched off a line drive to left field, where Combs was playing (he had been splitting time in center with Ben Chapman). There was no padding in the outfield in those days and no warning tracks. Combs took off after the ball and plowed into the concrete wall.
The crash fractured the left temple bone of Combs’ skull, broke his left clavicle, and also suffered damage to his hip and leg. That description doesn’t quite do the injury justice—the fracture of the skull ran from Combs’ left eye socket to behind his ear. Taken to the hospital in critical condition, doctors helped him survive the inevitable internal bleeding. It was a few days before he was lucid. About two months in the hospital followed. Combs vowed to return. “I’m made of tough stuff,” he said. “They counted me out when I broke my leg, thought I’d never play again, and they did the same thing right after I was hurt this time. But I fooled them once and I believe I will do it again.”
Indeed, he did do it again, alas briefly. He was back in the lineup for Opening Day 1935. He was hitting only .282/.359/.362 and spending quite a bit of time on the bench—who knows how much of that was his 36 years, how much was the injury—when the end came. On August 25 he started in left field in the first game of a doubleheader against the White Sox at Chicago. In the bottom of the third, Jimmy Dykes popped up to short left. Combs came in, shortstop Red Rolfe went out. Combs got the worst of the resultant collision, his collarbone being torn from his shoulder blade. “It pained worse than the crack-up I had last year.” Combs was able to make three pinch-running appearances in September, but that was that. With Joe DiMaggio looming large on the horizon, Combs hung up his spikes to coach. DiMaggio was his first pupil. “If this boy does as well as you,” Ed Barrow wrote Combs, “I’ll be satisfied.”
In 1925, Combs had been compared to “the Ty Cobb of 1907… shifty, supple, yet sure… the fielders don’t know where to play him.” He wasn’t that good. Even Combs, on election to the Hall of Fame, said he thought Cooperstown was for stars, not players like him. Because of his relatively brief career and the inflation of his numbers brought about by the high-scoring era in which he played, Combs is often listed among the lesser Hall of Fame selections. In the first version of his Historical Abstract, Bill James compared him to Mickey Rivers. Still, it doesn’t take too much counterfactual arguing to imagine a career for Combs in which he might not have been better than he was but would have had at least three more seasons of .325 averages and 180-200 hits a year, seasons which would have put him in the range of 2500 hits and 1500 runs scored. The loss of that isn’t a tragedy of Reiser-ian proportions, but it’s something.