Often, and especially in the latter stages of Bernie Williams’ great career, you heard and read about the Yankees’ CF legacy. There was something usually wrong whenever that legacy, topped by DiMaggio and Mantle, was discussed however. Many started their timeline with Joe DiMaggio, forgetting that the CF before DiMaggio is in the Hall of Fame in his own right, Earle Combs.
When many think of the Kentucky Colonel, fried chicken and Harland Sanders may come to mind. But with Earle Combs, the Yankees had their own Kentucky Colonel.
A deeply religious man who didn’t curse, drink or smoke, Combs came to the Yankees in 1924. The Yanks had won the previous three AL pennants (1921-1923). They won their first World Championship in 1923. They used a couple different CF in 1921, with the WS playing time going to Elmer Miller, who hit .298-4-36 (OPS+ 103) in 242 AB in 1921. Whitey Witt held down the fort in 1922 and 1923. Witt hit .297-4-40 (OPS+ 98) and led the majors in walks in 1922, then hit .314-6-56 in 1923 with an OPS+ of 106. Witt’s last full year of playing was in 1924 when he hit .297-1-36, OPS+ 83. Witt was 5’7” and just 150 lbs.
In 1924, Combs got only 35 ABs for the Yankees, but was hitting .400 when he broke an ankle in June. Combs became the starting CF in 1925 and held that position through 1934. From 1925 to 1933, Combs averaged 142 g. per year (in the 154 game season), with the average year being .327-6-63 and 10 SB (OPS+ 127). You may recall the old Stadium with dimensions of 461 to CF and 407 to RCF. It was even larger when first built. Combs, as the CF, had to cover ground that was 490 to CF and 429 to RCF…and don’t forget the 457 (460 in Combs’ time) to LCF!
In that great season of 1927, Combs hit .356, led the league in hits (231, a Yankee record until Don Mattingly broke it in 1986), and the majors in PA, AB, and triples (23). Combs led the majors in triples again (21) in 1928 and the AL with 22 in 1930. He is still the Yankees’ leader for triples in a season. In his nine full-time seasons from 1925 to 1933, he hit .300 or better eight times, missing out only in 1926 when he hit .299. Twice he got MVP consideration. For his career, Combs had a .325 BA, with an OPS+ of 125, while batting leadoff. There is nothing like having a .325 career leadoff man hitting in front of Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel and Lazzeri! Combs’ .325 is third on the Yankees list, a shade above Joe DiMaggio’s .325 and behind only Ruth and Gehrig. He ranks 8th in OBP, 10th in hits, 9th in singles, 2nd in triples and 7th in runs scored in Yankees’ history.
In 1934, Combs hit .319 in 63 games but almost lost his life at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis when in July of that year he crashed into the wall. Remember that back then, walls weren’t padded. Combs fractured his skull and shoulder and damaged a knee. Near death for a while, Combs spent two months in the hospital.
In his final season of 1935, the 36 year old Combs hit .282 in 89 games. Combs retired, and DiMaggio soon stepped into CF (Joe didn’t step in right away. Ben Chapman and Jake Powell got CF playing time while the rookie played LF and RF for much of 1936. Finally, in August of 1936, Joe D. took over CF).
Combs didn’t make it to the Yankees as a regular until 1925, when he was just about 26, and the near fatal collision with the wall took place when Combs was 35. But those nine years of being full-time were so good that the Veterans’ Committee named Combs to the Hall of Fame in 1970.
When elected, Combs said, “I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not for average players like me.”
Combs wasn’t average from 1925-1933, for in those nine years, he helped the Yanks to four pennants and three World Championships. He hit .350 in WS play with 1 HR and 9 RBI.
Combs remained as a Yankee coach through 1944, and then later coached the Browns, Red Sox and Phillies.
He died at age 77 in 1976.
When the Yankees first put numbers on uniforms in 1929, leadoff man Combs got #1. With no offense to Billy Martin, for whom the number is retired, or to other very good Yankees who wore #1 (Bobby Richardson, Bobby Murcer, Frank Crosetti, & Snuffy Stirnweiss), the best of them all was the one who first wore it; the one who REALLY was the first great Yankee CF; the one who started the legacy of great NY Yankee centerfielders.
The Kentucky Colonel, Earle Combs.
(Thanks to Wikipedia, BaseballReference.com, Yankees by the Numbers, and A Yankee Century for information used in this profile and others).