Classic Yankees: Earle Combs

Yankees great Earle CombsOften, 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).

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19 Responses to Classic Yankees: Earle Combs

  1. Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

    Combs had a fine career and deserves his legacy among Yankee greats but he is by no means a deserving Hall of Famer. There is a very good reason why he isn't mentioned with the likes of Joe and Mickey.

  2. Mike S. says:

    Nowhere do I write that he was as good as Joe or Mickey (heck, neither was Bernie, but then who matches up with Joe or Mickey?) I write that the CF legacy began with Combs, which is true. As far as Combs being in the HOF, I disagree. That .325 lifetime average does speak volumes. Of course, this was in the era of segregated baseball. The records of each and every ballplayer pre-1947 (or later, for it took a while for MLB to be fully integrated; the last of the original 16 to integrate was the Red Sox in 1959!) could be looked at with a sense of "what if?" What if Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige were major leaguers in the mid-1930s? There are many in the HOF who one may not consider deserving who had far worse numbers than Combs. I, for one, will not match up a SS numbers vs. say, an OF. But Combs does stack up well with the BA and OPS+. The argument against Combs would lie upon the brevity of his career, just nine seasons as a full-time OF. But then again, there are a few others in the HOF whose HOF credentials were built upon a very brief period of greatness.

  3. Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

    Mike S., I never stated that you said Combs was as good as DiMaggion or Mantle. I suppose a person's perspective on whether a player belongs or not all depends on where one draws the line on how good a Hall of Famer should be. A .325 average in his era, even allowing that segregation meant nothing, is not THAT special. His career was way too brief not even amounting to 2,000 hits. His OPS+ was pretty good but not good enough for such a brief career. If you feel that Combs is a Hall of Famer, I assume you consider Bernie Williams a slam dunk lock for the Hall of Fame.

    The surest sign that a white player doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame is that the Veterans Committee elected him. There may be a 5% exclusion but that might be it, if even that.

    • Mike S. says:

      No, quite frankly I don't consider Bernie good enough for the HOF. You know what they say about never assume?

      It's a subjective line, to be sure. As mentioned, there are others who had great success over a very short period of time but who made the Hall. I don't know who was on the Veterans' Committee in 1970 so…

      Thanks for the feedback.

      • Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

        But Bernie also had a 125 OPS+ over a much longer career. Why wouldn't he be good enough yet Combs is? Just because of a cosmetic .325 in an era where the average player could hit .300 regularly?

        • Mike S. says:

          Just supposing, but perhaps the 1970 Committee judged Combs by what he was. Not just an OF, but a leadoff hitter. Meaning that you don't compare Combs against a Mays, DiMaggio or Mantle, but against other great leadoff hitters. In that case, you compare him vs. say a Henderson, Brock, Raines (not in the HOF but on ballot) or Ashburn.

          By that standard, his .325, setting the table for Ruth, Gehrig, etc. got him in. I obviously wasn't around to see him play, so I don't know how great his defense was. The times do need to be taken into account. Not only the all-white baseball, but say the year of the hitter, 1930, vs. the year of the pitcher, 1968.

          A lot that may have been considered was how Combs ranked vs. his peers at the time, as opposed to how he ranks vs. players that came after him. As I state, I'm just supposing here.

          There were a lot of players voted in by the Vets' Committee in the early 1970s that were questionable choices, and many of those were teammates of Frankie Frisch (NY Giants and Cardinals), who was able to squeeze these guys through. Frisch, of course, wasn't a teammate of Combs, and I have no clue as to what influence Frisch may have had in Combs' selection.

          Bernie, being a middle of the lineup hitter, would most likely have that comparison vs. a power hitter such as his long-time contemporary, Ken Griffey, Jr.

          I haven't done it and currently don't have the time to do so, but if it's possible, it might be interesting to go back to the newspaper clippings of 1970 to see how Combs' selection was reported then. Maybe one of the members of the committee commented upon Combs when the selection(s) of that year were made. It may be good reading and good insight as to the Committee's thought process.

          • Mike S. says:

            Should add that in 1970, there was of course, no Henderson or Raines yet (Brock was still playing), but there was Ashburn. So comparing Combs as a leadoff man against other leadoff men up to that time may have worked to Combs' advantage. Again, just conjecture.

          • Mike S. says:

            Combs' plaque does mention leading the league in putouts a few times, but … Can only say that I wish I could have seen him play.

          • Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

            Mike S., what you're then supposing is that is some cases, being a Hall of Famer comes down to luck of where you are placed in the lineup, which says nothing about how good, or not, one actually was. The fact is, Combs never got more that 17% of the Writers' votes. The fact is that the Veterans' committee selections have been all about nepotism and politics which have made a total mockery of the Hall standards.

            No matter how you slice it, it's hard, for me anyway, to imagine how Combs got in. He was a CF as was Bernie. And Bernie had a 59 WAR over his career versus 44 for Combs. IMO, except in very limited situations which don't include a Combs, around 60 should be the bare minimum for good consideration and many of those shouldn't make it. Combs falls well short of that. Once again, if he's in, there should be 150-200 other players inducted who aren't.

  4. [email protected] says:

    Great piece Mike!

  5. Jules K. says:

    My father-in-law told me about Coombs and how great he was. He played a great CF and was a terrific hitter. .325 lifetime average, great fielder and all of those championships made him a well deserved Hall-of-Famer. There were not too many ballplayers that could play CF in the old stadium. He excelled. To say he was no Hall-of-Famer idicates a lack of baseball knowledge.

    • Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

      To say he was a HOFer based on what a father-in-law tells you indicates a total lack of respect for any sense of baseball knowledge.

      • Jules K. says:

        Never said he was a HOF because of what my father-in-law said. He was a HOFer because of his incredible numbers AND he was voted in. To say he isn't a HOFer would show "a total lack of respect for any sense of baseball knowledge."

        • Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

          He wasn't voted in but by a handful of "veterans" who have a long track record of getting their friends and teammates in. His numbers aren't remotely "incredible" to anyone who knows a thing about baseball history. Ruth was incredible during that era. So was Gehrig, Cobb, etc. You have to step down a HUGE way from there to get to what Combs did, let alone the very short period for which he did it.

  6. Jules K says:

    You talk about lack of respect for baseball knowledge and then you show your lack of respect for the veterans committee. Where does it say that only superstars that do it for a long time should be in the HOF? I guess you don't think Koufax, Rizzuto, Reese, Puckett belong. My only gripe, I admit with the vet. com. is Mazoroski.

    Back to Coombs. He hit .325 lifetime. I can't think of an old-timer that did that and was not elected to the HOF.

  7. Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

    I hope I have shown my lack of respect for the veteran's committee because I have zero respect for them. As I said early, they've made a total mockery of the Hall standards. I don't believe that Rizzuto belongs and probably wouldn't be there if he wasn't a Yankee, as the same for Combs. Reese probably belongs and I only say "probably" even though he had a way longer and better career than Riz.

    Puckett probably got in on a sympathy vote because his career was cut short as well as the writers are total softies today. As for Koufax, he belongs but is definitely way overrated by fans not understanding how much playing in Dodger stadium helped his numbers.

  8. Mike S. says:

    Sorry, busy (and will be) with personal matters, and will have to write a new profile soon. The purpose of the profiles are just to spotlight a one-time Yankees' career or an achievement, nothing more.

    I do think Combs belongs, and I do think Scooter does as well. Being a key and integral part of championship teams means a lot in my book. (Scooter was on 7 WS Championship teams, had a great rookie year of 1941 and finished 2, 1 and 6 in the MVP votes of 1949, 1950 and 1953). We can agree to disagree. As for the writers vote, that's why 75% is needed, for I guess there are as many viewpoints within that bloc as you and I have.

    I wouldn't say it's luck as to where you are placed in the lineup. You are placed in the lineup according to your skills. It's up to the player then to maximize those skills. As great as Henderson or Brock were, would you bat them third? No. Their skills made them leadoff men, and excellent ones at that. We both would judge players differently. To me, did that individual maximize his talent? Was he the best at what he did when he played? How does he match up against others of his ilk? Did he dominate against his peers? Was he considered one of the best in the game (or the best) when he played? I wouldn't compare the individual vs. the entirety of baseball. Note also I state of his ilk. I wouldn't compare a speedster vs. a slugger. Therefore I compare Combs against other leadoff men. Combs vs. Ashburn, as opposed to Combs vs. Mantle. I don't think it's fair to compare Combs vs. a slugger, much as I don't think it would be fair to compare the Scooter vs. say, a first baseman. First basemen are generally known for power. I'd compare Rizzuto vs. other SS—Appling, Boudreau, Reese, for instance. I would not compare Rizzuto vs. Reese in power stats, though. One played in a cavern, the other in a bandbox. Having said that, Scooter's .273 is higher than the BA's of Reese, Smith, Maranville or Aparicio, and who knows if it couldn't have been .280 if not for the three lost WWII years. On a biased note, I'm happy to see one of the greatest bunters of all time (if not the best) in the HOF just because that aspect of the game is almost non-existent today.

    Yes, there has been nepotism on the Veterans' Committee, but I think it has gone the other way too. Some deserving players were probably also kept OUT of the HOF due to prejudices and biases as well. So, with all the differences of opinion, prejudices and biases, you can't please everyone. I guess then we should just abolish the HOF (Just kidding.)

    Frankly, I wonder how a category could be created to put someone like Don Zimmer in the HOF. Zimmer would never get in for his playing, managing, etc., but someone who has given over a half-century of his life to the game could be a Hall of Famer due to "contributions to the game." Personally, I think Zimmer may be more worthy of the HOF than say, a Bowie Kuhn. Kind of a "lifetime achievement" award for Zim. Of course, the Vets haven't put Marvin Miller in either. One person who could make the HOF under such a category probably would then be Gil Hodges. Just short of making it as a player, and besides the 1969 Mets, no other noteworthy managerial achievement. Had Gil lived (he died two days short of his 48th birthday) and guided the Mets to more pennants, who knows?

    Of course, one HOFer who is in despite a relatively short period of success is Dizzy Dean.

    Just checking some stats. Combs .325 ranks him 43rd all time. (He was .3248, Joe D. .3246). Of course the top guy in BA not in the HOF is Shoeless Joe Jackson (.356). Others with higher BAs than Combs who aren't in the HOF (not counting active players, and min. 3000 PA) are Lefty O'Doul (.349), Dave Orr (.342), Pete Browning, (.342), Jake Stenzel (.338), Riggs Stephenson (.336), Mike Donlin (.333), Bill Lange (.330), Tip O'Neill (no, not the ex-Speaker of the House, ha-ha) (.326) and Bob Fothergill (.326). As you may have guessed, most of these players had careers that were between 1880 and 1910.

    Got to go. If I don't reply, it's not that I'm ignoring you, just have other concerns at present. I hope you understand. All the best!

    • Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

      Mike S., first off, I’m not one to get hung up on whether people don’t reply so that’s fine. And I don’t consider myself “winning” the debate because they don’t. I often times could respond but don’t because I don’t care about an issue enough. Nothing will keep me going more than Hall of Fame topics.

      As for the spotlight, I personally appreciate it and think you did a very good job. I just believe that Combs either doesn’t belong or that well over a 100 players have been well overlooked that will never get in. I don’t see the justice in that. Combs was not hitting leadoff because that is necessarily a talent he possesses. He probably would have hit in the middle of the lineup on most teams but are you going to boot Gehrig or Ruth to put him there? Batting Average adds very little information about a player’s true value. What’s more, the top 50 or 100 BAs of all time are predominantly filled with players who played in the segregated pre WWII period even though they represent a small fraction of all those that have played the game. High batting averages in that era are by no means that special.

      And the fact that he or Rizzuto were on some championship teams doesn’t mean a whole lot to me as baseball is the ultimate team sport. Most of those teams would have won anyway without Ruth or Mantle on them so Combs and Rizzuto should be thankful they got lucky and not be doubly blessed with undeserved inductions into the Hall of Fame. Dizzy Dean, while a great player, also should not have been elected by the writers IMO. Boudreau doesn’t belong. Appling and Reese have so many more WARs than Rizzuto that it’s not even really much of a comparison. They played at not only a higher level, but for SO MANY more games than Rizzuto.

      I will certainly admit that the VC has elected a few members that do belong that were truly overlooked but unfortunately, that has been such a small fraction of their inductees that it’s hard to overlook the lunacy of their decisions.