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Ernie Lombardi: Immortalized Too Late

In the tangled history of Hall of Famers immortalized by the Veterans Committee, there are many examples of deserving candidates who were denied election until after their deaths. The most recent example is Ron Santo, whose prolonged campaign on his own behalf was abetted by many historians and innumerable Cubs fans, but who was not elected until a year after his death late in 2010.

Other notables in this category include Bill Veeck and Leo Durocher, both denied the satisfaction of enjoying their own induction. Sometimes the self-promotional campaigns pay off, as with Enos Slaughter and Earl Averill. When the “Earl of Snohomish” was elected in 1975 at age 72, he revealed that he had left instructions in his will for his descendants to shun the Hall of Fame if the Hall tried to honor him too late.

The saddest case of a player denied election during his lifetime was Ernie Lombardi, who was elected in 1986, nine years after his death. Yes, it was a sadder case than Santo, who remained a popular broadcaster enjoying plenty of adulation while alive. I knew Lombardi’s was an extreme case of the fickleness of the Veterans Committee, but I didn’t know there was a bona fide, dastardly villain in the story until doing the research for this article.

The cronyism of Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry has often been cited for the election of Giants and Cardinals teammates with dubious credentials, but nowhere have I seen such a case of one vindictive Veterans Committee member cruelly blocking the election of a qualified player.

Let’s take a look at Lombardi’s qualifications. Born in 1908 in Oakland, California, he went to McClymonds High School, which later produced Frank Robinson, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, and basketball’s Bill Russell. After brief trials with the Oakland Oaks as a teenager, he played three full seasons for them from 1928 to 1930, batting .377, .366, and .370, and banging 46 home runs with 214 RBIs the last two seasons. Sold to the Brooklyn Robins in 1931, he played 50 games there before a trade to the Cincinnati Reds led to stardom.

In 10 seasons with the Reds, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lombardi established himself as the hardest hitter in baseball. He had to be, since he was also one of the slowest runners ever. My father told me that infielders played him well onto the outfield grass, partly in self-defense against his relentless barrage of line drives, partly because they could throw him out anyway. Many written accounts confirm that observation, and Lombardi himself joked that it took many years for him to realize that Pee Wee Reese was a shortstop, he played so far into center field.

“Had he been able to run,” wrote New York reporter Harold Rosenthal, “they’d probably have had to pass a law against him.” Dodgers pitcher Kirbe Higbe testified that “You’d see the infielders’ lips moving in silent prayer when old Ernie came up.” Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell named him as the one hitter he did not want to face.

An All Star in 1938, Ernie Lombardi was also named the National League’s Most Valuable Player that season.

Lombardi topped the .300 mark seven times with the Reds and hit over .330 every year from 1935 to 1938, winning his first batting title in 1938 with a .342 average. The National League’s MVP that season, he had career highs of 95 RBIs, 60 runs scored, and 167 hits, including 30 doubles and 19 home runs. He also played in his first of five All-Star Games that season.

Though he led National League catchers in passed balls and errors several times, contemporaries ranked his arm as one of the strongest in the Majors, and he threw out 47 percent of would-be base stealers during his career. He guided pitchers Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters from mediocrity to a combined six 20-win campaigns, and caught both of Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back 1938 no-hitters.

In 1939 and 1940, Lombardi led the Reds to a pair of pennants, losing the 1939 World Series to the Yankees and claiming the 1940 title over the Tigers. Before the 1942 season, he was sold to the Boston Braves, where he won a second batting title that year with a .330 average. When Joe Mauer won multiple batting titles in recent years, Lombardi’s legacy was invoked as the only other catcher to win two titles. 

After winning the National League pennant by 12 games, the 1940 Cincinnati Reds defeated the Detroit Tigers in seven games to capture the World Series title.

The 1942 title is disputed in some quarters because he had only 309 at-bats, but in that era of day games and frequent doubleheaders (21 for the Reds in 1938, for example, with Lombardi catching both ends six times), catchers were allowed to qualify for the batting title if they played 100 games, which Lombardi did for 14 straight years. His last great season was 1945 with the New York Giants, when at age 37 he caught a league-leading 96 games and batted .307 with 19 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Lombardi’s .306 career average in the Majors ranks behind only Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey among Hall of Fame catchers. His other key stats — 1,792 hits, 190 home runs, 990 RBIs, and a .460 slugging percentage — are all the more impressive because his lethargic legs turned infield hits into outs, doubles into singles, and triples into doubles (he hit nine triples in 1932 and 18 the rest of his career).

Sadly, once Lombardi stopped hitting and catching baseballs for a living, life started hitting him back. He had no education to speak of or marketable skills, and he worked at menial jobs the rest of his life. Once he got a job in the press box at Candlestick Park but quit when a young reporter didn’t recognize him. It was hard not to recognize “The Schnozz,” a man with such a celebrated proboscis that it was once literally measured against another “Schnozz,” Jimmy Durante. Lombardi’s was larger.

In 1953, he tried to commit suicide by slashing his throat with a razor. He was briefly institutionalized after his recovery. After that, he drifted around the Bay Area, trying to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t being remembered for being such a fierce hitter that he scared infielders, but rather for his slow running and, more so, for “Lombardi’s Snooze.”

That regrettable incident took place in Game 4 of the 1939 World Series, when the Reds were trying to avoid being swept by the juggernaut Yankees. In the 10th inning at Crosley Field, Charlie Keller was trying to score on a Joe DiMaggio single when a collision at home left Lombardi sprawled atop the plate. While he lay stunned and unable to retrieve the ball in time, DiMaggio rounded the bases to score an insurance run. Even though the Reds would have lost anyway, the “snooze” became the symbol of the Reds’ helplessness.

Lombardi appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 1950, three years after he played his last Major League game. The five-year wait didn’t exist until several years later, but for much of the 1950s and 1960s, balloting occurred every other year, so he wound up exhausting his Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) eligibility (20 years after he retired) after only nine ballots. Not that the BBWAA was going to elect him. His highest showing came in 1964, when he finished 17th with 33 votes (16.4 percent), ahead of nine other future Hall of Famers including Ralph Kiner and Arky Vaughan.

By the time his fate was turned over to the Veterans Committee, Lombardi was 60 years old, destitute, and bitter. A 1974 article by Wells Twombly described him working at a gas station, “the large, elderly man who runs errands and chases parts for the mechanics.” He told Oakland columnist Ed Leavitt, “If they voted me into the Hall of Fame, I wouldn’t accept. Not now. They’ve waited too long and they’ve ignored me too long. . . . If they elected me, I wouldn’t show up for the ceremony. That sounds terrible. But every year I see my chances getting smaller and smaller. Sure, who wouldn’t be bitter? All anybody wants to remember about me was that I couldn’t run. They still make jokes.”

The big man died in 1977 at the age of 69, and his New York Times obituary contained two telling quotes from Times columnist Arthur Daley. “You almost come to the conclusion,” Daley wrote in 1947 when Lombardi retired, “that he was the greatest hitter of all time. Every hit he made . . . was an honest one.” He also wrote that “When Lom would grasp a bat with that interlocking grip of his, his bat looked like a matchstick. And the ball would ricochet off it like a shell leaving a howitzer.”

Though he was incredibly slow-footed, Ernie Lombardi was an outstanding hitter. During a 17-year career, he compiled a .306 batting average. 

 

Yet despite Lombardi’s credentials, the testimonials by teammates and opponents alike, and the support of numerous writers, the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee failed to elect him until nine years after his death. I didn’t know why until I scoured Lombardi’s file at the Hall of Fame library recently and found an article written after the 1986 election by Harold Rosenthal, who had been covering baseball since the 1930s.

According to Rosenthal, Lombardi was the victim of petty hostility on the part of Warren Giles, who was the president/general manager of the Reds from 1937 to 1951 before serving as the National League president until his retirement in 1969. More importantly, he was a member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee for a quarter-century, from 1953 until 1978. As such, he determined the fate of many candidates, but could not be elected while on the committee. He died in 1979 and was elected soon after. Lombardi was already gone by then.

Rosenthal wrote that Giles was still angry decades later at what happened after Lombardi won the MVP Award in 1938 and wasn’t offered a raise. “Ernie got into the wine at some dinner in Cincinnati and called Giles ‘cheap.’ He also added that word most of us use when a cab driver cuts us off on a dry day or splashes us on a wet one. Nothing big, really.

“Giles never forgot and never denied that he was the obstacle in the way blocking Ernie’s election. If you’re a member of the panel you usually don’t cross a fellow-member especially if you think you’ll need help pushing someone else somewhere up the road.” 

National League President Warren Giles, who had been the General Manager of the Reds during Ernie Lombardi’s last six seasons with the team, did his best to freeze Lombardi out of the Hall of Fame.

Lombardi did get a decent raise that winter, from $11,000 in 1938 (including $1,000 from an attendance clause) to $14,000 for 1939 (with no attendance clause). If he was upset with Giles, it couldn’t have lasted long. But apparently Giles never did get over Lombardi lambasting him in public. Four decades is a long time to hold a grudge, much less use it to kick a man who was already down. Why would he brag about it if he didn’t mean it? If Giles’s goal was to let Lombardi die a broken man of unacknowledged greatness, he succeeded.

Still, even after Giles’s death in 1979, it took seven more years for the Veterans Committee to give Lombardi his due, electing another dozen men in the interim. Despite his bitterness, Lombardi’s sister, Rena Lenhardt, gave a gracious acceptance speech at his induction on August 3, 1986. She told a couple of his favorite stories and said, “I would like to thank all the newspaper columnists who have written and continue to write about the big lumbering catcher. I would also like to thank the players and the fans who supported and loved him during his baseball career.”

The sentiment was that simple, befitting Lombardi, a shy man who didn’t ask much more from life. What a shame that he didn’t get to express that sentiment in person in Cooperstown.

 

 

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