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Lombardi's Snooze: Not-So-Instant Replay

By Gabriel Schechter , May 21, 2014
1939 National League Champion Cincinnati Reds

As we enter baseball’s “Replay Era,” it is worth emphasizing that the essence of using “instant replay” is the desire to see exactly what the heck just happened. From watching replays on television, we have learned that even though baseball action is slow compared to “continuous action” sports like hockey and basketball, it still often moves too quickly for even the closest observers to follow.

Sanctioning widespread use of instant replay will allow all of us at least the possibility of determining the actual result of a given play. Managers, players, reporters, and fans will no longer have to accept as gospel the split-second judgment of an umpire whose view of a play may have been blocked, who wasn’t able to get to the optimal position for making the call, or who simply missed the call.

Here, I would like to use not-so-instant replay not to get a call right but to resurrect a great player’s reputation. “Lombardi’s Snooze,” the infamous play in the final inning of the 1939 World Series sweep by the Yankees over the Reds, when Joe DiMaggio circled the bases while catcher Ernie Lombardi failed to retrieve a dropped throw soon enough to tag him, remained a black cloud over Lombardi’s head for the rest of his life. What actually happened on that play?

After finishing my earlier article on Lombardi, I saw footage of the play for the first time, thanks to the MLB Network’s fine compilation of 50 great “Plays at the Plate.” It ranked No. 8 all-time, 75 years after it occurred. Having now watched the footage dozens of times, in slow motion and frame by frame, I can report that it is an eye-opener in many respects.

Several myths about the play have traveled through the decades, all untrue. One is that it cost the Reds the Series. However, the 1939 Yankees, now ranked among the handful of top teams in baseball history, cruised through the first three games of the Series and were not about to be overtaken by a lesser squad. The “snooze” was merely the knockout blow of a thorough thrashing.

In Game 4, at Crosley Field, the Reds led 4–2 until the Yankees scored twice in the ninth inning (one of the runs unearned) to send the game to extra innings. In the 10th, the Reds handed the game and the title to the Bronx Bombers—but it happened before Lombardi’s demise.

Facing 27-game winner Bucky Walters, Frank Crosetti walked to start the 10th. After a sacrifice bunt, Charlie Keller grounded to shortstop Billy Myers, who booted it for an error that left runners on first and third. Up came DiMaggio, the American League batting champion in 1939 with a .381 average. What followed was one of the most chaotic plays in World Series history, a single on which three runs scored. 

This action photo shows Charlie Keller of the Yankees racing home as the ball is thrown to Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi in the final inning of Game 4 of the 1939 World Series.

The MLB Network footage (taken from Lew Fonseca’s World Series highlight reel) begins with a brief shot of DiMaggio lining a ball to right field. It quickly cuts to first baseman Frank McCormick firing the relay throw toward the plate. From the long camera angle above first base, we see Lombardi waiting for the chest-high throw, standing just to the first-base side of the plate as Keller approaches from his left.

Lombardi catches the ball and leans toward Keller, who touches the plate as they make contact. Lombardi goes down, and we glimpse DiMaggio running the last 25 to 30 feet to third base, hesitating briefly, and heading home.

The angle shifts to a closer view from behind and to the right of the plate. Lombardi has the ball before he leans toward Keller. But he doesn’t move his feet, leaving the part of his body that he throws toward Keller unanchored and unprotected.

This camera angle does not provide the best view of the contact between Keller and Lombardi that led to the enduring mystery of the play—namely, did Lombardi “snooze” because he was literally knocked unconscious? Still, the following sequence is clear from the film:

Lombardi stretches to about a 45-degree angle in a futile attempt to tag Keller. Keller does not slide, because he doesn’t need to. He has the throw beat and touches the plate with an outstretched right leg after a long final stride. Some kind of contact causes Lombardi to drop the ball and collapse on the plate. He lies sprawled across the plate, on his left side, as the ball rolls six to eight feet behind the plate.

The on-deck hitter, Bill Dickey, races up to the plate, first waving DiMaggio back to third base but, after realizing DiMaggio is heading home, he stands roughly where Lombardi had stood when the pitch was delivered. He’s closer to the plate than umpire Babe Pinelli, who stands a few feet to his left, next to Crosetti.

Lombardi, clearly stunned, remains motionless for a few seconds—just long enough for DiMaggio to round third and make it most of the way home—before getting up, apparently in response to teammates yelling about DiMaggio’s approach. Lombardi has to brush past Dickey to pick up the ball with his bare hand, quickly turns, and makes a diving tag at the oncoming DiMaggio. With an acrobatic leap, DiMaggio sails over Lombardi and stretches out his right leg to touch the plate. 

The Lombardi “snooze” had little impact on the 1939 series as the Yankees swept the Reds to become the first team to win four consecutive World Series championships.

Did Lombardi’s error cost the Reds the game, as myth has it? Of course not. The errors by Myers and Goodman allowed the first two runs to score, and DiMaggio’s run was superfluous in the final 7–4 score. Still, contemporary writers seized the opportunity to over-dramatize Lombardi’s delay as emblematic of the Reds’ haplessness during the four-game mismatch. Here is a sampling of how they described Lombardi:

•     “imitating a wounded sea lion”

•      “rolling from side to side glaring up at the clouds like a frightened turtle thrashing his legs about”

•      “while Lombardi lolled around on the ground”

•     “the lumbering Cincinnati catcher still squatted on the ground, apparently brooding over the futility of it all”

•      “Lombardi was brooding on the ground at the plate with the ball almost within reach of his hand”

•     “Lombardi, apparently stunned, made no immediate attempt to regain his feet or the ball”

•      “the now-famous Lombardi sprawl”

•     [two months later] “poor Schnozz is still laying out there”

Warren Giles, the Cincinnati general manager, summed up this image that winter in his statement that “Lombardi became a pathetic figure in the last game.” That’s how he remained, so much so that decades later, near the end of his difficult life, you could still see newspaper headlines like “Ernie Lombardi a Bitter Recluse Because of Snooze” and “Lombardi’s Bitterness Overflows.”

That brings up another myth: the play somehow revealed Lombardi to be unmanly and soft rather than tough. Hardly. He was known for spearing wayward fastballs barehanded. Once, his head was bloodied by a bat on the follow-through of a swing, but he played on without flinching and without medical attention. Of the 40 games he didn’t start in 1939, half were the second game of a doubleheader. He started both ends of a twin bill five times, three of those in the final two weeks of the season during the pennant drive. Have no doubts that Lombardi was a gamer.

On the morning of Game 4 of the 1939 World Series, the New York Times reported that Lombardi might have to sit out because a Bump Hadley pitch the previous day had nailed him in the right shoulder. Later in that game, he had left for a pinch-runner. Despite a report that he was experiencing “severe pain,” he played, and regretted it.

That leaves the key question: Exactly what happened when Lombardi met Keller at home plate? Several sources claim that Keller hit Lombardi in the groin with his knee. The film shows that Lombardi was in the direct path of Keller’s left leg, which had to go through him at some point. Yet Keller stayed on his feet after passing the plate, a miraculous feat if he made that much contact that far down on Lombardi’s body.

Teammate Johnny Vander Meer claimed, “The throw from the outfield came in on a short hop and hit Lom in the cup. . . . He was paralyzed. He couldn’t move. Anybody but Lombardi, they’d have had to carry him off the field.” That’s a fine testimonial to Lombardi’s toughness and a dramatic story, but the film contradicts it. The throw came from first base and was chest-high, and Lombardi wasn’t paralyzed. He did get up, fetch the ball, and attempt that diving tag.

When Lombardi died in 1977, Lima (Ohio) News reporter Mike Lackey interviewed Paul Derringer, who gave him the lowdown. “Keller’s knee hit him in the ribs and knocked the breath out of him,” said Derringer. “I finally got it out of him. But he wouldn’t tell a newspaperman a thing like that. Besides, they just wrote the first thing that came into their minds, without ever getting their facts straight.” Indeed.

There’s one more angle. When I watch the footage, I can swear that Keller clotheslined Lombardi. Picture it. Lombardi is angled toward Keller, whose knee catches him in the chest. His forearm is lined up with Lombardi’s head. I see clear contact. I also see Lombardi, while sprawled across the plate, reach up toward his forehead with his right arm.

Let’s give the last word to DiMaggio. In an interview with Art Spander of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986 following Lombardi’s long-overdue election to the Hall of Fame, DiMaggio said, “They gave Lombardi an error, but it was wrong. Keller hit him on the head and stunned him. It was a short-count knockout.”

It lasted only a few seconds when Lombardi was 31 years old. He carried the bum rap with him for the final 38 years of his tragic life. Let us give him enough respect to honor the facts of the case, as seen in the 75-years-later replay.

Ernie Lombardi caught 100+ games for 10 consecutive seasons with the Reds. A powerful slugger and 8-time All-Star, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.



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