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Earle Combs

Earle Combs

Position(s):
OF
Nicknames:
The Kentucky Colonel
Born:
May 14, 1899
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Right
Height:
6'
Weight:
185 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-16-1924 with NYA
Hall of Fame:
1970

Earle Bryan Combs was born May 14, 1899 at Pebworth, Kentucky in Owsley County, the fifth of seven children of James Jesse and Nannie Brandenburg Combs.  A natural athlete, Combs was encouraged by his father, a farmer and community leader, who supplied his children with homemade poplar bats and baseballs.  Sturdy tree limbs around the family farm provided the bats; the balls were made by stitching leather, trimmed from worn-out shoes, around a round core of rubber, fashioned from old shoe heels, and tightly wound string.

The rolling eastern Kentucky farmland and hollows around his home place provided ample venues for the pickup games young Earle would organize.  Each spring when warmer weather came his siblings and other neighborhood children played as often as they could, whether at recess time at the Pleasant Grove one-room school he attended or later in the evenings, after all the chores were completed. 

However, as he grew older and his thoughts turned to making a living, it seemed his beloved hobby of baseball would have to wait.  Earle was convinced that his life’s work would be that of a teacher.  To pursue this goal, Combs left Pebworth in 1917 to attend Eastern State Normal School (now Eastern Kentucky University) in Richmond, eventually receiving a teaching certificate in 1919.  To help pay for his education, he returned to eastern Kentucky to teach in one-room schools in Ida May and Levi.

Baseball would continue to beckon, however.  After a stellar performance in a faculty-student game at Eastern in 1918, and following subsequent encouragement from Dr. Charles Keith, a Normal School dean and former pro player who had pitched in the contest, a reluctant Earle agreed to try out for the baseball team.

After successfully making Eastern’s team, it wasn’t long before his prowess on the diamond attracted plenty of attention.  He hit .591 at Eastern during his last season there in 1921.  As was the custom for most accomplished players of the day, during the summers Combs played semi-professional baseball in several Kentucky towns: Winchester, High Splint, and Lexington.

While playing with the Lexington Reos of the Bluegrass League, Combs drew the attention of the Louisville Colonels of the American Association.  Louisville offered Combs a contract that easily topped the $37 per month he had received as a teacher.  It was around this time that Earle finally decided a career in baseball might be worth a shot.

With the Colonels in 1922 and 1923, Combs played under manager Joe McCarthy and developed quickly from a raw shortstop into a seasoned centerfielder.    It was also in Louisville that Earle developed his career-long reputation as a line-drive hitter, famous for hard smashes through the infield and into the outfield gaps which often went for extra bases.  He hit .344 in 1922 and .380 in 1923 for Louisville, coupling those high batting averages with a reputation for speedy ball-hawking in the outfield and reckless base stealing on offense.

In 1924 the New York Yankees won a spirited bidding war and bought the young outfielder for $50,000, a huge sum at that time.  Earle was an immediate success in New York.  As a rookie in the summer of 1924, patrolling center field for the Yankees between Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel, Combs hit .400 before being sidelined by a broken ankle.  The following season Combs was installed as the leadoff hitter in the famed “Murderers Row” Yankee lineup, a position in the order he would hold for the remaining eleven years of his playing career.

In his greatest overall season, 1927, he led the American League in at-bats (648), hits (231) and triples (23) while hitting .356.  Combs also scored the winning run in the World Series in New York’s four-game sweep of Pittsburgh that year.

Led by seven Hall of Famers including Earle Combs, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, in addition to manager Miller Huggins, the 1927 Yankee World Champion team is widely thought to be the best baseball team of all time.  New York won their season opener and were never headed, spending the entire season in first place.  They blitzed their American League foes with a 110-44 regular season record, while winning the pennant by 19 games, before the World Series sweep of Pittsburgh.   Earle contended that one key to the 1927 Yankees’ excellence was a lineup filled with good players, all having their best seasons, and “I always thought that’s what made us so dominant that year.”    

Earle always seemed to be at his best at World Series time.  In 1926, in a losing effort against St. Louis he batted .357 and hit safely in all seven games, and in the famous “called shot” World Series of 1932 he hit .375 as the Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs in four games.  He had 43 putouts and never made an error in the 16 World Series games in which he played.  Due to a fractured wrist suffered late in the regular season, he was limited to one pinch-hitting appearance in New York’s four-game sweep of St. Louis in 1928.

During his career, he batted over .300 nine times, had 200 or more hits three times, paced the American League in triples three times and twice led all AL outfielders in putouts.  His career batting average was .325.   As a fielder Earle was widely described as “swift, and sure-handed.”  With his speed, and with the lumbering Ruth often beside him, he could and did cover much of the Yankee outfield, leading the league in putouts with 411 in 1927 and 424 in 1928.

Combs was a Yankee fans’ favorite, known by such nicknames as “Kentucky Greyhound,”  “Silver Fox,” and “Kentucky Colonel.”  An introspective and studious family man, the college-educated Combs was considered one of the few real gentlemen on a string of great Yankee teams noted for their fun-loving, boisterous behavior.

Earle’s career was cut short in July 1934 when, on an extremely hot day in St. Louis, where reportedly temperatures on the field climbed over 100 degrees, he crashed into the Sportsman’s Park outfield wall while chasing a towering fly ball.   He suffered a fractured skull, broken shoulder and damaged knee.  He was near death for several days and was hospitalized for more than two months.

Combs returned to play in 1935, but ended up retiring at the end of the season after yet another injury.  Chasing a fly ball in a late-August game against Chicago, he collided awkwardly with another player and suffered a broken collarbone. After this mishap Earle flatly stated “I’m getting out of this game before it kills me.”

Signed on to coach for New York in 1936, Earle helped train his replacement, a young man from San Francisco.  In a letter to Combs, Yankee general manager Ed Barrow wrote, “…if young DiMaggio turns out to be as good a ball player as you were, everybody will be satisfied.”  That new center fielder was, of course, Joe DiMaggio.  DiMaggio ended his career with the same lifetime batting average, .325, as Earle Combs.

Combs continued as a coach for Yankees through 1944.  He served as a coach for the St. Louis Browns in 1947; Boston Red Sox 1948-1952; and Philadelphia Phillies in 1954.  After he retired from baseball, Earle returned to his Madison County, Kentucky farm and remained very active.  He served as Kentucky state banking commissioner during Gov. A.B. Chandler’s second administration (1955-1959), and served on Eastern Kentucky University’s board of regents from 1956 until 1975.

Upon his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1970, the typically modest Combs said he thought the Hall of Fame was for “superstars, not average players like I was.”   Baseball historians would beg to differ.  Earle Combs was a leadoff hitter for almost an entire career playing for the most storied franchise in all of professional sports.  He ended up being part of nine World Championships as a player and coach in New York.  All in all, not bad for a fellow who left eastern Kentucky at 17 to become a schoolteacher.

Earle married his childhood sweetheart Ruth McCollum in 1922.  They had three sons, Earle Jr., Charles and Donald.  Combs died on July 21, 1976, and was buried in the Richmond Cemetery.   He has not been forgotten on the campus where his baseball career began.  A dormitory at Eastern Kentucky University that bears his name, Earle Combs Hall, was completed in 1962.  The school also gives an athletic scholarship in his honor, and he is a charter member of Eastern’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

 

REFERENCES

 Biographical information adapted in part from the Earle Bryan Combs entry by William Marshall in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, copyright 1992.  Permission granted by The University Press of Kentucky and reproduction is prohibited without their permission.

 Additional sources-

 “From Pebworth to Cooperstown” by David M. Vance, from The Eastern Kentucky University Alumnus Magazine, Spring 1970

 “Earle Bryan Combs 1899-1976” by Dr. Clyde Partin, Emory University, 1985

 “The Greatest of All” by John Mosedale, The Dial Press, New York, 1974

 Craig C. Combs-The Earle B. Combs Estate

Earl Combs Web Site

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1970 Hall of Fame, Baseball History, Earle Combs, New York Yankees

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