Early Years

Ernesto Natali Lombardi was born April 6, 1908 in Oakland, California. He was nicknamed Botch by his friends because of his outstanding skill at bocce ball, an alternative street version of baseball. By his 18th birthday, Ernie was ready to play pro, and was signed by the Brooklyn club. When he first entered the minors, Lombardi was blessed with another nickname that lasted his entire baseball career - "Schnozz", in honor of his rather prominent proboscis. Nickname or not, you could definitely attach the word "superstar" to Ernie in the Pacific Coast League. Playing for the hometown Oakland Oaks, he led the league in batting 3 times, and was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 1955. In 1931, he was finally called up to the big leagues to play with the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers). He batted .297 and showed promise with his strong throwing arm from the plate. It wasn't enough to save his career in the Big Apple, as he was traded to the Reds for their catcher, Clyde Sukeforth. Years later, the Robins would look back on that deal with much regret.

The Reds Are Coming

In Ernie's first full season with the Reds, he batted .303 with 11 home runs and showed his great promise at the plate. He held the league's heaviest bat at 44 ounces (!) and he held it at the very end to give him maximum leverage. He would interlock his fingers (similar to a golf club) and had an incredibly quick stroke that smashed fastballs and changeups alike deep into the outfield. This helped the Scnozz greatly, because he wasn't exactly known for his speed. He stole only 8 bases in his entire major league career! Luckily he hit the ball far enough he still managed to crank out doubles and triples at a pace exceeding most other catchers in the league.

Over the years, Lombardi's bat and quick reflexes behind the plate made him the premiere catcher in the league. He is the only catcher to have the led the league in batting average twice, including a scorching .342 in 1938, the year he was also awarded the MVP award in the league. It was during that MVP season that he became the answer to another trivia question: "Who caught both of Johnny van der Meer's back-to-back no hitters in 1938?"

In 1939, Ernie and the Reds had their most successful season yet, clinching the National League pennant and earning a right to face the vaunted New York Yankees. The Yankees quickly took a 3-0 lead in the World Series, and in the 10th inning of Game 4, Charlie Keller stood at second, while Joe DiMaggio sat on first. A high flyball to right was bobbled, and Keller raced around to home plate. As he did, he delivered a stunning kick to Lombardi in parts best left unmentioned. Ernie lay on the ground completely motionless as DiMaggio raced in with the winning run of the Series. Forever known as "Lombardi's Swoon," Ernie never lived down the undue infamy of the incident. Still, he and the Reds were as determined as ever next season to finish on top.

The following season saw Ernie bombarded with injuries. In June, he went down again with shaky knees, and his backup Willard Hershberger took over, batting a heated .309 and serving as an excellent catcher. Rumors of a trade swirled while Lombardi languished in the training room. Then on August 3, Hershberger, suffering from depression, committed suicide. The team was devastated, and Lombardi valiantly returned to his position despite his injuries. Unfortunately, his knees gave out on him again in mid-September, and Reds coach Jimmy Wilson was drafted into backstop duties, becoming a World Series hero in the process. Lombardi, ring on hand, bore him no grudge.

The End of the Road

In 1942, the rattled Lombardi was shipped to the Boston Braves, where he proved he was still a threat in the lineup by winning his second batting title with a .330 average. He demanded and received a trade to the New York Giants, where he served as a solid platoon catcher until 1946.

In 1947 he was demoted to the minors to become a mentor to upcoming catcher. But old Lombardi still had some tricks up his sleeve. In 1948, playing for the Sacramento Solons, he knocked a home run that traveled (based on estimates) 578 feet! He finally called it quits at the end of the season.

After Baseball

Ernie and his wife Cora set up a liquor store upon his retirement, but the time away from baseball proved traumatic for Lombardi. In 1953, depression had set in fulltime, and in August, he attempted suicide by slashing his throat - the same way his old teammate Willard Hershberger had killed himself.

Eventually he overcame his depression, but he held a long bitterness at Major League Baseball for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Critics point out he didn't have the stats of Mickey Cochrane or Yogi Berra, while fans showed his longevity, popularity, and .306 lifetime average. He was shunned time and time again while other lesser stars were inducted, and eventually he refused to appear at MLB functions.

Ernie Lombardi, MVP catcher and 8-time All-Star, passed away September 26, 1977 in Santa Cruz, California. In 1986, he was rewarded for his outstanding performance by being named by the Veterans Committee to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Career Statistics

YEAR   TEAM    G   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI SB  BB  SO    BA
1931 BRO NL   73  182  20   54   7  1   4  23  1  12  12  .297
1932 CIN NL  118  413  43  125  22  9  11  68  0  41  19  .303
1933 CIN NL  107  350  30   99  21  1   4  47  2  16  17  .283
1934 CIN NL  132  417  42  127  19  4   9  62  0  16  22  .305
1935 CIN NL  120  332  36  114  23  3  12  64  0  16   6  .343
1936 CIN NL  121  387  42  129  23  2  12  68  1  19  16  .333
1937 CIN NL  120  368  41  123  22  1   9  59  1  14  17  .334
1938 CIN NL  129  489  60  167  30  1  19  95  0  40  14  .342
1939 CIN NL  130  450  43  129  26  2  20  85  0  35  19  .287
1940 CIN NL  109  376  50  120  22  0  14  74  0  31  14  .319
1941 CIN NL  117  398  33  105  12  1  10  60  1  36  14  .264
1942 BSN NL  105  309  32  102  14  0  11  46  1  37  12  .330
1943 NYG NL  104  295  19   90   7  0  10  51  1  16  11  .305
1944 NYG NL  117  373  37   95  13  0  10  58  0  33  25  .255
1945 NYG NL  115  368  46  113   7  1  19  70  0  43  11  .305
1946 NYG NL   88  238  19   69   4  1  12  39  0  18  24  .290
1947 NYG NL   48  110   8   31   5  0   4  21  0   7   9  .282
     CAREER 1853 5855 601 1792 277 27 190 990  8 430 262  .306
* Bold denotes led league.

And he threw so hard
when I was on the mound
I had to duck to keep from getting hit.
Lee Grissom, Lombardi teammate

Sources

  • http://www.efqreview.com/NewFiles/v20n4/onhistoricalground.html
  • http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/hofer_bios/lombardi_ernie.htm
  • http://www.baseball-reference.com/l/lombaer01.shtml
  • http://www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/L/Lombardi_Ernie.stm

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