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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #27 Earle Combs

The Yankees’ first Hall of Fame center fielder wasn’t named Mickey or Joe. Earle Combs was the real deal for Murderers’ Row.

Earl Combs Horizontal Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Full Name: Earle Bryan Combs
Position: Center field
Born: May 14, 1899 (Pebworth, KY)
Died: July 21, 1976 (Richmond, KY)
Yankee Years: 1924-35
Primary Number: 1
Yankee Statistics: 1,455 G, 1,866 H, 309 3B, .325/.397/.462, 125 OPS+, 45.0 rWAR, 41.5 fWAR

Biography

We are approaching the 100-year anniversary of the 1927 Yankees, inarguably the greatest and most famous baseball team in history. While the public can barely be bothered to remember Shohei Ohtani, a modern instantiation of Babe Ruth, then what does that say of anyone less famous on that team than, say, Lou Gehrig? It’s sad to say that someone like Earle Combs has been almost completely lost to the modern Yankees fan’s mind.

While Murderers’ Row is usually remembered by those two towering aforementioned names, people forget that Combs stood at the top of that very lineup, wearing the No. 1 to match his lineup spot as it did in those days. If a lineup called “Murderers’ Row” ever put you at the top, there had to have been something you did that was incredibly important to the history of the franchise.

Early Years

New York Yankees

Born in Pebworth, Kentucky on May 14, 1899 as one of six children to hill farmer James J. Combs and Nannie Combs, Earle Bryan Combs was born from similarly humble roots to many ballplayers of that era. Aspiring to be a schoolteacher, Combs—likely pronounced “Coombs” as many a reporter of the era misspelled it that way, according to Bill James in the New Historical Abstract—simultaneously had great success as a college athlete, playing basketball, track, and baseball, hitting to a .591 batting average in his final season. It wouldn’t be just his batting average that would get professional scouts’ attention.

Deciding to ditch teaching out of a one-room schoolhouse, Combs signed with the Louisville Colonels and nearly quit after a first disastrous game in the outfield. He quickly rebounded, batting his way to a $50,000 purchase by the New York Yankees. The Bombers were impressed by not just his hit tool but also his speed, where in Louisville he earned the name “Mail Carrier” for how quickly he rounded the bases. Combs hit .365 with a .532 slugging percentage across two seasons with the Colonels, tallying an impressive 67 doubles, 33 triples, and 18 homers in 296 games. He was ready.

The Yankee Years

Miller Huggins had a now-famous talk with Combs upon being called up to the Yankees. While at Louisville he fit the stereotypical mold of a Deadball Era leadoff man, focusing primarily on base stealing, Huggins said: “Up here, we’ll call you the waiter.” Instead, Combs created an imprint that any Yankees fan can identify. The waiter’s job was not to slap the ball on the first pitch, but to wait the pitcher out and try to find any way to get on base. From there, Babe Ruth would drive him in.

Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth
Combs, Bob Meusel, Lou Gehrig, and the Babe

Combs made his major league debut on April 16, 1924, and it looked like he would get off immediately to the races, hitting .400 over his first few weeks, only to fracture his ankle and miss the rest of the 1924 season. He did return in 1925 and made a full recovery (I don’t think I would be writing this if he did not), and he hit to a 123 OPS+ over 150 games. While the team hadn’t yet had the gangbusters success we now associate with the era, it was clear that Combs would be a part of whatever was coming.

The Yankees won a pennant in 1926 behind Combs’ .299 batting average, but the Bombers lost to the Cardinals in seven-game squeaker despite the center fielder’s .883 OPS in the Fall Classic. 1927 landed with a bang, though, and the rest was history. There was the “Murderers’ Row” moniker of course, but Combs also named that legendary team “Five O’Clock Lightning,” as they became famous for their late-game rallies. He played a significant role on that front, setting the table for Ruth and Gehrig with the best season of his career. Combs batted .356/.414/.511 (141 OPS+) with a league-leading 231 hits and 23 triples (he would lead the league in triples three times). He still holds the single-season franchise record for most triples, and he had the hits record until Don Mattingly surpassed him 59 years later in 1986.

Combs would win the World Series with the Yankees in 1927, ’28, and ’32, and he was the linchpin of all of them. He hit above 120 OPS+ every season from 1927 until 1934 and averaged 4.7 rWAR per season during that time. He showed out in ‘32 Fall Classic in particular, when he hit .375/.500/.625 in the four-game sweep of the Cubs, delivering his lone career World Series homer. In typical Combs fashion, he was overshadowed by monstrous, legendary series from Ruth and Gehrig.

The only real knock on Combs was his defense, particularly his arm. Ruth said that “Earle had a bad throwing arm… but gripping exercises have strengthened his wrists…” and Ed Barrow thought his arm “…may stop him from ever earning a niche in Cooperstown.” Thankfully, the BBWAA of today was not voting. Bill James also stated of his approach that “Combs swung late and hit everything to left field… it was reported that, when he first came into the league, he injured three pitchers in a week, all of them ripping off-speed pitches back through the box.”

James in the rankings of various decades and players in the Historical Abstract put Combs as part of the best outfield of both the 1920s and 1930s, and as the 34th-best center fielder of all-time. And during his decade-long peak from 1924-34 (only cut short by injury), the lone center fielders in baseball to post a higher fWAR than his 40.8 were Hall of Famers Al Simmons, Kiki Cuyler, and Hack Wilson.

Combs’ biggest influence, more than anything, was being a fan favorite and of a soft and calm temperament. While Ruth was bombastic and it was famously known that Gehrig was his foil, it could have tipped the boat over to have any other players who took up the whole room, too. Combs did not drink, smoke, party, or curse, and was known for attending church weekly and tending to his Bible.

Screeching Halt and Later Years

New York Yankees

As is the case with many of his Combs’ contemporaries, baseball was a physical and unforgiving business within a physical and unforgiving era, and it was no exception for No. 1. After that stretch of nearly a decade of over a 120 OPS+ and multiple championships and pennants, it all came crashing down on a disgustingly hot afternoon at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Facing the Browns on July 20, 1934, Combs—already reportedly lightheaded— was tasked with chasing down a fly ball late in the game.

Here’s what happened, courtesy of an account by Frank Graham in his book, The New York Yankees: An Informal History:

Combs crashed into the concrete wall of the bleachers in left center, fracturing his skull and tearing the muscles of his right shoulder so badly it seemed that, if he lived, he never would be able to play ball again. The accident naturally had a depressing effect on the other players, not so much because they had lost the services of their center fielder for the balance of the season, but because they feared for the life of the schoolmaster. Rushed to a hospital and placed under the care of Dr. Robert F. Hyland, he was in a coma for hours; but Hyland not only brought him safely through but so skillfully operated on his injured shoulder that with the coming of another season he was able to return to the outfield.

It was a bad scene, about as grim an on-field injury moment as any in Yankees history (save for Ray Chapman). Combs spent months in the hospital and nearly died from his injuries. But as noted above, Dr. Hyland helped save the 35-year-old’s life, and he remarkably did come back in time for Opening Day 1935.

Sadly, Combs just wasn’t the same. In 89 games, he only posted 0.8 rWAR and a 91 OPS+. Then on August 25th, he collided with third baseman Red Rolfe in pursuit of a pop fly, breaking his collarbone. Doctors ruled that his 12-year career was effectively over after all the injuries, and Combs had to accept retirement.

That wasn’t the end for Combs in baseball, though. He still had more World Series rings to add to the three he earned as a player. Combs became a full-time coach with the Yankees in 1936, and helped guide the next generation of Yankees players that would dominate the league through the 1940s and ‘50s, giving particular attention to how Joe DiMaggio would man center field.

New York Yankees Win Championship
Combs in the 1941 World Series win celebration
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The process of bringing DiMag over from the Pacific Coast League had already been well underway by the time Combs neared the end, so even with the ailments, it turned out to be a mostly-smooth handoff between a pair of Hall of Famers.

Combs would coach for a number of teams through 1954 before retiring to a farm in his home state of Kentucky. When he did eventually get inducted to the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee in 1970, Combs said, “I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like me.”

Combs enjoyed Hall of Fame status for just a few years though. He passed away on July 21, 1976, in Richmond, Virginia at the age of 77. By then, Mickey Mantle had also come along and surpassed his legacy, just like DiMaggio. And although Bernie Williams hasn’t made the Hall of Fame like Combs, more fans today obviously know his name due to recency and the dominance of the late ‘90s Yankees dynasty.

Still, for many years, Combs was the cream of the crop among Yankees center fielders. He was an outstanding player, yet one who oddly has earned a plaque in Cooperstown but not in Monument Park. The Yankees both revere and overlook their history sometimes, and this is something that should be rectified someday. The former schoolmaster and Murderers’ Row sparkplug deserves that tribute.

Staff Rank: 27
Community Rank: 26
Stats Rank: 19
2013 Rank: 25

References

Baseball Reference

Berger, Ralph. SABR Bio

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Frommer, Harvey. The Ultimate Yankee Book: From The Beginning to Today: Trivia, Facts and Stats, Oral History, Marker Moments and Legendary Personalities—A History and Reference Book About Baseball’s Greatest Franchise. Salem: Page Street Publishing Co., 2017.

Graham, Frank. The New York Yankees: An Informal History. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Previously on the Top 100

28. CC Sabathia
Full list to date