Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,063

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,063


This is the grave of Earle Combs.

Born in 1899 in Pebworth, Kentucky, Combs was a huge baseball fan from the time he was a small child. His family was evidently pretty poor and he had to make his own balls out of whatever he could find. In 1917, Combs went to college to become a teacher at Eastern Kentucky State Normal School, which is today Eastern Kentucky University. This was a common path for a kid with some ambition to rise into the middle class. It was a pretty limited educational model though. You went for two years and then got assigned to teach some one-room schoolhouse in the many communities of rural Kentucky. But it was as good as it was going to get for those little places.

Anyway, turns out Combs was better at baseball than he was at teaching. Eastern Kentucky had a baseball team and Combs immediately became the team’s star player. But he stuck the course, graduating, going to Owsley County, and teaching in one of these schools. Sure he played a little semipro ball on the side, but he didn’t really have an idea of becoming an actual baseball player professionally. But while playing semipro ball in Lexington in the summer of 1922, he caught the attention of a scout in the audience for the Louisville Colonels, the equivalent of a modern AAA team in the American Association. After playing there in 1923, he was seen as a huge potential star and there was a bidding war for his services from major league clubs. As so often happens, the Yankees outbid everyone and Combs became their new center fielder.

Combs was immediately outstanding. He was on his way toward dominating the league in his rookie year of 1924, batting over .400, but he broke his ankle sliding into second base in June and that was it. This would be the problem with Combs’ career–serious injuries. But managers loved Combs. He had all the perfect conditions of whiteness that makes other whites swoon–he played “hard” regardless of injuries, he wasn’t a problem in the clubhouse, he fit in with other whites perfectly. Thus, his managers loved him very much, as did the sportswriters. He was their platonic ideal of what a baseball player should be, a set of traits that has not changed much even after integration and all the decades since, as we saw with the love for Cal Ripken among Boomers. Combs maintained quality play when he was healthy for his whole career. But in 1934, Combs went full on into the outfield wall chasing a fly ball (he’s so gritty and hard working!) and destroyed his body. He broke several bones, including his skull. He nearly died and did not leave the hospital for two months. He briefly attempted a comeback in 1935, but his body was finished and the Yankees were ready to call up Joe DiMaggio anyway.

Combs remained around the game for the next twenty years after he retired. He coached for the Yankees for the next decade, then moved on with stints for the Browns (the site of his catastrophic injury), the Red Sox, and the Phillies. But in 1954, he left baseball entirely. He had bought a big farm in Kentucky and wanted to retire there. But he also got involved in the Kentucky elite. Former commissioner Happy Chandler was now governor of Kentucky and he named Combs the Kentucky Banking Commissioner. I’m sure this appointment was entirely on merit based on Combs’ deep knowledge of mid-century financial systems……He also ended up on Eastern Kentucky’s Board of Regents and there’s dorm there named after him.

In truth, Combs was more of a very good player than a truly great player. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR metric, Combs’ best year was 1927, when he hit .356/414/511 and led the league in triples with 23. That produced a 7.1 WAR which is close to MVP level, although he received no MVP votes that year, which given his teammates, fair enough. But he was mostly a 4-5 WAR guy, which means the type of guy today you might make a few All-Star Games. He did lead the league in triples on three occasions. Often, with these old legends, you look back and think maybe they were overrated at the time. But in fact, Combs only got MVP votes on two different occasions, finishing 18th in 1925 and 6th in 1928. So, well, people mostly saw him as just pretty good at the time too.

All this perhaps makes it slightly surprising that Combs received an induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970. In fact, Combs himself was shocked! He stated, “I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like me.” I’m sure that Combs knew he was not average. But he also wasn’t deluded–he knew that he didn’t really belong there. In fact, he’s been used as one of the prime examples of Veterans Committee mistakes ever since, with Bill James particularly shaking his head at this decision. Of course now with Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame, the level of ridiculousness from the Veterans Committee has reached new and epic heights.

Combs died in 1976. He was 77 years old.

Earle Combs is buried in Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, Kentucky.

Also, tomorrow is Opening Day! Yay!

If you would like this series to visit other center fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS metric, Combs is the 37th best center fielder of all time, i.e., not really that close to HOF standards given that #9, 10, and 11 are Carlos Beltran, Kenny Lofton, and Andruw Jones, none of which have ever been close to admission. In fact, Combs comes in lower than Andrew McCutchen, Curtis Granderson, Ellis Burks, and Torri Hunter, guys with zero chance of ever getting a sniff at the Hall. But I guess playing in a big market with Babe Ruth is what matters here, no wonder I hate the Yankees so much. Anyway, Turkey Stearns, a contemporary of Combs but who was Black and thus could not play with the white snowflakes, ranks 35th in JAWS and is in Clinton Township, Michigan, while Wally Berger, who ranks 40th and was Combs’ contemporary playing with the Braves, is in Inglewood, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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