Happy Hall of Fame weekend! On Sunday, the Hall inducts Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Pat Gillick. Twenty-five years ago, the bronze plaque of former Reds Catcher Ernie Lombardi was placed along side the other immortals of the game. In honor of the silver anniversary of his induction, here are 25 fun and not-so-fun facts about the Catcher they called the "Schnoz," "Lumbago," and plenty of other nicknames.
- Ernesto Natali Lombardi was born on April 6, 1908 in Oakland, California. His parents ran an Italian grocery store. He excelled in bocce. At 12, he played baseball for Ravioli's Meat Market. It is difficult to imagine a more quintessentially Italian-American upbringing.
- "Bocci" was a very large man, particularly for his position and the era. He was listed at 6'3", 230 lbs. but was closer to 300 in his later playing days. Only two other catchers even approached Lombardi in physical stature in the first half of the 20th century. One of them, Larry McLean, caught for the Reds for seven years in the teens.
- He was infamously slow. And not just catcher-slow, but s l o w slow. Arthur Daley of the NYT once noted that Lombardi "ran on a treadmill and couldn't outrace a snail, even with a headstart." Bill James said Lombardi's "center of gravity was four feet behind him."
4. Lombardi started his professional career for his hometown Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He hit well (over .350 with power in 1929 and 1930) and caught the eye of Brooklyn scouts, who signed him before the 1931 season.
5. Brooklyn turned out to be a poor fit. The Robins (they would become the Dodgers in '32) already started a young Al Lopez, who had a decent bat and was a more traditional catch-and-throw receiver. The Dodgers considered turning Lombardi into a pitcher because of his rifle arm, but instead traded him to Cincinnati in 1932.
6. "The Cyrano of the Iron Mask" may have had a strong arm, but he wasn't exactly Johnny Bench back there. Lombardi led the National League in passed balls nine times (cue Ed Rooney). But like Bench he was reputed to have caught a pitch bare-handed (from Johnny Vander Meer).
7. In ten years for the Reds, Lombardi hit .311/.359/.460 for a 126 OPS+. He hit .306 for his career and won two batting titles (the last Catcher to win a title before Joe Mauer), which is amazing considering he almost always had to stroke line drives to get a hit. Daley wrote that a ball leaving Lombardi's bat (at 42 oz., the heaviest in the game) was like "a shell leaving a howitzer."
8. Lombardi's famous lack of speed allowed infielders to play him as deep as their arms would allow. He once joked that for three years he thought Pee Wee Reese was an outfielder before he realized Reese was the Dodgers' shortstop.
9. Lombardi held the bat with interlocking fingers, as if he were holding a golf club. Bill James suggests this could explain his legendary bat control. Lombardi on his unusual grip: "Sometimes when I am in a slump, I use a regular grip in batting practice, but always I feel sort of funny, and I go back to the golf grip. No one ever told me to take a regular grip on a bat."
10. On May 8,1935 in Philadelphia, "Schnoz" doubled in four straight at bats, all off different pitchers. Lombardi singled in his last at bat off of the short outfield wall of the Baker Bowl.
11. Lombardi snored terribly. Roommate Chick Hafey once tried to remedy the problem by tying Lombardi's big toe to the bedpost. I don't know if it worked.
12. "Lumbago" was apparently a bit of a Lothario. Frank Grayson of the Cincinnati Times-Star wrote: "The big fella gets more mash notes from starry-eyed twists than another other single guy lucratively engaged in the glorified game of rounders. They are all perfumed missives, and the dear little writers would not feel highly complimented if they could but see the object of their misdirected affections pick up the monogrammed envelopes by their corners and deposit them in the nearest ash can."
13. Lombardi won the MVP in 1938, the first of three consecutive Reds to win the award. That year he won his first batting title (.342) and put up an OPS+ of 152. He came to bat 529 times, the only time in his career he crossed the 500 PA threshold.
14. He also caught both of Johnny Vander Meer's no-hitters on June 11 and June 15, 1938. He wasn't a defensive whiz, but by most accounts he handled the staff well and called a good game.
15. The Reds slowly built a contender in the late 1930s, but Lombardi's postseason performance would leave something to be desired and hurt his national reputation. The infamous "Lombardi's snooze" play in game 4 of the 1939 World Series unfairly rendered him as a goat for the series. With one out in the top of the tenth and runners on first and third, Joe DiMaggio slapped a ball to left field to break the tie. Lombardi got bulldozed at the plate by the Yankees' Charles "King Kong" Keller when LF Ival Goodman's throw arrived late. Lombardi, dazed from the blow, did not react quickly enough to tag DiMaggio, who had sprinted all around the basepaths to score the game's final run. The run didn't really matter because it put the Yankees up by three and the Reds didn't score again. Oh, and the Yankees were already up three games to none. Still, Lombardi was considered the Bill Buckner of his day because of that play.
16. Even when the Reds won it all the following year, the "Big Slug" played only a minor role in the World Series. He badly sprained his ankle on September 15 and didn't play again in the regular season. He got to the plate four times in the seven-game World Series.
17. The joy of the 1940 championship was undoubtedly tempered by a tragedy preceding it. Following tough road losses in the dog days of summer, backup catcher Willard Hershberger took his own life at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on August 2. The hypochondriac Hershberger (nicknamed the "Little Slug") had lost 15 pounds during the stifling summer heat while playing regularly for Lombardi, who was in and out of the lineup (as he often was) with finger and ankle injuries. On July 31 in New York, Hershberger called for an 0-2 fastball from Bucky Walters to put away the Giants' light-hitting Harry Danning* with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Walters shook him off once but Hershberger persisted. Danning stunned everyone by turning on the fastball for a walk-off home run. On August 2 in Boston, Hershberger went 0 for 5 in the second game of a doubleheader, leaving runners on base each time, and was visibly distraught. Manager Bill McKechnie talked with Hershberger for hours after the game. Hershberger revealed that his father had committed suicide and that he had considered the same. But by the time the two finished dinner, Hershberger was in much better spirits, or so his manager thought. Some time the next day in his hotel room, Hershberger took his own life.
18. Following an off year and another feud with the front office over his salary, in early 1942 the Reds sold Lombardi to Boston (who were now the Braves again). Perhaps invigorated by the change of scenery, Lombardi enjoyed a renaissance year in Boston, winning his second batting title. Lombardi then finished his MLB career with five seasons with the New York Giants.
19. Despite his battles with management and the "snooze" play, Lombardi was incredibly popular with Cincinnati fans and writers. Lombardi supposedly never refused to sign an autograph after a youngster he had turned down told his friends not to bother asking Lombardi: "Don't pay any attention, he can't write." The writers named the Reds MVP award after him.
20. Even after his MLB career finished, Lombardi kept playing. He returned to the PCL, reportedly hitting a 578 foot HR in one contest for the Sacramento Salons. He also starred for the famous "Nine Old Men" 1948 Oakland Oaks team, which Casey Stengel led to the league championship.
21. Like many former greats, Lombardi did not take well to retirement. He ran a liquor store for some time in San Leandro, California. In 1953, he tried to kill himself. He was ironically on his way to a sanatorium (at his wife's urging), spending the night at a relative's. Lombardi slit his throat - as had Hershberger - from ear to ear with a razor. He begged not to be saved and fought with the hospital attendants who tried to help him. It's impossible to know if Hershberger's suicide loomed large in Lombardi's mind, but it likely contributed in some way to his depression. Hershberger had told a teammate in 1940 that "If Ernie had been catching, we wouldn't have lost those ball games."
22. Even though Lombardi was one of the top four catchers of the first half of the century, his HOF candidacy failed to gather any momentum. He crested on the writers' ballot at 16% in 1964. His poor showing was puzzling considering the writers elected the other three catchers (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett) from the above list. There's a fairly clear delineation between those four and the rest of the field. Warren Giles, the President of the National League and Reds' GM at the end of Lombardi's career, reportedly did his best to freeze out Lombardi.
23. Lombardi wasn't going to actively campaign for the HOF, but the snubs clearly bothered him. A writer spotted Lombardi working at an Oakland gas station when he was about sixty, and asked him what he thought of his Hall of Fame balloting. Lombardi responded angrily. "They can take the Hall of Fame and you know what they can do with it .... I'm bitter." Around that time, Richard Nixon named Lombardi the starting NL Catcher on his 1925-1945 all-star team. Incidentally, Nixon was a former classmate of Hershberger's.
24. Lombardi died on September 26, 1977, four years after his wife passed. A few months before the Hall of Fame had inducted Al Lopez, the catcher Brooklyn elected to keep over Lombardi.
25. On August 3, 1986, the Hall of Fame inducted Lombardi. He was elected by the Veteran's Committee.
* Danning was not a prolific power hitter (57 career HRs in over 3,000 PAs), but in fairness he was an accomplished contact hitter (career .285 average). According to a family member, Danning always said that, if his home run had anything to do with Hershberger's death, he wished he would have struck out.
*** Facts were culled from Wikipedia, Baseball Reference, Bill James' New Historical Abstract, Brian Mulligan's The 1940 Cincinnati Reds: A World Championship and Baseball's Only In-Season Suicide, and assorted other articles.