There are a slew of outlandish stories about Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi that seem too remarkable to be true. He held seven baseballs in one hand. He ate an entire bag of peanuts while in the on-deck circle. He caught a baseball dropped from an airplane. But Lombardi, who was called “Lom” or “Muss” by teammates, actually did all those things. He seemed more like a cartoon character than a baseball star.
In a 17-year career, Lombardi displayed masterful bat control and lightning-quick wrists. He was a pure hitter, possibly the best smasher of a baseball in his time. Lombardi won two batting titles and he hit .300 ten times. Some pitchers felt Lombardi, with his long arms, barrel chest, and fat ankles, was the toughest batter in the National League.
“I never trusted my fastball [against] Lombardi,” said Dizzy Dean.
It’s incredible to think what Lombardi was able to do (he hit .330 five times), in spite of having never gotten an infield hit. For Lombardi, essentially the only way he got on base was to hit a line drive. Which may have been helped by those big hands: seven-baseball-holding hands.
Lombardi was one of the slowest runners in baseball history, but he was agile enough to block pitches for his pitching staff. Sure, he grounded into a lot of double plays, but he hit the baseball harder than anyone in the league. Yes, he had huge ears and a gigantic nose, but he was one of the most popular players to ever wear a Cincinnati Reds uniform. He was the first catcher to win two batting titles.
In 1938, Lombardi, who was known as “Schnozz” for his giant sniffer, won his first batting crown, and was named Most Valuable Player. That season, he caught both of Johnny Vander Meer’s no-hitters, which came in consecutive starts. He batted .467 against southpaws in his MVP season. He nearly wore a different uniform that year.
The 1937 MLB winter meetings were held at the austere Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago, where the lounge was frequent host to jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Inspired to shake up their last place team, the Reds braintrust of general manager Warren Giles and manager Bill McKechnie agreed to deal Lombardi to the Cubs for an undisclosed cache of players. But when approval was sought from Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, he balked. “That trade would give us too many catchers,” Wrigley reportedly said. His primary catcher at the time was 36-year old Gabby Hartnett.
Ernie stayed with Cincinnati, won the MVP in 1938, and helped the team to pennants in both 1939 and 1940. He didn’t change uniforms until 1942, when the Boston Braves purchased his contract from the Reds. He won the batting title for the Braves, and finished with a .303 career average, and his reputation as the purveyor of line drives.
Carl Hubbell, the best pitcher in the National League when Lombardi was haunting pitchers, liked to tell the story of the time that Ernie hit two screaming line drives up the middle against him. “In one afternoon he knocked off my cap and my glove,” King Carl said. “I was terrified of that man.” Lombardi batted .331 with six homers against Hubbell.
Most Runs Cost by Grounding Into Double Plays, Career
- Ernie Lombardi … 46.4
- Albert Pujols … 45.2
- Miguel Cabrera … 45.1
- Jim Rice … 41.7
- Paul Konerko … 40.3
- George Scott … 35.9
- Joe Torre … 35.5
- Tony Pérez … 30.0
- Brooks Robinson … 27.6
- Ron Santo … 27.5
This type of thing is situational: you have to be a good hitter who bats in the middle of the order with lots of runners on base to even sniff this list. Five of the players on this list are in the Hall of Fame, including Lombardi.