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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Ernie Lombardi's Bittersweet Road
to the Hall of Fame

By Brian Mulligan

The car wheels roll along the California road as the big man they affectionately call the Schnozz and his wife, Bernice, drive east through the beginnings of the Golden State's spring bloom. It is early April 1953, a time for another baseball season, so many of which Ernie Lombardi has spent here in the California sunshine. At forty-five, the two-time National League batting champion is now a liquor store operator, five years removed from his final baseball season, one spent with the Sacramento Solons. The Lombardis are going to see relatives in San Leandro, California, but this trip is not one being undertaken for the purpose of visiting with Lombardi's sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Van Ness.

The visit with relatives is merely a quick pit stop on the way to an appointment at a sanatorium in Livermore to treat the former catcher's growing depression—a depression that has intensified in recent weeks. At some point during the daylong visit with his sister, Ernie Lombardi complains of not feeling well and excuses himself to the bedroom. When her husband doesn't return after several minutes, Bernice Lombardi goes into the bedroom to check on him. And in circumstances eerily similar to those of his Reds' understudy Willard Hershberger* some fourteen years earlier, she finds that her husband, the solid six-foot three-inch foundation of a man upon whom the Cincinnati pennant winners of 1939 and 1940 relied, is lying on the bed with his throat slit from ear to ear—a self-inflicted wound from a safety razor the big man had found in the bathroom.

Still alive, Lombardi is rushed to nearby Fairmont Hospital while strongly fighting the attempts to save his life. He screams "Let me die!" over and over again until he is gradually brought under control by health care workers. The wound is so severe, the attending doctors decide to transfer him to Oakland and a hospital where he stands a better chance of recovery. Even there, he is given little hope for survival.

But as the hours pass into days, it becomes apparent that Lombardi is not going to die. Just as in his baseball career, Lom proves resilient and stages a comeback. Eventually, he is removed from the critical list and avoids joining his fellow backstop from the 1940 World Champions as a baseball suicide.

Hershberger had a family legacy of suicide and suffered from mental illness that led him to become the only big league ballplayer ever to kill himself during a major league season. Lombardi's road to a nearly similar fate took longer but was equally painful.

How had the quiet, unassuming, giant of a man, former Most Valuable Player and two-time batting champion, come to this? As with Hershberger before him, there is no easy answer. But it seems clear that the absence of baseball in his life played an integral part.

 

From the time he is a young boy, the only life Lombardi knows or cares about is one that has baseball at the center. It is a life that includes seventeen years as a major leaguer, the pinnacle of a lifelong love affair with the game that begins even before Lombardi plays semipro ball for Raviloi's Meat Market at the ripe old age of twelve.

How passionate is he about the game?

Family members often recalled the story of a preteen Lombardi leaving for a game one morning and never showing for a family wedding that night. Even as a youngster, Lombardi is most comfortable on the diamond. A permanent fixture on the sandlots of Oakland, he would have been a star on any high school team, yet he does not take to traditional schooling. Upon finishing grammar school, Lombardi loses his chance to letter in the sport he loves when he skips high school to work in his father's grocery store. He continues his education on the diamond, however, playing baseball at the semipro level into his late teens.

 

An Oak Grows in Brooklyn

Initially, at least, Lombardi and his shotgun arm patrol the outfield, even though it is an uneasy marriage. The cannon of an arm is attached to a plodding body that is slow to react to balls hit to the outfield. His manager Al Clark takes notice of the hulking teen's powerful arm and soon-to-be legendary lack of speed and realizes that Lombardi, an unnatural fit in the outfield, has the potential tools to become a solid backstop. From that moment on, with Clark's guiding hand, the "Schnozz" will unleash his rifle-quick arm from behind the plate—a manager's instinct that later helps a quality slugger earn his keep in the big leagues.

Scouts for the Pacific Coast League scour semipro games throughout the Bay Area in the 1920s as Lomabrdi learns the ropes behind the plate. His play, especially with his bat, raises eyebrows. Initially, a contract offer comes from the Oakland Oaks, but Lombardi is fearful that Oakland might try to send him to a farm team away from his home for some seasoning (he is not yet a quality receiver). So he rebuffs the offer. He is young and still attached to his hometown. But after a trip his father takes out of town leaves Ernie in charge of the family store, the teenager knows that a life of running a grocery store is not for him. At nineteen, he places a call to the Oaks to see if they are still interested. Fortunately, they are, and Lombardi signs his first professional contract—for the remainder of the 1926 season.

Lombardi's initial reticence at signing with the Oaks later proves to be more than just teenage jitters when, in his second professional season, the converted catcher discovers that his defense is not quite up to Pacific Coast League standards (at least as far as the Oaks' decision-makers are concerned). He is demoted to the Oaks' farm club in Ogden, Utah, a place literally "up in the hills." Ogden is a long way from California, and the man who will later earn fame in part because of his famous "schnozz" is, here, in the initial stages of his career, suffering because of it. As a member of the Utah nine, Lombardi experiences severe nosebleeds due to the altitude, becomes sick, and begins to lose weight.

In spite of these hardships and what the Oaks consider a questionable defensive ability not on par with other backstops in the Coast League, there is nothing questionable about Lombardi's bat. He hits .398 over fifty games in Ogden and soon finds himself and his no-longer-bloody nose back in Oakland, where for the next three seasons his lumber crackles off seasons of .377, .366, and .370.

"I don't know whether they [the Oaks] brought me back to save my life or because I was hitting so good," Lombardi said. "But I'm sure glad they did." His three successive seasons hitting above the .350 mark convince some in the major leagues that the time is right to take a chance on the big man with the big nose and, in 1930, the Brooklyn Dodgers buy themselves an Oak for the sum of $50,000.

Brooklyn proves to be far from an idyllic experience. In 1931, his rookie year, Lombardi rides the bench behind veteran Al Lopez, who bats a light .260 but plays because he is a favorite of manager Wilbert Robinson. As an understudy to Lopez, Lombardi gets into just thirty-seven games for the Bums but posts a healthy .297 average. His rookie year is marked by a brief flirtation with pitching (again, another baseball man trying to harness Lom's powerful arm) but never goes beyond the tryout stage. His rookie year also marks the first and only time Lombardi is pinch-hit for in his entire career, when Robinson sends Ike Boone, a reserve outfielder, up to bat for the gentle giant.

Although Dodger skipper Robinson toys with the idea of putting Lombardi on the hill for the Dodgers as late as September of 1931, come April of the following year the big man has traded Dodger blue for Cincinnati red and a permanent pair of shin guards.

 

Catching Fire in Cincinnati

The move is perfect for Lombardi and he catches on famously in the Queen City, moving immediately into a starting role. His bat sends balls bouncing off the Crosley Field wall as he hits an impressive .303 for a woeful Reds team. His fielding also improves, and despite the insults hurled his way for being oafish and lumbering, he is agile behind the plate, covering pop fouls well and gunning down would-be basestealers who dare to run against his strong arm.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2003 issue.

—EFQ

 

BRIAN MULLIGAN is a writer and Little League coach who lives with his family in Melville, New York. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming baseball book Designed to Break Your Heart.

© 2003 Brian Mulligan

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