A JOURNEY FROM PEBWORTH TO COOPERSTOWN
Earle Bryan Combs was born May 14, 1899 at Pebworth,
Kentucky in Owsley County, the fifth of seven children of James Jesse and Nannie
Brandenburg Combs. A natural athlete, Combs was encouraged by his father, a
farmer and community leader, who supplied his children with homemade poplar
bats and baseballs. Sturdy tree limbs around the family farm provided the
bats; the balls were made by stitching leather, trimmed from worn-out shoes,
around a round core of rubber, fashioned from old shoe heels, and tightly
The rolling eastern Kentucky farmland and hollows
around his home place provided ample venues for the pickup games young Earle
would organize. Each spring when warmer weather came his siblings and other
neighborhood children played as often as they could, whether at recess time
at the Pleasant Grove one-room school he attended or later in the evenings,
after all the chores were completed.
However, as he grew older and his thoughts turned to
making a living, it seemed his beloved hobby of baseball would have to
wait. Earle was convinced that his life’s work would be that of a teacher.
To pursue this goal, Combs left Pebworth in 1917 to attend Eastern State
Normal School (now Eastern Kentucky University) in Richmond, eventually
receiving a teaching certificate in 1919. To help pay for his education, he
returned to eastern Kentucky to teach in one-room schools in Ida May and
Baseball would continue to beckon, however. After a
stellar performance in a faculty-student game at Eastern in 1918, and
following subsequent encouragement from Dr. Charles Keith, a Normal School
dean and former pro player who had pitched in the contest, a reluctant Earle
agreed to try out for the baseball team.
After successfully making Eastern’s team, it wasn’t
long before his prowess on the diamond attracted plenty of attention. He
hit .591 at Eastern during his last season there in 1921. As was the custom
for most accomplished players of the day, during the summers Combs played
semi-professional baseball in several Kentucky towns: Winchester, High
Splint, and Lexington.
While playing with the Lexington Reos of the Bluegrass
League, Combs drew the attention of the Louisville Colonels of the American
Association. Louisville offered Combs a contract that easily topped the $37
per month he had received as a teacher. It was around this time that Earle
finally decided a career in baseball might be worth a shot.
With the Colonels in 1922 and 1923, Combs played under
manager Joe McCarthy and developed quickly from a raw shortstop into a
seasoned centerfielder. It was also in Louisville that Earle developed
his career-long reputation as a line-drive hitter, famous for hard smashes
through the infield and into the outfield gaps which often went for extra
bases. He hit .344 in 1922 and .380 in 1923 for Louisville, coupling those
high batting averages with a reputation for speedy ball-hawking in the
outfield and reckless base stealing on offense.
In 1924 the New York Yankees won a spirited bidding war
and bought the young outfielder for $50,000, a huge sum at that time. Earle
was an immediate success in New York. As a rookie in the summer of 1924,
patrolling center field for the Yankees between Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel,
Combs hit .400 before being sidelined by a broken ankle. The following
season Combs was installed as the leadoff hitter in the famed “Murderers
Row” Yankee lineup, a position in the order he would hold for the remaining
eleven years of his playing career.
In his greatest overall season, 1927, he led the
American League in at-bats (648), hits (231) and triples (23) while hitting
.356. Combs also scored the winning run in the World Series in New York’s
four-game sweep of Pittsburgh that year.
Led by seven Hall of Famers including Earle Combs, Babe
Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, in addition to
manager Miller Huggins, the 1927 Yankee World Champion team is widely
thought to be the best baseball team of all time. New York won their season
opener and were never headed, spending the entire season in first place.
They blitzed their American League foes with a 110-44 regular season record,
while winning the pennant by 19 games, before the World Series sweep of
Pittsburgh. Earle contended that one key to the 1927 Yankees’ excellence
was a lineup filled with good players, all having their best seasons, and “I
always thought that’s what made us so dominant that year.”
Earle always seemed to be at his best at World Series
time. In 1926, in a losing effort against St. Louis he batted .357 and hit
safely in all seven games, and in the famous “called shot” World Series of
1932 he hit .375 as the Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs in four games. He
had 43 putouts and never made an error in the 16 World Series games in which
he played. Due to a fractured wrist suffered late in the regular season, he
was limited to one pinch-hitting appearance in New York’s four-game sweep of
St. Louis in 1928.
During his career, he batted over .300 nine times, had
200 or more hits three times, paced the American League in triples three
times and twice led all AL outfielders in putouts. His career batting
average was .325. As a fielder Earle was widely described as “swift,
and sure-handed.” With his speed, and with the lumbering Ruth
often beside him, he could and did cover much of the Yankee outfield,
leading the league in putouts with 411 in 1927 and 424 in 1928.
Combs was a Yankee fans’ favorite, known by such
nicknames as “Kentucky Greyhound,” “Silver Fox,” and “Kentucky Colonel.”
An introspective and studious family man, the college-educated Combs was
considered one of the few real gentlemen on a string of great Yankee teams
noted for their fun-loving, boisterous behavior.
Earle’s career was cut short in July 1934 when, on an
extremely hot day in St. Louis, where reportedly temperatures on the field
climbed over 100 degrees, he crashed into the Sportsman’s Park outfield wall
while chasing a towering fly ball. He suffered a fractured skull, broken
shoulder and damaged knee. He was near death for several days and was
hospitalized for more than two months.
Combs returned to play in 1935, but ended up retiring
at the end of the season after yet another injury. Chasing a fly ball in a
late-August game against Chicago, he collided awkwardly with another player
and suffered a broken collarbone. After this mishap Earle flatly stated “I’m
getting out of this game before it kills me.”
Signed on to coach for New York in 1936, Earle helped
train his replacement, a young man from San Francisco. In a letter to
Combs, Yankee general manager Ed Barrow wrote, “…if young DiMaggio turns out
to be as good a ball player as you were, everybody will be satisfied.” That
new center fielder was, of course, Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio ended his career
with the same lifetime batting average, .325, as Earle Combs.
Combs continued as a coach for Yankees through 1944.
He served as a coach for the St. Louis Browns in 1947; Boston Red Sox
1948-1952; and Philadelphia Phillies in 1954. After he retired from
baseball, Earle returned to his Madison County, Kentucky farm and remained
very active. He served as Kentucky state banking commissioner during Gov.
A.B. Chandler’s second administration (1955-1959), and served on Eastern
Kentucky University’s board of regents from 1956 until 1975.
Upon his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame
in Cooperstown, NY in 1970, the typically modest Combs said he thought the
Hall of Fame was for “superstars, not average players like I was.”
Baseball historians would beg to differ. Earle Combs was a leadoff hitter
for almost an entire career playing for the most storied franchise in all of
professional sports. He ended up being part of nine World Championships as
a player and coach in New York. All in all, not bad for a fellow who left
eastern Kentucky at 17 to become a schoolteacher.
Earle married his childhood sweetheart Ruth McCollum in
1922. They had three sons, Earle Jr., Charles and Donald. Combs died on
July 21, 1976, and was buried in the Richmond Cemetery. He has not been
forgotten on the campus where his baseball career began. A dormitory at
Eastern Kentucky University that bears his name, Earle Combs Hall, was
completed in 1962. The school also gives an athletic scholarship in his
honor, and he is a charter member of Eastern’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Biographical information adapted in
part from the Earle Bryan Combs entry by William Marshall in The Kentucky
Encyclopedia, copyright 1992. Permission granted by The University Press of
Kentucky and reproduction is prohibited without their permission.
“From Pebworth to Cooperstown” by David
M. Vance, from The Eastern Kentucky University Alumnus Magazine, Spring 1970
“Earle Bryan Combs 1899-1976” by Dr.
Clyde Partin, Emory University, 1985
“The Greatest of All” by John Mosedale,
The Dial Press, New York, 1974
Craig C. Combs-The Earle B. Combs Estate