October 31, 1938: Ernie Lombardi becomes the first Cincinnati Reds player to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Lombardi wins by becoming only the second catcher in Major League history to win a batting title. For the season, Lombardi batted .342 with with 19 homers and 95 rbi, a .391 OBP, and a .524 slugging percentage. He was third in the league with an overall OPS of .915.
The only other catcher to have been credited with a batting title through 1938 was another Reds catcher, Bubbles Hargrave, who had won the title in 1926 when he batted .353. Hargrave had played in 105 games with 365 plate appearances; Lombardi played in 129 games with 529 plate appearances. Lombardi later won a second batting title, in 1942 with the Boston Braves, when he batted .330 in 105 games and 347 plate appearances. I believe the rule at the time was a player had to appear in a minimum of 100 games. Joe Mauer is the third catcher to win a batting title and he’s accomplished the feat three times to this date.
Heinie Groh is another Reds player who would’ve possibly won an MVP Award if one had been announced for the 1919 Reds World Championship season. Groh batted .310/5 hr/63 rbi and a league leading .823 OPS for the 1919 team but no award was granted that season. Sabermetrician Bill James and the Stats, Inc., group retroactively named Groh to that honor in their book “All-Time Baseball Sourcebook.”
Hall of Famer Lombardi was a legend even during his playing days. A very large man, James even devotes more than 10 pages of his 2001 book “The Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract” to the Lombardi legend. Lombardi was possibly the slowest runner in baseball history, or, at least, the slowest runner of any consequential star hitters in baseball history. The shortstops and third basemen of the National League regularly, not often, but regularly played him from the outfield grass. James says in his historical abstract that some infielders played so far back that they would have to run up to have enough strength to throw the ball to first base to get Lombardi out. On at least one occasion, Lombardi was thrown out at first base in Philadelphia after hitting the ball off the left field wall.
Lombardi used a HUGE bat and would interlock his fingers somewhat like a golf swing to hit. He had such strength and bat speed that he would rocket line drives everywhere. He once hit a line drive off a pitcher’s hand and broke three fingers. A right handed batter, the corner infielders would ask their pitchers to work the plate hoping that Lombardi would hit the ball to the other side of the infield. He told Dodger Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese that it took Lombardi three years to realize that Reese wasn’t an outfielder. A quote from sportswriter Arthur Daley:
“You almost come to the conclusion that he was the greatest hitter of all time. Every hit he made . . . was an honest one.” –
The quote stands from the fact that defenses played so far back on him, only legitimately crushed line drives would fall for hits. Another quote, this one from an exceptional fielder, Lombardi’s teammate Harry Craft:
“He was the best righthanded hitter I ever saw. And he was an exceptional player in every way except running. If he hadn’t been so slow, he would have had an even better batting average.”
Lombardi played 17 major league seasons and batted over .300 in ten of them with a lifetime batting average of .306, an OBP of .358, with a SLP of .460, a lifetime .818 OPS. His career OPS+ was 126. He hit 190 career home runs with a seasonal high of 20 in 1939. What must be understood is that the Reds home run record had been 19 (Harry Heilman in 1930) until Ival Goodman hit 30 in 1938 after the Reds moved home plate 20 feet closer to the outfield fence. Crosley Field was death to home run hitters at the time and not the home run band box that it became in the 1950’s. Lombardi played 10 seasons for the Reds, batting .311 with 120 homers and an .828 OPS.
What should be noted here is that Lombardi was so good that he won the MVP Award in a season where the Reds finished fourth in the standings after being a league doormat for nearly a decade. Lombardi’s MVP award was the first of three consecutive winners by Reds players (Bucky Walters in 1939 and Frank McCormick in 1940 were the others) with the Reds winning the National League pennants in both 1939 and 1940. They ultimately won the 1940 World Series championship.
While Lombardi was a tremendous hitter, there are mixed results about his fielding. Due to his size and speed, he could only play catcher. He had a tremendous arm and liked to show that off, but he led the league in passed balls for seven consecutive seasons from 1935-41. He could not field bunts and was slow to foul pops. There’s even one story where an umpire forgot a runner was on first base and handed a missed pitch back to Lombardi because the umpire got to it first. There are stories that Lombardi would sometimes catch control-challenged Johnny Vander Meer’s pitches by often reaching out to catch them with his bare hand. Lombardi’s defensive reputation was enhanced by catching both of Vander Meer’s no-hitters in 1938.
Lombardi was a proud man and regularly held out for more money which irritated the Reds ownership. One rumor is that he made Reds general manager Warren Giles so angry that Giles actively worked to keep Lombardi out of the Hall of Fame (from Total Baseball’s “Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia”). Giles was an active member of the Hall of Fame and Lombardi wasn’t selected to the Hall of Fame until both Lombardi and Giles had died. Lombardi was so bitter about the affair that he was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t accept the honor if they even offered it to him.
Unfortunately, the most famous play that Lombardi is famous for came in the 1939 World Series when the New York Yankees swept the Reds in four games. The play, sometimes known as Schnozz’s Snooze and various other names, started with Charlie Keller on first base when Joe DiMaggio hit a drive to right field that was bobbled by Goodman. Goodman’s throw home arrived at about the same time as Keller and there was apparently a collision at home plate. Lombardi was knocked whooze and laid next to the plate with the ball on the ground as DiMaggio circled the bases to score in the extra inning victory. This wasn’t the winning run of the Series, but it became kind of defining moment that people came to remember. Lombardi said it was because it was hot in Cincinnati and he felt dizzy.
Oh…Schnozz was one of the nicknames given to Lombardi due to the size of his nose. Writer James says Lombardi’s nose was so big it would stick out through his catcher’s mask and sometimes get nicked by the baseball. Around the time became a perennial all-star, starting in 1936, Schnozz also became quite the ladies man. From James’s “New Historical Baseball Abstract:”
It was during this period…that Lombardi emerged as perhaps the most improbably matinee idol in the history of sex. A bashful, retiring man with crooked teeth and a nose like an eggplant, Lombardi, for reasons unclear, began to attract huge crowds of women. According to (writer Lee) Allen (The Cincinnati RedsO “the ladies shrieked with joy at every move the big catcher made. There was a Sinatra-like adulation of Lom that affected women of all ages, not just bobby-soxers, and after each game they would gather (and wait) to see their hero emerge in street clothes.” Lombardi, who lived with his sister in the off season, was petrified of the attention, and would hide out in the training room for hours after the game, drinking beer and waiting for the women to go home.
Lombardi later married (he was 36, his wife was reported to be 43), and Lombardi retired to take care of his family (his wife was ill), and later opened a liquor store. James reports that Lombardi attempted suicide much like former catcher teammate Willard Hershberger did during the 1940 season, slitting his throat from ear to ear. His wife found him in his sister’s bathroom and got him medical attention. He recovered and later worked as a press box attendant for the San Francisco Giants.
Lombardi was selected to seven all-star teams, including five in a row. He once hit dour doubles in a game off four different pitchers. He also hit a home run ball so far in Cincinnati, it landed on top of a laundry building beyond the left field wall. Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell is quoted as saying “I thought he might hurt me, even kill me, with one of those liners.” According to James, it was often written that Lombardi could’ve hit .400 if he could have only run. He must have been some kind of hitter.