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The Backstop Whos Overlooked:

 ERNIE LOMBARDI

         

There are a number of former catchers in baseball's Hall of Fame - Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Ray Schalk and Roger Bresnahan, to name a few.

 

One more belongs with that select group, but he has never been included. He's Ernie Lombardi, the former Cincinnati catcher who won two batting championships and had a 17-year batting average of .306.

 

Lombardi currently is not eligible to be installed in baseball's shrine because he generally was ignored by Baseball Writers Association voters during the 20 years of balloting after he retired. But he rates as well as, if not better than, several of the Hall of Fame backstops.

 

Schalk, for instance, had only a .253 career batting average. Bresnahan, the first catcher to wear shin guards, in 1907, was only a .280 lifetime hitter.

 

Lombardi's contemporaries were Cochrane, Dickey and Hartnett. Lombardi's career statistics stack up favorably against these catchers. Yet he's been ignored while his three contemporaries have been in the Hall of Fame for years.

 

 

Ernie Lombardi was a cartoonist's dream. He was called "The Schnozz" because of his unusually large nose.

 

"He brought to baseball," wrote baseball historian Lee Allen in The Cincinnati Reds, "a nose so lavish in its geography that the more famous schnozzola of Jimmy Durante's seems picayunish in comparison."

    Lombardi, son of Italian immigrants, grew up and first played baseball in Oakland, a hotbed of baseball for years. He was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1931, but the following year he was traded to the Reds as part of a six-player exchange. The Reds shipped Clyde Sukeforth, Tom Cuccinello and Joe Stripp to the Dodgers for Lombardi, Wally Gelbert and Babe Herman. It was one of the best trades the Reds ever made.

    Lombardi blossomed into an outstanding hitter. In his 10 seasons in Cincinnati, Lombardi batted over .300 in seven of them. In' one four-year stretch he batted .343, .333, .334, and .342. The .342 average in 1938 was good enough to' win the National League batting championship. When he won the title, he became only the second catcher in modern history to win a batting title - Bubbles Hargrave of the Reds was the other in 1926.

 

Lombardi's biggest knock was his speed. He might have been the slowest man ever to play major league baseball. Infielders would play so deep on him that it almost appeared there were seven outfielders. On more than one occasion he was thrown out at first base by an outfielder who pegged a perfect throw to first as Ernie slowly trudged down the base path, looking as if a piano were strapped to his backside.

 

Lombardi long will be remembered for a play in the ninth inning of Game No. 4 of the 1939 World Series with the New York Yankees. The Reds, down three games to none, were attempting a comeback and led, 4-2, in the ninth inning of the fourth contest. But the Reds muffed a double-play ball and the Yankees finally tied the score to send the game into extra innings.

That set the stage for one of the strangest plays ever in World Series competition.

         
       

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