By Brian Lazenby
Earle Combs loved spring, because by the time the jonquils began to appear, he had worn holes in his wool socks.
It wasn’t that Combs hated wool, or even wearing socks, but every spring his father would unravel the worn threads and wind the yarn into a tight ball. He would then cut leather pieces from a pair of his wife’s old shoes and stitch them around the yarn. Then, with a piece of wood cut from a poplar tree, Combs practiced the game he loved — baseball — a game which he later said he owes for everything he ever had.
It was baseball that helped him get an education and took him all over the country — from Pebworth in Owsley County to the Big Apple as a member of the New York Yankees. Ultimately, it led him to the infamous 1927 New York Yankees lineup that struck fear into the hearts and minds of many opposing pitchers. And not only was Combs a part of “Murderers’ Row,” as the gang of sluggers came to be known, but he was also their leadoff hitter. He set the table for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Toni Lazzeri. He helped lead the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series Championships, and according to his friends, “always wore the same size hat.”
Kyle Bobrowski played baseball in high school and portrayed Earle Combs in the “Homesong” community play in Owsley County. He learned a lot about the local hero and became a big fan. “He was very humble and never wanted to be in the spotlight,” Bobrowski says.
FROM PEBWORTH TO COOPERSTOWN
The son of a farmer from just outside of Booneville, Combs is one of only two Kentuckians inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The day he was inducted at Cooperstown, he referred to himself as “just a common guy from Kentucky.”
“All he knew his whole life was farming,” Bobrowski says. “He always believed in honesty, hard work and the Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Combs never imagined he would make a living playing baseball, so he left Pebworth for Richmond to study to become a teacher at Eastern State Normal School, now Eastern Kentucky University. But baseball was always part of his life. After a remarkable performance in a student-faculty game at Eastern, Combs was convinced to try out for the school team, where he became a star and hit .591 his final year at the school.
Combs returned home to begin his teaching career, but in the summertime he played semi-pro ball for several Kentucky towns: Winchester, High Splint and Lexington. It was while playing with the Lexington Reos in the Bluegrass League that he caught the eye of a scout from the Louisville Colonials of the American Association. They offered him $37 a month — more than his salary as a teacher. It was only then that he realized a career playing baseball might be possible.
He played for Louisville in 1922 and 1923 and transitioned from a shortstop to a ball-hawking center fielder with a penchant for stealing bases. It was in 1924 that the New York Yankees purchased Combs for an eye-popping $50,000 and brought him to the big leagues.
The hometown boy from Pebworth proved to be worth every penny. He cruised center field, snagging fly balls between Bob Meusel in left field and Ruth in right. His speed prompted many sportswriters to refer to him as a “gazelle,” “thoroughbred” and “greyhound.” He hit .400 his rookie year before a broken ankle ended his season. But the following year, he picked up where he had left off. In 1927, the year of the infamous Murderers’ Row, he led the American League in at-bats (648), triples (23) and hit a career-high 231 base hits — 39 more than Ruth. On top of that, he scored the winning run in the Yankees’ four-game World Series sweep of Pittsburgh.
During his career, Combs had a lifetime batting average of .325, had more than 200 base hits in a season three times, led the American League in triples three times and twice led the American league in putouts.
“He never really considered himself an all-star, just a country boy from Kentucky,” Bobrowski says. “But his numbers still hold up today with some of the greats.”
Combs played a role on the Yankees teams that went beyond the box score, says Earl Cox, who retired after a five-decade news career that included a stint as sports editor for The Courier-Journal in Louisville.
“He is credited with saving the Yankees a lot of games, and with saving Babe Ruth, too,” Cox says. “When Babe had been out on one of his benders the night before a game, Earl would have to play center field and right field, too.”
Combs’ career was dotted with injuries, but in 1934, he suffered skull fracture when he collided with the center field wall. He was carried from the field on a stretcher, unconscious with blood gushing from his nose and mouth. He was admitted to the hospital and listed as critical with a fractured skull, broken collar bone, dented nose and contusions on his face and knees.
He spent weeks in the hospital recovering. Despite the horrific injuries, he healed more quickly than most expected.
“I was made of tough stuff,” Combs said of his recovery.
He was beloved by teammates, Yankee fans, opposing players and fans of opposing teams. That love and admiration was shown during the time he spent hospitalized for his injuries with the thousands of letters that poured into the hospital. And in true Earle Combs form, he tried to answer as many as he could.
Combs returned to the Yankees the following year, but torn ligaments in his throwing arm sidelined him for much of the season. That fall, he decided to hang up his glove for good.
“I’m not as young as I once was,” he said at the time.
After that, Combs coached for several years, first for the Yankees, before moving to the St. Louis Browns, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. He retired from the game after the 1954 season and returned to Kentucky, where former baseball commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler served a second term as governor from 1955 to 1959. Chandler named Combs the state’s banking commissioner. The retired player also bought a farm with his wife, Ruth, and became president of Peoples Bank of Paint Lick.
Combs died in 1976 at the age of 77. He is still remembered today as one of the most humble, yet talented, players to step on the field. A dormitory at Eastern Kentucky University bears his name, and the school awards an athletic scholarship in his honor.
“In my eyes, he is the most famous person from here,” Bobrowski says. “I think he even tops Daniel Boone, because Daniel Boone wasn’t actually from here.”