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Robert Treadway: Earle Combs – ‘Kentucky Colonel’ of baseball, world-class gentleman

Earle Combs is one of only four Kentuckians in the Baseball Hall of Fame (Photo from public domain)


From time to time, one sees lists of someone’s opinion on who are Kentucky’s greatest athletes, and while each list is different, there are the usual candidates (Muhammad Ali, Dan Issel). One of those usual candidates used to be baseball Hall of Famer Earle Combs, born in Pebworth, in Owsley County. Combs used to regularly appear on such lists, but perhaps because he played in the 1920s and ’30s, and there is little living memory of him, he has dropped off most of the recent lists. This is unfortunate, because he was among the greatest baseball players of his era. After his retirement, Combs became a beloved community leader in Kentucky.

My great uncle, Earle Angel, also grew up in rural Owsley County, where he attended one-room schools in Levi and Pebworth. Stories about one-room schoolhouses abound in the mountains. They were made for reality TV. Eight grades were crowded into one room, taught by a teacher who was often little better educated than the older students.

Earle Combs was one of those teachers, far better than the average. My great uncle used to tell me stories about how Combs used to challenge the boys to hit a baseball farther than he could (they couldn’t) or pitch one to him, in the strike zone, that he couldn’t hit (they couldn’t do that, either).

Combs, a cousin of my great-grandmother, who also grew up in Pebworth, was teaching in that one-room schoolhouse during the winter, and playing baseball during the summer. He’d gone to what is now Eastern Kentucky University, then a two-year teachers’ college, on a baseball scholarship, encouraged by the school’s dean of men – who was also the baseball coach.

During the 1920s, major league baseball reigned as the most popular sport in America, often taking up half or more of the content of sports pages. This was fueled in part by the New York Yankees, funded by brewing magnate Jacob Murdock, and managed by the incomparable Miller Huggins.

As Huggins built up his Yankees, Combs played semi-pro ball in small towns around Kentucky, while my great uncle followed Combs’ footsteps to Eastern, then to teach in his own one-room schoolhouse. Combs was picked up by the minor league Louisville Cardinals, the first team to offer him more than the $37 a month he was making as a teacher in Owsley County. By 1924, he had become enough of a minor league sensation that his contract was the subject of a bidding war between major league teams; the Yankees won, paying $50,000, a considerable sum for the day.

Combs’ rookie season was cut short early on by injury, but when the 1925 season began, Huggins placed Combs in the lead-off batting slot for the season. He liked his performance well enough to keep him there for the next eleven seasons.

Combs' first name was misspelled on his baseball card. (From public domain)

By the late ’20s, the classic Yankee lineup had emerged. The first six batters on the team, Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, became known as Murders’ Row.

Murderers’ Row’s best season, which was also the Yankees’ best season, was 1927. Many sportswriters have described the 1927 Yankees as the best baseball team ever assembled. That year was also Earle Combs’ best season.

That year, Combs batted .356, led the Yankees in base hits at 231, and in triples, at 23, all career bests for him as well. As well as Combs played that year, his teammates racked up better numbers: Gehrig batted .373, and Ruth equaled Combs’ batting average at .356, but also hit sixty home runs, a record which stood until Roger Maris broke it in 1962. In 1927, the Yankees won the pennant by 19 games, and swept the world series, a feat it repeated in 1928, for the first time in baseball history.

In July of 1934, Combs, who played center field, ran into the outfield wall trying to catch a fly ball. His injuries kept him hospitalized for months, and while he tried to make a comeback in the 1935 season, he was injured again. Combs retired from baseball after the 1935 season, with a career batting average of .325, which, over 70 years later, remains 40th in major league baseball history. Four out of the six members of Murders’ Row, including Combs, were inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. (The others were Ruth, Gehrig, and Lazzeri.)

In a day in which many baseball players were heavy drinkers, womanizers and lived a lifestyle designed to vex their coaches and managers, Combs was a favorite of management, because of his temperate habits and gentlemanly demeanor.

He was nicknamed “The Kentucky Colonel,” and longtime manager Miller Huggins famously remarked that if all of his players were like Combs, a manager could sleep at night. In 1936, the Yankees hired Combs as a batting coach and assigned him to train his center field replacement, a young kid from California named Joe DiMaggio. During the summer of 1941, as America teetered on the brink of war, people stopped each day to ask, “Did Joe get his hit today?” For 56 games, between mid-May and mid-July, the answer was yes. Combs coached DiMaggio through the longest hitting streak in baseball history.

Combs was a coach with the Yankees through the 1944 season, and served as batting coach with the Boston Red Sox from 1948 to 1952, where he coached one of the few better hitters than DiMaggio, Ted Williams.

By 1954, Combs was ready to return to his Madison County farm, which he had operated during his summers off. He brought his image as a gentleman and a community supporter with him. He served as banking commissioner under former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler’s second administration, and became a particular benefactor of his alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, where he is honored by Earle Combs Hall.

Combs was a world class player in his day, and a world class coach. But more importantly, he was a world-class gentleman. In 1976, he passed away at the age of 77, known as much in Kentucky for his philanthropy and leadership as for his exploits on the field. Combs epitomizes the ideal of being an athlete and a gentleman, and deserves a place on any list of great Kentucky athletes. I bet he wasn’t a bad teacher, either.

Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.

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