Earle Bryan Combs (May 14, 1899 – July 21, 1976) was an American professional baseball player, who played his entire career for the New York Yankees (1924?1935). Combs batted leadoff and played center field on the Yankees' fabled 1927 team (often referred to as Murderers' Row). He is one of six players on that team who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; the other five are Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Tony Lazzeri, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.
Nicknamed "the Kentucky Colonel", Combs was known as a great gentleman on and off the field. Miller Huggins once said: "If you had men like Combs on your ballclub, you could go to bed every night and sleep like a baby." Joe McCarthy (another longtime Yankee manager) said: "They wouldn't pay baseball managers much a salary if they all presented as few problems as did Earle Combs." Said Babe Ruth: "Combs was more than a good ballplayer. He was always a first-class gentleman." American sportswriter and baseball historian Fred Lieb wrote of Combs, "If a vote were taken of the sportswriters as to who their favorite ballplayer on the Yankees would be, Combs would have been their choice." Combs' induction into the Hall of Fame in 1970 was by the Veterans Committee. Upon his induction he said, "I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like me."
Combs was born in Pebworth, Owsley County, Kentucky. He left Pebworth in 1917 to enter Eastern Kentucky State Normal School (Richmond, Kentucky). In those early days, Eastern prepared its students to become teachers. Upon completion of a two-year program, graduates were often employed in rural one-room schools. They were often responsible for forty or more students, (ranging in age from six to the teenage years in grades one through eight) and the work required much management skill.
In his first year at Eastern, he put on a stellar performance in a faculty-student baseball game. Combs was encouraged to join the school team by Dr. Charles Keith (Dean of Men and baseball coach). Reluctant at first, Combs relented. It wasn’t long before Combs' abilities attracted attention outside of Richmond. He batted .591 at Eastern during his last season.
Upon completion of school, Combs went back to his native Owsley County and taught in one-room schoolhouses in both Ida May and Levi.
After he began to teach, Combs continued to play baseball in his spare time. He played for High Splint (Harlan County coal company team) in the Pine Mountain League (summer of 1921) and batted .444. He also played some semi-pro baseball for the Lexington Reos of the Bluegrass League. It was in Lexington (in 1922) that Combs drew the attention of the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. Louisville scouted Combs and decided to offer him a contract. The contract provided a salary that exceeded the $37 per month he made as a teacher in Owsley County.
His initial experience with Louisville was unsettling. Combs made several errors in the outfield. The last error gave the opposition the two runs they needed to win the game. About his error that lost the game Combs said, "As I went after the dropped ball I was tempted to keep right on going, climb the fence and not stop running until I got to Pebworth." Combs was distraught after the game. He had married Ruth McCollum, (his high school sweetheart) the year before and was concerned about his future.
Joe McCarthy, the manager of the Colonels and later his manager with the Yankees, knew what Combs could do and told him, "Look, if I didn't think you belonged in centerfield on this club, I wouldn't put you there. And I'm going to keep you there." Combs responded. He batted .344 in 1922 and .380 in 1923 for the Colonels and also displayed a reputation for speedy ball-hawking in the outfield and reckless base stealing on offense.
Major League Years
In 1924, the New York Yankees won a spirited bidding war and bought Combs' contract for $50,000 (equal to $630,409 in 2008, according to the Federal Reserve's calculator). This was a rather large sum at that time, but it bore fruit for the Yankees as Combs proved an immediate success in New York. In his rookie season (summer of 1924), Combs played center field and batted .400 before he sustained a fractured ankle sliding into home plate at Cleveland's League Park on June 15, 1924. With the exception of one pinch-hitting appearance, Combs saw no more action that rookie season.
The following year, manager Miller Huggins made Combs the Yankees' lead off hitter. He held this position for the remaining eleven years of his playing career. Combs hit .342 and scored 117 runs in 1925. In his best year (1927), Combs batted .356 with 231 hits, 131 runs scored, 36 doubles, and 23 triples.
Combs suffered a serious accident in July 1934. On a day when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees at St. Louis' Sportsman's Park, Combs crashed into the outfield wall as he chased a fly ball. He suffered a fractured skull, a broken shoulder and damaged his knee. He was reportedly near death for several days and remained in the hospital for more than two months. The next season, he attempted a comeback, but suffered another serious injury. That injury (coupled with the knowledge that the Yankees were set to bring up a rookie center fielder named Joe DiMaggio the next season) led to Combs' decision to retire at the age of 36. He was offered a coaching job with the Yankees in 1936 and instructed his replacement (DiMaggio) on the nuances of Yankee Stadium's outfield.
Over his career, Combs hit .325, had an on-base average of .397, averaged nearly 200 hits, 75 walks, and only 31 strikeouts a season. He was a part of three World Series championships (in 1927, 1928 and 1932). He also set the Yankees' team record for most triples in a season (23 in 1927). Combs batted no lower than .299 in any of his eleven seasons and scored no fewer than 113 runs from 1925 through 1933.
In four World Series, he batted .350 with a .443 on-base average. Combs averaged 17 triples a season and had a lifetime fielding percentage seven points better than the league average. After his retirement as a player, Combs remained in the game for almost two decades. His coaching stint with the Yankees lasted through the 1944 season. He was also a coach for the St. Louis Browns (1947), Boston Red Sox (1948-1952), and the Philadelphia Phillies (1954).
Life after baseball
After retiring from baseball in 1954, Earle returned to his Madison County, Kentucky farm and remained very active. He served as the Kentucky state banking commissioner during Gov. A. B. 'Happy' Chandler’s second administration (1955–1959), and served on his Alma Mater's (Eastern Kentucky University’s) Board of Regents from 1959 until 1975. There is a dorm on the Eastern Kentucky University campus as well as a Little League field at Irwin-McDowell Park in Richmond named for Combs.
Combs and his wife Ruth (1902–1989) had three sons (Earle, Jr., Charles, and Donald). After a long illness, he died on July 21, 1976 (age 77) in Richmond, Kentucky. He is interred in the Richmond Cemetery.