Reds sell Lombardi’s contract to Braves

Written by: Craig Muder

As World War II dawned for the United States in early 1942, big league clubs were looking for veterans who could play well into their 30s.

Ernie Lombardi fit that description perfectly.

On Feb. 7, 1942, the Cincinnati Reds sold Lombardi – their starting catcher for the previous 10 seasons – to the Boston Braves. Lombardi would play the 1942 season at age 34 and hit .330 in 105 games, leading the National League in batting average.

It was Lombardi’s second career batting title, making him the first catcher to win more than one.

“He was a natural hitter,” said Hall of Famer Ted Williams, “a huge man who couldn’t run but who swung a really heavy bat, made great contact all the time and hit line drives.”

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Lombardi was famously slow-footed, totaling just eight stolen bases in 17 big league seasons. But despite recording virtually no infield hits during his career, Lombardi batted .306 overall and topped the .330 mark in four straight seasons from 1935-38, including a .342 average in 1938 when he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award.

“The shortstop would play him back on the outfield grass,” said Hall of Famer Stan Musial, whose career overlapped Lombardi’s for four seasons, “because he hit the ball so hard so often and he was too big and bulky to run out infield hits.

“You have to be awfully good to hit .300 when you can’t run.”

Following Lombardi’s 1942 season with the Braves, he held out for a higher salary as the 1943 season approached. The Giants – faced with the loss of stars like Johnny Mize and Harry Danning to the military – then swung a deal for Lombardi, sending catching prospect Hugh Poland and infielder Connie Ryan to the Braves on April 27, 1943.

“What an arm,” said Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio of Lombardi, whose Reds fell to the DiMaggio’s Yankees in the 1939 World Series. “He could throw a guy out at second sitting on his haunches.”

Lombardi continued his stellar hitting with the Giants throughout the war years, hitting .305 in 1943 and .307 in 1945, adding 19 home runs and 70 RBI in the latter season when he was 37 years old. He spent all of his time at catcher, never appearing at any other position in his 1,544 games in the field.

Using an interlocking batting grip similar to one used by golfers, Lombardi struck out only 262 times in his career – an average of about 15 per season – and never fanned more than 25 times in any one year.

Following his release from the Giants late in the 1947 season, Lombardi played the 1948 season in the Pacific Coast League, logging time with manager Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks before his career came to a close.

He passed away on Sept. 26, 1977 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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