Catcher Ernie Lombardi would appear to be the kind of tall tale scouts like to invent when they are sitting through a rain delay.
Everything about the longtime Reds star seemed larger than life. He had one of the best arms in baseball, the kind of arm that tempted scouts at times to make him a pitcher. He had hands that seemed to almost make a catcher’s mitt superfluous. He swung a 42-ounce bat that made most everyone else’s bats look like a toothpick, thanks to massive wrists and forearms.
There was his nose, a massive protuberance that earned him the almost inevitable nickname of “Schnozz,” and there was his lack of speed.
But more than anything, Lombardi was one of the biggest – and best – hitters the game has seen.
Lombardi topped .300 on 10 different occasions. He won a pair of batting titles (in 1938 and 1942), becoming first catcher to win multiple batting crowns. Lombardi was named the National League MVP in 1938 and was a key member of the Reds’ 1939 National League champs and 1940 World Series champs.
Nothing about Lombardi was conventional, including his batting grip: He held the baseball bat like a golf club, interlocking his hands. There was no reason to ever change to a more conventional grip, because Lombardi was able to rip line drives like few before or since.
He had to hit scorching line drive – because that was about the only way he could get a hit. Lombardi hit .306 for his career even though teams could play him deeper than anyone else in the game. Infielders knew Lombardi’s lack of speed would give them time to get the ball to first from deep in the hole or even from the shallow part of the outfield. Infielders kept moving farther back against Lombardi, buying time to try to handle his line drives.
Behind the plate, Lombardi led the NL in putouts, double plays and caught stealing percentage one season apiece – and he was the catcher for Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters.
Lombardi passed away on Sept. 26, 1977. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986.