The son of an immigrant Italian grocer, Ernie Lombardi was born in Oakland, near the city's first fenced in ballpark at 13th and Center streets. As a boy, he became proficient at bocce ball, as well as baseball. His teammates like to call him "Botch" instead of the nickname "Schnoz" coined by the media. Lombardi broke into baseball in 1927 with his hometown Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League at age eighteen. After being sent out to Ogden for seasoning, he stormed the PCL, hitting .377, .366, and .370 in his first three seasons. The Dodgers bought his contract in 1931, and though he hit a strong .297, they traded him to Cincinnati in a six-player deal in March 1932. Famed for his long hits, lead feet, and large nose, Lombardi emerged as one of baseball's top catchers during the 1930s and 1940s. The only catcher in history to win two batting titles, his consistently high averages were achieved despite his legendary lack of speed. Contemporary Billy Herman once said of Lombardi, "I don't think anybody could top him. But he was so slow afoot that those infielders could play him so deep that he just didn't have any place to hit the ball. He had to hit it over the fence or against the fence or just too hard for anybody to be able to make a play." Gripping his bat, the league's heaviest, by interlocking his fingers close to the knob in an unorthodox style, Lombardi was known for consistently hitting ferocious line drives. His greatest years were spent with the Reds, catching over 100 games for ten straight seasons and hitting .300 in seven. Twice he led NL catchers in fielding. In 1938, he won the NL MVP award by becoming only the second catcher to ever lead a major league in hitting (.342), while cracking 19 homers and driving in 95 runs. That season he caught Johnny Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters. He was a mainstay for the 1939 Reds pennant winners and 1940 World Champions.
The 1939 Series saw an incident that haunted his career. In the 10th inning of the fourth and final game, Yankee Charlie Keller crashed into him in a close play at the plate. Lombardi was stunned and another Yankee run scored while he lay on the ground. Newspapers unfairly called it "Lombardi's Swoon."
Sold to the Braves in 1942, he won his second batting title (.330) and then spent his final five ML seasons with the Giants. Lombardi returned to the Coast League in 1948, where he started the season with the Sacramento Solons. While playing for the Solons, he blasted a hanging curve ball thrown by Oaks' pitcher Lloyd Hittle that was still rising as it cleared the left field fence at Sacramento's Edmonds Field. Folklore has it that the ball landed in the parking lot 578 feet from home plate. Coming full circle, Lombardi came to the Oaks from Sacramento on May 20, 1948 for his final season in baseball. His swan song that year included hitting the longest homerun in the history of the Emeryville park and an honorary "Ernie Lombardi Night". In a game held in conjunction with the tribute he actually stole second base to the delight of his loyal fans. In 2,054 previous games over 23 years, Lombardi had stolen only 14 bases, proving that the opposition may have liked him as much as everyone else did. In 1986, eight years after his death, Ernie Lombardi was rightfully enshrined in Cooperstown.
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