He could hit the ball as hard as anyone I ever saw, and that includes Ruth and Foxx.
- Billy Herman, Hall of Fame infielder
Ernesto "Ernie" Lombardi played 10 of his 17 years in the National League with the Cincinnati Reds (1932-42). Listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he flourished in his first year with the Reds, batting .303 with 11 home runs and 68 RBIs. By 1938, he was the NL Most Valuable Player with a league-leading .342 average, 19 home runs and 95 RBIs. (Only one other catcher, Bubbles Hargrave, also a Red, won a NL batting title, doing so with a .353 mark in 1926).
Born in Oakland, Calif., as the son of an immigrant Italian grocer, Lombardi broke into baseball in 1927 with the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks at age 18. After some seasoning at Ogden, he stormed the PCL by hitting .377, .366 and .370 in his first three seasons. The Brooklyn Robins purchased his contract in 1931, and in March 1932, traded him to Cincinnati.
Lombardi's large nose won him the nickname, "Schnoozz," and his consistent hitting of ferocious line drives, strong arm that allowed him to throw out runners without leaving his crouch position and ability to call a game made him a fan favorite. He hit the ball so hard, it limited his home run totals because his liners were so low to the ground they were not able to go above the outfield walls.
Baseball pundit Bill James names Lombardi, "the slowest man to ever play Major League Baseball well." A contemporary Major Leaguer, Billy Herman, commented, "He was so slow afoot that all the infielders would play him so deep he didn't have any place to hit the ball on the ground. He had to hit against the fence." Lombardi once confessed, "Pee Wee Reese was in the league three years before I realized he wasn't an outfielder." Pitchers did not have the luxury of playing deep and in 1937; Ernie lined a ball back at the Cubs' Larry French that broke three of the pitcher's fingers.
The giant catcher was known for using the league's heaviest bat, which he gripped by interlocking his fingers close to the knob. In 1935, Lombardi began a streak of four consecutive seasons hitting over .330. On May 8, 1935, he hit four consecutive doubles off four different pitchers and on May 9, 1937, struck six hits in six at-bats. He was selected to the first of five consecutive All-Star Games in 1936.
With the Reds, he caught more than 100 games for 10 straight seasons, hitting .300 or better in seven. He had the distinction of catching both of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938 and became the mainstay for the 1939 Reds pennant-winners and the 1940 world champions.
The 1939 World Series saw an incident that haunted Lombardi's career. In the 10th inning of the fourth and final game, Yankee Charlie Keller, running after a Joe DiMaggio hit, crashed into Lombardi at home plate. Lombardi laid sprawled and semi-conscious as DiMaggio circled the bases with another run. It became known, thanks to newspaper reports, as the "Lombardi Swoon." It was later revealed that Lombardi was indeed semi-conscious as the result of Keller's knee slamming into Lombardi's groin.
Following a poor 1941 season by Lomardi (which featured a .241 batting average), Reds general manager Warren Giles sold him to the Boston Braves. Lombardi had feuded publicly with Giles over his salary, calling the GM "the old goat." Lombardi responded to the trade by hitting .330 for Boston in 1942 and garnering a selection to the All-Star Game. He spent his final five years with the New York Giants, which included his seventh and final All-Star appearance in 1943.
Lombardi was back in the Pacific Coast League in 1948 with the Sacramento Solons, where he blasted a home run far above Edmonds Field's left-field wall. Folklore suggests it landed in the parking lot 578 feet from home plate. For his final season in baseball, Lombardi was back with the Oakland Oaks, with whom he hit the longest home run in the history of the Emeryville Park on his honorary "Ernie Lombardi Night."
Part of the inagural Reds Hall of Fame Class in 1958, Lombardi was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2003, Lombardi was one of four Crosley Field-era greats selected by fans to be honored with a statue at the entrance to Great American Ball Park.