Year Inducted: 1970 (Veterans Committee)
This year, the entire Cubs infield was voted into the All-Star team. It shouldn’t be very shocking, the teams that have a lot of hype (KC last year, for example) tend to do well in fan voting. However, it just proves that winning and being a great team elevates the status of a lot of players. Jason Heyward nearly made it to the team and he has an OPS of .656. Addison Russell will be starting at shortstop when he is hitting slightly under league average while Trevor Story has a wRC+ of 112 and 21 home runs for the Rockies, and Aledmys Diaz has a wRC+ of 143 with 12 home runs for the Cardinals. According to fWAR, Russell ranks as the 6th best shortstop in the league, while Corey Seager is the best shortstop right now (which makes sense as he’s playing great defense and has hit 17 home runs), but his team (the Dodgers) aren’t winning so he doesn’t get noticed. Winning can cover up a lot of things. And, in the 1920s, there was no team better at winning than the NY Yankees. The Yanks had contributions from no fewer than seven (!) future Hall of Famers in the decade, primarily during their legendary 1927 season. And the leadoff hitter for most of that time was Earle Combs.Combs had a brief career due to injuries. However, he was a very good player when healthy. He slashed .325/.397/.462 in his 12 seasons with a wRC+ of 127. Overall, an excellent line for a center fielder. Combs was known in his minor league days as a base stealer, but according to his biography Miller Huggins met with him upon his call-up and told him to just focus on reaching first so Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest of the big hitters could drive him in. As a result, Combs never stole more than 16 bases in a season, and actually is rated as a negative base-runner.
Being at the top of that great lineup, he scored over 100 runs in nearly every season that he played, finishing his career just shy of 1200 runs scored, while driving in over 600 runs. Combs, while handcuffed when it came to stealing bases, used the spacious Yankee Stadium outfield and his speed to collect 309 doubles and 154 triples among his 1866 hits. His speed also aided him in the outfield to be a great fielder, but his arm wasn’t very strong so opponents did take an extra base on him often. One thing that hurts Combs, besides his short career, was the fact that his arm, especially in spacious Yankee Stadium, really brings down his defensive score, making him slightly below average overall defensively. His lack of home run power hurts him as well. He only hit 58 home runs in his career, and he played in a very lively offensive environment.
Unfortunately, what hurts his score the most is injuries. When he was a rookie in 1924, he severely hurt his ankle and ended up playing in only 24 games. His injury was fully healed the next year, but 10 years later he would suffer a near fatal injury. While patrolling center field in St Louis (against the Browns), he crashed into the wall trying to field a fly ball. He ended up fracturing his skull, breaking his shoulder and damaging his knee. He was hospitalized for a couple of months and was reported as being near death a few times. He attempted a comeback in 1935, but went on to severely injure his collar bone. Between his injuries and the Yankees wanting to promote one of their top prospects to be their new center fielder, Combs opted to retire after the 1935 season.
The Yankees seem to bring out the extremes from fans. There is very little middle ground, either fans love the Yankees, or they hate them. As such, a fun thought experiment emerged in the late-1990s. Had a player like Derek Jeter played for a different team, would he still be as great as he was? The most objective answer is that he’d probably still be considered a great player, but not the media darling that he currently is, and with his numbers he’d still be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Could the same be said for Earle Combs? What if he were the leadoff hitter for the Indians or Browns, two teams that were mostly mediocre in his career. Perhaps without the thunder of Ruth and Gehrig his manager would be more willing to let him steal bases, but would he be as well remembered? Would Combs be a Hall of Famer without ever putting on the Yankee pinstripes? It’s a fun question to think about. Combs was a good player who was elevated due to being on a great team, and probably not the best selection overall for the Hall of Fame.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 7/24/16, this Hall of Famer was once nearly traded for Ty Cobb.