Famed for his long hits, lead feet, and large nose, Lombardi was one of baseball’s top catchers during the 1930s and 1940s. The only catcher to win two batting titles, his consistently high batting averages were achieved despite his legendary lack of speed. Contemporary Billy Herman said later: “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.” Lombardi’s powerful line smashes were legendary; he hit with his fingers interlocked so he could grip his bat, the league’s heaviest, closer to the end.
Lombardi broke into baseball with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League at age eighteen. After being sent out to Ogden for seasoning, he had three outstanding seasons, catching 120, 164, and 146 games and hitting .377, .366, and .370. The Dodgers bought his contract in 1931, but though he hit a strong .297, they traded him to Cincinnati in a six-player deal in March 1932.
His greatest years were 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 WS 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.
In his later years, he was bitter because he was not named to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Eight years after his death, he was enshrined by the Veterans Committee.