Mark Story

The letters from Lou Gehrig that Earle Combs’ Kentucky grandson cherishes

Craig Combs, grandson of former New York Yankees standout Earle Combs, holding copies of two “get-well” letters Lou Gehrig wrote to Earle Combs in 1934 while the latter spent months recuperating in a St. Louis hospital after suffering a fractured skull from running into the leftfield fence pursuing a fly ball in Sportsman’s Park.
Craig Combs, grandson of former New York Yankees standout Earle Combs, holding copies of two “get-well” letters Lou Gehrig wrote to Earle Combs in 1934 while the latter spent months recuperating in a St. Louis hospital after suffering a fractured skull from running into the leftfield fence pursuing a fly ball in Sportsman’s Park. aslitz@herald-leader.com

“Earle, I hope you’ll be balling someone out soon, for then we’ll know you’re almost well. My very kindest and sincerest to you, and your speedy recovery ... Cordially, Lou.”

— Lou Gehrig, letter to Earle Combs, Aug. 8, 1934

The knock on Earle Combs in the 12 years of a Hall of Fame career he spent patrolling the outfield for the New York Yankees was his throwing arm. No one ever questioned, however, the fleet-footed Kentuckian’s ability to cover ground and get to balls.

So it was on a scorching hot July 24, 1934, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The visiting Yankees were clinging to a 2-1 lead over the St. Louis Browns in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Browns had two men on base when St. Louis third baseman Harlond Clift belted a drive over the head of Combs in left field.

Combs, an Owsley County native and graduate of the school now known as Eastern Kentucky University, took off like a sprinter after Clift’s drive. As he bore down on the cinder block wall in front of the left field bleachers, Combs never took his eyes off the ball and never slowed down.

Writing in The New York Times, James P. Dawson described the trauma that happened next: “Combs, running at top speed, crashed into the concrete front of the bleachers after making the catch. He fell to the ground, and the ball fell for a triple. Members of both teams rushed to his side as the game was interrupted. The unconscious player was hurried from the field ...”

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On July 24, 1934, Earle Combs’ baseball career was altered when the New York Yankees standout suffered a fractured skull and broken collarbone after he crashed into the leftfield fence in Sportsman’s Park while chasing a fly ball off the bat of St. Louis Browns third baseman Harlond Clift. Associated Press

In the stands as a spectator, Dr. Leo Bartels sped to the visiting clubhouse to examine Combs. He ordered the Yankees standout transported to St. John’s Hospital.

There, another physician, Dr. Robert F. Hyland, X-rayed Combs and pronounced that the 33-year-old had a fractured skull and broken left collarbone.

With the outfielder’s condition declared critical, The New York Times reported that Ruth Combs “was at the bedside of her husband after an all-night motor drive from her home in Richmond, Ky.”

Over the next months, as the Yankees unsuccessfully dueled the Detroit Tigers for the 1934 American League pennant, Combs remained hospitalized in St. Louis.

In that time, letters from one of his teammates were the recuperating Kentuckian’s lifeline to his team.

Eighty-three years later, copies of two of those letters written from Lou Gehrig to his injured teammate are a treasured keepsake for one of Earle Combs’ grandsons, Richmond’s Craig Combs.

“We’ve been humming along at a pretty good pace, 7 (wins) out of 9 (games), but (we) lost 1/2 game (in the standings). That won’t do at all.”

— Lou Gehrig, letter to Earle Combs, Aug. 8, 1934

In his Yankees career (1924-35), Earle Combs was never famous in the way that teammates Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were. The Kentuckian, however, was integral to the success of his more celebrated teammates.

Offensively, Combs was one of the best leadoff men of his era, hitting .325 for his career and producing an on-base percentage above .400 seven times in his 12 years.

In the glorious Yankees season of 1927 — the year Ruth clubbed 60 home runs; Gehrig drove in 173 runs; and New York won the World Series with a team many still consider the greatest ever — Combs set the table by hitting .357 with 231 hits and 62 walks.

Defensively, Combs’ ability to roam far and wide as a center fielder allowed Ruth to stay in right field even as he aged.

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Left to right, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Owsley County native Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri, four staples of the “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The photo belongs to Craig Combs, grandson, of Earle Combs. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Off the field, there might never have been two co-workers more different than Ruth, with his famously large appetites, and Gehrig, as straight as an arrow can get.

Combs was a teetotaler and a non-smoker with an early-to-bed, early-to-rise ethos.

Education bound Combs and Gehrig, too. Gehrig had attended Columbia for two years before signing with the Yankees. Combs had earned a teaching certificate at the college now known as EKU before entering pro baseball.

Gehrig and Earle Combs “roomed together for awhile,” says Craig Combs. “They were close and much more alike (than Ruth and Combs).”

“If you want any more books, Earle, I’d be glad to send you some from our own library. Let me know.”

— Lou Gehrig, letter to Earle Combs, Aug. 8, 1934

In July, 1934, the middle of the United States was gripped by a blistering heat wave. On July 24, the day Combs crashed into the Sportsman’s Park wall, it was 109 degrees in St. Louis.

The following day, Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy visited Combs in the hospital. McCarthy subsequently told reporters “Combs will never play ball again.”

With Earle Combs stuck behind in St. Louis, Gehrig wrote him from American League cities. A July 29 letter came from the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia; an Aug. 8 letter was on stationery from the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C.

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To a convalescing Earle Combs stuck in a St. Louis hospital while his New York Yankees teammates battled for the 1934 American League pennant, Lou Gehrig wrote “we miss you plenty, Earle, and are a determined bunch now. Everybody is hustling their heads off.” Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In the letters, Gehrig updates Combs on how the Yankees are playing (better with a healthy Tony Lazzeri). He gives his appraisal of other American League clubs (the Washington Senators have packed it in). Gehrig also dispenses book critiques (he refers to one unnamed title as “rank smut”).

Craig Combs has copies of these Gehrig letters. He does not know what became of the originals.

In the letters, it is striking how elegant Gehrig’s handwriting was. “It’s incredible,” Craig Combs says. “It was just a different era in terms of handwriting. Lou had a wonderful hand.”

Joe McCarthy was wrong about Earle Combs never playing baseball again. Combs returned in 1935, hit .282 in 89 games. However, when Combs again broke his collarbone after colliding with another player, he retired.

Combs went on to coach for the Yankees, Browns, Red Sox and Phillies before leaving baseball to return to Kentucky full-time after the 1954 season. Settled in Madison County, he farmed, sold insurance and became chairman of the EKU Board of Regents.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970 by the Veterans’ Committee, Combs died in 1976. Just this year, Eastern Kentucky University named its baseball stadium for Earle Combs.

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Lou Gehrig on July 4, 1939, the day of his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Kentuckian Earle Combs, then a Yankees coach, was at the stadium that day. Murray Becker Associated Press

As a Yankees coach, Combs was on hand in The Bronx on July 4, 1939, when Gehrig gave his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech after the first baseman had learned he was suffering from Amoyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Not two full years later, Gehrig was dead.

For Craig Combs, the copies of the letters Gehrig wrote to his injured teammate are a valued reminder of the connection between his grandfather and one of the iconic figures in American sports history.

“When you look at these,” Craig Combs says of the letters, “it’s just kind of interesting, the affection.”

“We’re all pulling for your quick recovery and everybody sends their best, and for me, the worst I can wish you is the best. Sincerely, Lou”

— Lou Gehrig, letter to Earle Combs, July 29, 1934

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