I wasn’t such a hot teacher, but we had a swell ball team

Posted by | May 14, 2014

As a ballplayer nothing about Earle Bryan Combs was commonplace except his throwing arm; that seemed ordinary only because he shared the Yankee outfield with Bob Meusel and Babe Ruth, both exceptional and accurate throwers.  Combs was a dangerous hitter, a fleet, graceful outfielder, and the best leadoff man baseball had yet seen.  In the annals of “Murderer’s Row” he is celebrated as first in line of that wrecking crew.

Earle was a country boy, born May 14, 1899 on a hardscrabble hillside farm in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.  From the time he was a child he wanted to be a professional ballplayer, an ambition that brought him into conflict with his father, James Combs.

Farming those Kentucky hills was hard work; the living the Combs family (there were seven kids with big appetites) took from the stubborn, rock-strewn earth was marginal at best. So James Combs, seemingly an unbending father, decided Earle would be a teacher.  Teachers didn’t get rich, but neither did Kentucky hill farmers.  And teachers had assured, if paltry, incomes.

Yet, in some obscure corner of James Combs’s mind there must have lurked doubts about his decisions. In a January 19, 1933 Sporting News interview Earle said,

“I lived on the farm until I was 17 years old, and from boyhood my brothers—Matt, Conley, and Clayton—played ball with me, and frequently Dad would join us.  He made us all our balls and bats.  Many a time I’ve watched him make a baseball.  He would get some old socks which mother had knitted…an old gum shoe and an old high-topped woman’s shoe for his materials.  He would unravel the socks, cut a ball from the gum shoe for the center, wind the yarn about this, and then cut a cover from the shoe top.  He made bats…out of hickory and poplar.”

For a father who didn’t want his son to be a ballplayer, James Combs had an odd way of discouraging young Earle.

Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College 1918 baseball team. Earle is standing top right.

A dutiful son, Earle conformed to his father’s wishes by diligently preparing for teachers college.  Nevertheless, in his fantasizing moments he read all he could about baseball, collected pictures of ballplayers, and daydreamed about  becoming a great player like his idol, Ty Cobb.  At 17 he entered Eastern Kentucky State Normal School.  But, said Earle, “When I wasn’t in the classrooms I was on the ball field watching games, studying players, and asking the coach questions.”

Combs was 20 in 1919, desperately wanting to play professional baseball but instead teaching school in the little hill town of Ida May, KY.  He had 40 pupils in his one-room schoolhouse, their age span was 6 to 16.

“It wasn’t much of a school,” Combs recalled in the 1933 interview, “and I wasn’t such a hot teacher.  But we had a swell ball team and I was an excellent player/manager.  Those kids played ball morning, noon, and night, whether they wanted to or not.  I had the whole class, including girls, shagging baseballs.”

Combs returned to Normal School in the fall of 1919 for his advanced-grade teacher’s certificate, played ball on pickup teams, and taught.  “I was given the Cross Roads School, and once again the whole class pitched to me and chased flies I hit.”  So much for education, Earle Combs style, in the Cumberland mountains.

Word got around about the baseball-crazy schoolteacher, and Combs got an offer from the Mayham Coal Company to join their company team.  They would pay him $225 per month, plus room and board, a bounteous deal no hill-country school board could match.  Earle joined, batted .444, and supplemented his wardrobe with a bonus of two suits from the town merchants.  Inevitably, the Louisville Colonels, an AA team managed by Joe McCarthy, contacted him.  Would Earle like to play with the Colonels?

Impossible, he told them; his father insisted he teach school.  Fortunately, the side of James Combs that took pleasure in making balls and bats for his kids prevailed when Earle told him about the pro ball offer.

“You may as well try your wings,” Earle recalled his dad saying.  “You’ll never be satisfied until you do.”  Smart father: his common sense decision activated a great baseball career, one crucial to the creation of the 1927 Yanks.

Source: The wonder team: the true story of the incomparable 1927 New York Yankees, by Leo Trachtenberg, Popular Press, 1995

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