Longtime fan sticks up for Schnozz
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
As an impressionable boy of 11, Bill Schmitz was at Crosley Field the day in 1938 when the Reds honored Ernie Lombardi, the wildly popular catcher who was on his way to a batting title, and gave him a Buick. "It was one of the first that had speckled paint on it," Schmitz remembers well. "Blue, with speckled silver."
That was how he knew, for sure, that it was the car of the lumbering National League MVP that was parked on Westmoreland Avenue one winter day after the season, when Schmitz and his friends were sled riding on streets that the city had blocked off for that purpose. That, and the California license plates.
His buddies, naturally, thought he was nuts when he told them whose it was. So the next time Schmitz coasted that way, he took a peek inside. "People used to put their licenses next to the steering column. There it was. 'Ernesto Lombardi.' I said to my friends, 'Come look, smart guys.' "
It turned out that Lombardi had a girlfriend on Westmoreland, a happenstance that Schmitz used to his memorable advantage. Back then, knothole players were issued white cards they could flash for free admission to any of the numerous Reds games that were designated as knothole days. Schmitz, a catcher, went to all of those.
After the first of them in 1939, he told his friends that he'd see 'em later because he was going to get himself a ride home. Then he went out to the players' parking lot and took a seat on the bumper of Lombardi's speckled Buick. When the league's heaviest hitter appeared, he inquired, as you might expect - with this, Schmitz, now 80, drops his voice as low as it will go, with the hardest edges he can muster - "What are you doing on my bumper?"
The boy replied, "Are you going up on Westmoreland Avenue?"
And the large man answered, "What do you know about Westmoreland Avenue?"
Here, we depart briefly from the main narrative. It's worth noting that Lombardi was circumspect with his girlfriends. As homely as he was, with an unfit physique and a nose that earned him the nickname Schnozz, the famous ballplayer could have had a girlfriend on every Cincinnati street, if he'd wished. ("The big fella gets more mash notes from starry-eyed twists than another other single guy lucratively engaged in the glorified game of rounders," wrote Frank Grayson of the old Times-Star. "They are all perfumed missives, and the dear little writers would not feel highly complimented if they could but see the object of their misdirected affections pick up the monogrammed envelopes by their corners and deposit them in the nearest ash can.")
Lombardi was known to linger in the clubhouse after ballgames, just to avoid the crush of young ladies awaiting his hefty appearance. He was shy. It was presumably the shyness that turned him against signing autographs, which he never did until, one day, he turned another youngster down and the jilted boy muttered to his pal, "See, I told you he couldn't write."
Anyway, Schmitz got his ride home, arriving just as his astonished friends did. And thereafter, at the conclusion of every knothole day, he would hail down Lombardi under the grandstand and ask if he were headed out to Westmoreland. Sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn't.
The fondly recollected rides were the basis for an allegiance to Lombardi that Schmitz, a retired firefighter and part-time teacher/coach - his sons, Jim and Bill, coached baseball and football, respectively, at UC, and remain in the business - has never let go of. But there's more to it.
He happens to believe that Lombardi was among the best-hitting catchers ever, as two batting titles would attest (the only one to accomplish that), and that his throwing (from the squat) was fairly remarkable
, and that his Hall of Fame election was delayed for decades because of a regrettable play in the 1939 World Series. He realizes that the protracted snub, which ended when Lombardi was voted in by the Veterans Committee in 1986, also involved an old grudge held by Warren Giles, who traded Lombardi to Boston and was later the president of the National League. And he understands that Lombardi's legendary slowness - he was known for singles off the wall and 9-3 putouts - was a factor, too, particularly when considering defense.
But the great hitter's reputation suffered most from an infamous misadventure in the 10th inning of the fourth game against the Yankees, when Joe DiMaggio's single drove in first Frank Crosetti and then Charlie "King Kong" Keller, who smashed into Schnozz and knocked him flat. Various reports described Lombardi as dazed, dizzy, unconscious, semi-conscious and hurting in a uniquely masculine respect. At any rate, he couldn't retrieve the ball until Joltin' Joe had come around, as well, sliding handsomely away from the big Red's belated lunge. The play has become known, unfairly, as "Lombardi's Snooze."
"When Ernie was inducted into the Hall of Fame, they ran a clip of that play, and I had somebody tape it for me," Schmitz said. "I watched it and watched it and realized that there's something wrong here. This wasn't his fault. The pitcher, who was Bucky Walters, should have backed up the play. Lombardi made a hell of an effort to tag the man, but he took the rap.
"I truthfully believe that this one play kept Ernie out of the Hall of Fame until after his death. I talked to his nephew when they unveiled the statue at the new ballpark, and he told me that Ernie carried that slight to his grave."
Schmitz only wishes to not do the same.
"I would dearly love to see someone try to correct this grave injustice," he said, "and give Ernie his rightful place in Reds history before I die."
The rightful place is a difficult and indiscernible thing to give. This, then, is for the solace of a deserving Cincinnatian whose loyalty has stood the test of three ballparks, to say nothing of the dozens of catchers who couldn't carry Lombardi's 42-ounce bat.