SABR

Vic Lombardi

This article was written by Larry Baldassaro.

At five feet seven and 158 pounds, Vic Lombardi was hardly an imposing figure on the mound. But the left-hander had enough talent and guile to pitch in 538 games over a seventeen-year professional career, including six seasons in the majors with two starts in the legendary 1947 World Series. He was also a good enough athlete to win a National Left-Handed Open golf title and to work as a teaching professional until his death at the age of seventy-five.

Victor Alvin Lombardi was born on September 20, 1922, in Reedley, California, twenty-two miles southeast of Fresno. He was the son of Biagio Vito Lombardi, a farm worker who had emigrated from Italy, and Lena (Freitas) Lombardi, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and the mother of five children from a previous marriage. When Vic was young, the family moved thirty-eight miles south to Tulare. As a pitcher at Tulare High School, he played for Pete Beiden, who would later become a legendary coach at Fresno State University.

Lombardi was signed as an amateur free agent in 1941 by Brooklyn Dodgers scout Tom Downey. That year, at age eighteen, he began his professional career with the Johnstown Johnnies of the Class D Pennsylvania State Association. Twice striking out nineteen, as well as eighteen and seventeen, he finished with 204 strikeouts and posted a 12-3 record, with a league-leading 1.85 ERA. He ended the season by going 1-1 for the Santa Barbara Saints, Brooklyn’s Class C affiliate in the California League.

In 1942 Lombardi had a 9-4 record and a 3.08 ERA with Santa Barbara before being promoted to the Durham Bulls in the Class B Piedmont League, where he was 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA. After marrying Adrienne Grimaud on December 18, 1942, he did not play professional baseball again until 1945. (Lombardi and his wife had two daughters, Victoria and Christine. The couple divorced in 1951.) For reasons that are lost to history, Lombardi chose to sit out the entire 1943 season. Nor did he play pro ball the following season when he served in the Navy from May 13, 1944 to June 6, 1944. (According to a 1945 article in the Fresno Bee, Lombardi was released from the service because of faulty vision.)

In 1945 the twenty-two-year-old Lombardi pitched well enough in spring training to make the Dodgers’ depleted wartime pitching staff. “He reminds me of Bill Sherdel when Wee Willie pitched for the Cardinals,” said Dodgers president Branch Rickey. “If Lombardi does not make it, I will be the most surprised man in baseball.”1

Wearing number 18, he made his major league debut on April 18, 1945, pitching two hitless innings in relief against Philadelphia. Ten days later he notched his first victory, giving up one hit in two innings of relief in a 4–3 win over the New York Giants. On May 2, at Ebbets Field, Lombardi made his first start, pitching eight innings in a 3–1 loss to the Boston Braves. He went on to pitch 203 2/3 innings, posting a 10-11 record with a 3.31 ERA in 38 appearances.

Lombardi was slight in stature even by the standards of his era. Inevitably, writers mined the thesaurus to come up with appropriately descriptive adjectives. In addition to the more mundane “little” and “diminutive,” Lombardi was also called “the mite southpaw,” the pint-sized southpaw,” “pint-sized portsider,” “pony pitcher,” “the welterweight pitcher,” and “the midget southpaw.” And, because he wore glasses at times during his career, he was also the “bespectacled little left-hander.”

But when Lombardi came up big against the Dodgers’ hated cross-town rivals, “little Vic” became known by a new moniker: “Giant Killer.” In his rookie season Lombardi beat the Giants four times, twice in relief, without a loss.

In 1946, his second year with the Dodgers, Lombardi had one of his two most productive seasons. Pitching against restored postwar lineups, he had a career-high thirteen wins (against ten losses) and a career-best ERA of 2.89. That year the Dodgers moved from a third-place finish in 1945 to a final-day tie for first with the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis won the pennant with a two-game sweep in a best-of-three playoff. Lombardi pitched in relief in both games.

Moreover, Lombardi was even more dominant against the Giants in 1946 than he had been as a rookie. Each of his first four starts against New York resulted in complete-game wins. Then, after a 3–2 victory in which he got a no-decision, he beat the Giants for a ninth straight time on August 12. In fact, the Dodgers won all seven games that Lombardi started against their inter-borough rivals in 1946. In six of those games, he gave up a total of nine runs; the other start was an 8–5 complete-game win on July 4.

Lombardi’s streak of nine straight career wins against the Giants came to an abrupt end in the third game of the 1947 season when he was routed after three innings. Facing the Giants eight days later, Lombardi came on in relief in the third, gave up only three hits in seven innings and got the win. He started only one more game against New York that year, but it was a masterpiece. On September 4, he threw a five-hit, 2–0 shutout, allowing only one Giants’ runner to reach second base. 

Lombardi pitched well in 1947, going 12-11 with a 2.99 ERA. Only Ralph Branca, with twenty-one, and Joe Hatten, with seventeen, had more victories for the pennant-winning Dodgers. While Lombardi’s personal statistics were not quite as impressive as those of the previous season, relative to his peers he had a better year than in 1946. Among National League pitchers, he was fourth in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, fifth in lowest opponents’ batting average, and tied for sixth in shutouts.

A Chicago Tribune story of March 31, 1997, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, noted that Lombardi welcomed his new teammate in 1947. "I had a lot of black kids who were my friends here (Fresno), growing up,” he said. “I wasn't prejudiced. The only thing I was prejudiced about was (jerks). And they come in all colors. If you're a good guy, you're my friend. If you're (a jerk), see ya later. It's that simple."

The 1947 World Series was the first of six postwar meetings between Brooklyn and the Yankees. After the Yanks won the opener, Brooklyn manager Burt Shotton chose Lombardi to start Game Two, in Yankee Stadium. In four-plus innings, he allowed five runs on nine hits, including a home run, three triples, and two doubles.

The Dodgers bounced back to win the next two games at Ebbets Field before losing the fifth game. With Brooklyn on the brink of elimination, Lombardi was tabbed to start Game Six, again at Yankee Stadium. It proved to be, in the words of John Drebinger of the New York Times, “one of the most extraordinary games ever played.” Before a then-record Series crowd of 74,065, the Dodgers jumped out to a 4–0 lead, but after holding the Yanks to one single in the first two innings, Lombardi gave up two runs in the third before being relieved by Branca. Two more singles brought in two more runs to tie the score at 4–4, with all four runs charged to Lombardi. Brooklyn eventually won to tie the Series, but the Yankees won the deciding game the next day. 

Game Six of the 1947 World Series proved to be Lombardi’s last with the Dodgers. On December 8, he and pitcher Hal Gregg were traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Preacher Roe, third baseman Billy Cox, and infielder Gene Mauch. In a separate deal, the Dodgers sold Dixie Walker to the Pirates for the $10,000 waiver price.

At the time, The Sporting News reported that the “midget southpaw” was the “surprise name in the trade,” adding “his departure weakens an already shabby hurling corps.”2 In his three seasons with Brooklyn, Lombardi won thirty-five and lost thirty-two with a 3.07 ERA in 112 games.

In 1948, his first year with the Pirates, Lombardi appeared in thirty-eight games, and compiled a 10-9 record. On September 24, local Italian Americans organized Vic Lombardi Night at Forbes Field, presenting the honoree with luggage and a silver set.

The Pirates, who had finished seventh in 1947, jumped to fourth in 1948, then fell to sixth and eighth in Lombardi’s remaining two seasons. He appeared in thirty-four games in 1949, but made only twelve starts, compiling a 5-5 record with a 4.37 ERA. In 1950, his final year in the majors, he started only two games for the last-place Pirates, going 0-5 with a 6.60 ERA. By then, he was hampered by a rotator cuff injury.

In his six-year major league career, Lombardi compiled a 50-51 record with a 3.68 ERA in 223 games. Of his 100 starts, forty-two were complete games. In 1993 Lombardi was inducted into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame along with Al Gionfriddo. At the time Lombardi was quoted in the Fresno Bee as saying: "Brooklyn fans were a different breed. It was a family thing. You walked down the street, and everyone knew you. The team was different too, even for then. We went to the ballpark together, we left together, we ate together; it was just one big family. No one got out of line. There were no bad actors. It wasn't the same when I went to Pittsburgh. There were some good players but more individuals.

"I was a pretty good pitcher. I wasn't great, that's for sure. I was a middle pitcher. I could win ten or twelve games a year, pitch 200 innings and complete quite a few games. I could throw 85 to 88 mph. The ball moved pretty good, and I had pretty good control."3

Only twenty-eight when his big league career ended, Lombardi returned to the minors. He spent the next nine years in the Pacific Coast and International Leagues, primarily as a starter. After one year with Hollywood in the PCL, he played for Toronto in the IL from 1952 to 1954 before returning to the PCL, where he pitched for Seattle (1955-1956), San Diego (1956-1958) and Portland (1958-1959). Joe Astroth, the catcher for San Diego in 1956, Lombardi’s first year with the team, recalled that Lombardi “needs another pitch to get back. We’d work out on the sidelines, working on the spitter.”4 When Lombardi retired at the age of thirty-six, his eleven-year minor league record—both before and after his stay in the majors—was 140-80 with a 3.42 ERA.

In the 1947 through 1949 editions of the Baseball Register, Lombardi’s hobby was listed as hunting. But in the 1950 edition, hunting was replaced by golf. Whenever he took up the game, he played it well enough to become a teaching professional by 1958. And in January 1967 he won the seventh annual National Left-Handed Open Golf Championship in Hollywood, Florida. As a teaching pro, he worked at the Sierra View Golf Course in Visalia and the Airways, Palm Lakes and Riverside courses in Fresno. Then, from the late eighties until he died in 1997, he was at the Fig Garden Golf Club in Fresno.

In November 1963 Lombardi married one of his golf students, twenty-year-old Bonnie Bryant, a native of Tulare who joined the LPGA tour in 1971. According to Lombardi’s daughter, Victoria, the marriage lasted less than a year. Another of Lombardi’s pupils was Patti Liscio, a ten-year LPGA tour player who met him in 1993 and worked with him until his death in 1997. She said they became very good friends, adding, “If there wasn’t a forty-year difference in age, we’d have been married. He was a gift.”

The former major league pitcher retained his competitive drive as a golfer. To supplement the modest income he made as a teaching pro, he would team up with a partner against another twosome in money matches. One of his regular partners was Jerry Hagopian, who met Lombardi in the 1960s. Hagopian said he once asked Lombardi who was the toughest hitter he faced. “Stan Musial,” replied Lombardi. “I never could get him out. I hated the son of a bitch. Every Christmas he’d send me a card and write: ‘Merry Christmas, Vic. Hope to see you next year.’”

Just as he had on the mound, Lombardi looked for any competitive edge he could get on the links. “He liked to rib people and try to aggravate you before, during and after a match,” said Liscio. “One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You lose your head, you lose your ass.’”

Another golfing buddy was Gus Zernial, who led the American League in home runs and RBI in 1951 while playing with the Philadelphia Athletics. Zernial met Lombardi when both lived in condos on the Palm Lakes Golf Course. “He taught me how to hit the golf ball,” said Zernial. “He helped (PGA tour player) Jerry Heard and a lot of state golfers. He had a tremendous local following. He wouldn’t play unless he played for money. He was a better golfer on the tee. He always talked people out of strokes. Everyone wanted to beat Vic.”

Lombardi, who was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978, was proud of his major-league background and enjoyed its benefits. “He was a proud man,” said his daughter, Christine. “He had great pride in presenting himself as an athlete.”

Lombardi was a private man; even those who spent a lot of time with him confessed to not knowing him well. “He was a good friend,” said famed golfer Gary Bauer, “but he never let anyone get very close to him. He was an enigma. He was very closed-mouthed about his family.” Victoria Lombardi said of her father, “He had a good life, but he was a lonely man. His professional life filled him up.”

In December 1997, Lombardi, who had undergone quadruple heart bypass surgery previously, drove himself to Community Hospital in Fresno when he felt some pain in his chest. When informed that he needed a second bypass surgery, he told friends he wasn’t concerned and that he would soon be playing golf again. The surgery went well, but when he was taken off the heart machine the doctors were unable to re-start his heart. Lombardi died on December 3, 1997, at the age of seventy-five, and is buried in Tulare Public Cemetery.

 

Sources

Lieb, Fred. The Pittsburgh Pirates. New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1948.

Marazzi, Richard, and Len Fiorito. Baseball Players of the 1950s. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.

Mele, Andrew Paul. A Brooklyn Dodgers Reader. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005.

Swank, Bill, Echoes From Lane Field: A History of the San Diego Padres, 1936-1957. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 1997.

Winerip, Harold. “Fans Bearing Gifts.” Baseball Magazine, June 1949.

Baumgartner, Stan. “Don’t Sell Those Little Fellows Short.” Sporting News, January 8, 1947.

Chicago Tribune

European Stars and Stripes

Fresno Bee

Telephone interviews: Victoria Lombardi, Christine Lombardi Ketchum, Navo Arax, Gary Bauer, Jerry Hagopian, Patti Liscio, Gus Zernial

Carl Erskine, e-mail to author

Fresno County Hall of Records

National Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis

Thanks to Bill Swank and SABR members Lyle Spatz, Maury Bouchard, Tom Larwin, Bill Millhollen, and Mike Wilhelm for their helpful suggestions.

 

Notes

1. “Vic Lombardi Reminds Branch Rickey of Wee Willie Sherdel,” Fresno Bee, March 28, 1945.

2. Sporting News, December 3, 1947.

3. Fresno Bee, July 18, 1993.

4. Bill Swank, Echoes From Lane Field: A History of the San Diego Padres, 1926-1957, Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1997. p. 142.

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