Grave Story: Merrill Combs (1919-1981)

Here lies Merrill Combs, an infielder who played about a season’s worth of major-league games spread out across five years and three teams. Combs played for the Boston Red Sox (1947, 1949-50), Washington Senators (1950) and Cleveland Indians (1951-52).

Merrill Russell Combs was born in Los Angeles on December 11, 1919. He is listed on Baseball Reference and the other baseball history sites as “Merl Combs,” though I never actually saw that name used in print. The nickname of “Merl,” if it existed, probably came about as a nod to Hall of Fame outfielder Earle Combs, who finished his career about a decade before Merrill began his. Earle Combs was a native Kentuckian, and Merrill’s parents, Lewis and Anna, were born in Kentucky, so there is a chance of a distant relation. The couple had six sons: Neville, Merrill, Glenn, Roger, Preston and Craig. Lewis Combs worked as an auto mechanic at a garage in Los Angeles. Though he never received a high school education, he was able to maintain steady employment and provide for his large family throughout the Depression.

Merrill Combs became known as the best player at Fremont High School. He was named the “Outstanding Athlete of 1938” and the All-City shortstop in the spring. That same year, he graduated and went to the University of Southern California, where he had been awarded a four-year scholarship. Combs was able to take advantage of California’s mild weather and play amateur baseball whenever he wasn’t in school. In 1939, he batted .386 for the Trojans and then joined the Paramount Cubs, the baseball champions of Hollywood’s motion picture studios. He hit .346 for them until he had to quit in the fall and go back to USC.

Combs was named to the First Team California Intercollegiate Baseball Association team in June of 1941. That summer, he was signed by the Boston Red Sox, courtesy of West Coast scout Ernie Johnson (an American League infielder of the 1910s and ‘20s). Johnson had a hand in loading the Red Sox with talent, including Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr. Combs, then 21 years old, started with the Greensboro Red Sox of the Class-B Piedmont League. In 92 games, he batted .288 and slugged .348 while playing decent defense for a rookie.

The United States’ entry into World War II that winter changed Combs’ career path. The Red Sox had planned on promoting Combs to the Scranton Miners of the Class-A Eastern League. Then in February of 1942, manager Joe Reardon received a telegram from Combs that read, “Sorry I won’t be with you next Summer. Joined Navy today.”

“There, boys, goes the guy who would have been the real successor to Joe Cronin at Boston,” Reardon told reporters. “He had everything a great player needed. Size, ability and desire… If he makes half as good a sailor as he was a shortstop [Japan] won’t last the season out.”

Combs spent 46 months in the U.S. Navy. He initially was stationed at Camp White in Oregon and played on the 91st Division baseball team, which was the powerhouse among the camp’s teams. Along with former Phillies third baseman Bill Burich, the team was stacked with West Coast minor leaguers and semipro players. Eventually Combs was deployed to the European Theater of Operations, which is where he spent most of his service time. He was away from professional baseball until the spring of 1946.

Combs returned to Scranton with great fanfare, and the expectation was that he would vault from the Eastern League to the American League in a year’s time. It didn’t work that way, though. Combs had missed four seasons of professional baseball, and it wasn’t long before he lost his starting shortstop job and ended the season as a backup to Danny Carnevale. Combs batted just .218 with little power in 72 games and wasn’t much of a factor as the Miners won the Eastern League championship. Nevertheless, he was acquired by the Red Sox via the team’s Louisville affiliate. He was being promoted more on his former potential than his actual results in 1946.

Combs was assigned to the Louisville Colonels to start the 1947 season, but he ended up spending it between three different Triple-A teams – Louisville, Toronto and Columbus, hitting a combined .232. Up at Boston, Pesky had returned from his own military service and recorded more than 200 hits in each of his first three seasons (1942, 1946 and ’47), so there wasn’t a desperate need for Combs at shortstop anymore. However, the Red Sox had a hole at third base, and Combs was given a chance to fill it in September.

Combs made his major-league debut in an 11-6 laugher of a loss to Cleveland on September 12. It would have been an even larger blowout if not for the rookie’s heroics. Combs singled off starter Bob Lemon in his first at-bat. In the bottom of the eighth inning, he smashed a 3-run homer off Lemon to make the score 11-3. He hit an RBI single in the next inning to end the day with 4 RBIs. Combs started all but one of Boston’s remaining games. An 0-for-11 series against the St. Louis Browns sank his batting average, and it took a 3-for-5 game against Washington to leave him with a .221/.329/.279 slash line in 17 games. However, he played third base flawlessly, with no errors in 151 innings at third base.

Source: Oakland Tribune, March 4, 1948

Combs spent all of 1948 with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The team, managed by Casey Stengel, won 114 games against 74 losses and won the PCL championship. Combs played in 175 games and was a PCL All-Star. He batted .271 and reached career highs with 24 doubles and 10 home runs, as well as 69 RBIs. He also made a fine double play combination with second baseman Billy Martin.

Boston purchased Combs’ contract for 1949 and kept him on the roster for the entire season. Unfortunately, Boston had the best offense in the American League in 1949, and with the team fighting the Yankees for the AL pennant, manager Joe McCarthy hardly rested his regulars. Billy Hitchcock, with 55 games played, was the busiest backup infielder. The Red Sox attempted to sneak Combs through waivers so they could trade him to the Oakland Oaks for infielder Martin, but three AL teams put claims on him. One of those teams was rumored to be the Yankees, which makes sense, as they were managed by Stengel, who was well aware of Combs’ abilities. Rather than lose Combs for nothing, the Red Sox kept him on the roster… and the bench. He appeared in a total of 14 games and was 5-for-24 for a .208 average. Most of those appearances came over an eight-day span from August 14-23, when Pesky was out with a bad back. Combs hit .238 in that time and never played in another game for the Sox once Pesky was well enough to return to third base.

“That Combs is as nifty with a glove as anybody in this league,” said the Tigers George Kell as he watched Combs work out at third base before a game. Detroit was one of the teams trying to pry Combs away from Boston. “He could be on our ball club right now at either second base or shortstop. I don’t know how well he’d hit, but it wouldn’t have to be much the way he uses those hands in the infield.”

“I’ve played every position in the infield quite a bit in the minors. It really doesn’t matter to me where I play,” said Combs, who must have been thrilled to be playing anywhere at that point in the season.

The Sox kept Combs through the start of the 1950 season, but he had one plate appearance over the first month. He drew a walk on April 23 while pinch-hitting for catcher Bob Scherbarth. He advanced to second base on a Tom Wright single and was thrown out at home trying to score on a Dom DiMaggio single. A couple of weeks later, on May 7, Boston traded him and outfielder Tommy O’Brien for outfielder Clyde Vollmer. Washington manager Bucky Harris said he would move Sam Dente to second base and make the 30-year-old Combs a starting shortstop for the first time in the majors.

Merrill Combs, right, signs new Philadelphia Phillie Roy Thomas as Thomas’ parents look on. Source: The Lompoc Record, June 11, 1971.

Combs made the most of his opportunity. He singled in each of his first three games with his new team and had hits in nine of his first 10 games, giving him a .355 batting average. It was unsustainable, but he still hit .267 over his first month with the Senators. A hitless spell in July left him with a .245 average with the Senators. While his on-base percentage was a good .384, Combs provided almost no power, with only 1 extra-base hit – a double – among his 25 hits. His defense at shortstop was a little better than league average – he committed 5 errors for a .966 fielding percentage. On August 2, Combs was sent to the Cleveland Indians organization, and his new team assigned him to the San Diego Padres of the PCL. He spent the rest of the year there and hit .283 in 50 games.

Combs spent all of 1951 and ’52 with Cleveland – with a brief detour. He was claimed by the St. Louis Browns in the 1950 Rule V Draft in November of 1950 and was then traded back to the Indians on April 1, 1951, with infielder Snuffy Stirnweiss, for infielder Fred Marsh and $35,000. Combs was a Brownie for less than 5 months and never appeared in a major-league game with them. Despite the fact that Cleveland liked Combs enough to acquire him twice, the team didn’t use him much. Appearing primarily as a late-inning replacement for shortstop Ray Boone, Combs made it into 19 games and hit .179 with 2 RBIs. His first hit with Cleveland came on April 24, when he doubled in Larry Doby to score the first run of the game in a 5-2 win over the White Sox. Combs had just 4 more hits the rest of the season. He also hit a 2-run game-winning home run, but that came in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 6.

Combs’ final season in the majors was also his busiest. Shortstop Boone was injured with torn ligaments in his knee, and Combs moved into the starting lineup. He started both ends of a July 4 doubleheader against Detroit and clubbed a 2-run homer in an 11-0 beating. That homer ended up being his only extra-base hit in the entire month of July – 13 hits in 87 at-bats for a .149 batting average. While his fielding percentage was better than league average at .972, it was reported that his range had diminished noticeably. Boone returned in August but was awful in the field. He was benched late in the month by manager Al Lopez, but this time the starts went to George Strickland, a waiver pickup from Pittsburgh. Combs only appeared once in a game after August 9. He struck out in a September 28 8-2 win over Detroit for his final major-league at-bat.

Combs as a Texas Rangers coach.

At the end of the season, Combs’ contract was sold to the minor-league Indianapolis Indians. Indianapolis in turn sold him to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. He batted .265 there and homered 8 times while showing that his skills at shortstop were still noteworthy. He finished his playing career in 1954, splitting time between Seattle and the Sacramento Solons, also of the PCL. He was essentially gifted to the Solons. Earlier in the year, the Rainiers had sold catcher Claude Christie to Sacramento, but Christie didn’t pan out. So Rainiers owner Dewey Soriano sent them Combs to repay the debt he felt the team owed Sacramento. He hit .254 between the two clubs.

Over 5 seasons in the majors, Combs appeared in 140 games and had a .202/.314/.241 slash line. His 73 hits included 6 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs. He scored 45 times and drove in 25 runs. He also took 57 walks. He was a .968 fielder at shortstop and .976 at third base, both of which were better than league average. Combs was also a .265 hitter in the minor leagues.

The Solons released Combs in February of 1955, officially ending his playing career. Combs, 35, returned to Los Angeles with his wife, Phyllis, and daughters Caryl, Cindy and Christy. He participated in many golf tournaments and other activities with MLB alumni, but his full-time job, according to his SABR bio, was as a fountain sales representative for Pepsi Cola. He was hired as a scout by the Cincinnati Reds in 1962, moved to the Mets in 1964 and then to the Phillies in 1965. His job with the Phillies was to collect reports from eight different scouts in Southern California and Arizona, evaluate them and make recommendations to the Phillies front office. During his time with Philadelphia, he helped the team sign pitcher Roy Thomas and infielder Alan Bannister, both first-round draft picks. Bannister was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1973 Amateur Draft and was one of the most highly touted prospects of the day. He never blossomed into stardom but had a 12-year career in the majors.

Combs left scouting to join the coaching ranks in 1974. Billy Martin, manager of the Texas Rangers at the time, hired his old friend as a first base coach. During that time in Texas, they tried to usher some new technology into baseball. For a short time in 1975, Martin communicated with his baseline coaches, Combs and Frank Lucchesi, via walkie-talkie. That may have stemmed from a game in April when Willie Davis was thrown out trying to steal in the bottom of the ninth inning in an eventual 3-2 loss to Minnesota. Somebody had missed a sign, but Martin declined to say who was at fault. The problem with being a coach for Martin is that his managerial tenures were notoriously short. Martin was fired in July of 1975 and replaced with Lucchesi. Within days, Combs was reassigned as a Rangers scout as the new skipper brought in some of his own coaches.

Combs rejoined the Cleveland Indians as a scout after the 1975 season. He held that position for the rest of his life. Merrill Combs died on July 7, 1981, in Riverside, Calif., at the age of 61. His SABR biography reported the cause of death to be lung cancer. He is interred at Riverside National Cemetery.

Merrill & Phyllis Combs’ niche at Riverside National Cemetery.

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