Bicentennial Snapshot # 28 – Jerome Combs, The Cobblestone Baseball Catcher

Jerome Combs from RGE news September 1938
Jerome Combs from RGE news September 1938

This week we introduce you to Jerome Combs, the cobblestone baseball player. Did you know that some baseball players would use cobblestones as baseballs?

Well, one player could catch cobblestones and played for the North Parma baseball team and practiced catching them, which people said could not be done.

This snapshot is dedicated to the late Tom Sawnor (1961-2021). We appreciated Tom’s contributions to the Greece Historical Society and Museum. We will miss him and may his love for sports live on.

Jerome A. Combs was born on September 12, 1861, to Lewis Combs and Sarah Anne Combs. His parents moved from the town of Middlesex, in Middlesex County, New Jersey, to North Greece, in Monroe County, New York around 1840 to 1850 based on census data dated 1855 for Lewis A. Combs. The birth of Lewis Combs’s first son born in 1855 in North Greece, coincided with Doctor Abdiel Bliss Carpenter living in the area as well. Dr. Carpenter may have been the doctor who helped Sarah Anne Combs deliver both Jerome A. Combs in 1861 and his brother Lewis A. Combs in 1855, or more likely it was his son, Dr. Abdiel Milton Carpenter.

Map of North Greece 1872
Map of North Greece 1872
Jerome A Combs property in 1902 North Greece
Jerome A Combs property in 1902 North Greece

Lewis Combs owned two businesses and had a reasonable sized farm as well. The first one was the Blacksmith and Carriage shop where the North Greece Fire Department started in 1922 at the northeast corner of Latta and North Greece Road. The second business was a butter churn factory. He had a truck farm as well. His sons Lewis and Jerome helped worked the farm when they came of age. Both Combs boys went to School Number 6 on College Ave. Combs’s Truck Farm would take fruits and vegetables to local wholesalers or the Rochester Public Market in the city. They would load the truck or horse and wagon and be on the way by 4 am to the public market and would spend a good portion of the day selling what products they had from the wagon or truck depending on the day of the week. Some of the Combs’s fruits and vegetables may have been sold to H.C. Phelps General Store, Wagg’s General store on Lake Ave, or Anderson’s General store at Ridge and Greece Center Road (otherwise known as Long Pond Road). Also, the Larkin Hotel may have bought produce from the Combs to serve at meals for patrons at the hotel.

1954 Town Seal on the Town Flag
1954 Town Seal on the Town Flag
N Greece Fire House 1926
N Greece Fire House 1926
Directory of the Clio Lodge, 1927, from hipstamp.com
Directory of the Clio Lodge, 1927, from hipstamp.com

Jerome Combs was the town assessor for twelve years, and he was a volunteer with North Greece Fire Department for twenty years. Jerome Combs was one of the founding members of the North Greece Fire Department. He was a member of Clio Masonic Lodge in the village of Hilton once called North Parma.

North Parma Baseball Team, Jerome Combs is seated in on the left in the first row,  from RGE News September 1938
North Parma Baseball Team, Jerome Combs is seated on the left in the first row, from RGE News September 1938

But in the late 1880s and the early 1890s, Jerome Combs was the star catcher for North Parma’s semi-professional baseball team. In the team picture attached to the left here, Jerome Combs is seated in on the left in the first row. He propelled them through long winning streaks. But what was more interesting and made him legendary in the semi-pro leagues was his unique ability… What might that be? Was it his hitting stances? Was it his ability to communicate his signals to the pitcher?

cobblestone baseball
cobblestone used as a baseball
1887 Baseball Card from "The Baseball Glove Comes to Baseball, 1875," www.eyewitnesstohistory.com
1887 Baseball Card from “The Baseball Glove Comes to Baseball, 1875,” www.eyewitnesstohistory.com

It was none of those. It was his ability to catch barehanded. Jerome would catch either baseballs or cobblestones (that were used as baseballs when no baseballs were available to use) with his bare hands. Seen here is an 1891 catcher’s mitt vs. a modern catcher’s mitt; look at how different they are in terms of how the glove sits on the hand and how the ball rests in the pocket of a modern baseball glove.

E. H. Decker's GATGHERS GLOVE
E. H. Decker’s Catcher’s GLOVE
Wilson A2000 2021 1790SS 34″ Catcher’s Mitt

If you want to learn more about the evaluation of catcher equipment can be found on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website. https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-evolution-of-catchers-equipment/

Jerome would catch baseballs thrown as far as 150 feet and as close as 3 feet, but for the pitching distance, it was 50 feet. One of Jerome’s quotes from the days he played baseball was

“I guess, I was the only man who had the reputation of being willing to catch any pitcher at fifty feet using cobblestones for baseballs. Folks who didn’t know me used to bet it couldn’t be done.”

Old Time Baseball played  on the grounds of the Town Hall 5-14-16
Old Time Baseball played put on by the Rochester Baseball Historial Society on the grounds of the Town Hall 5-14-2016 – https://rochesterbaseballhistory.org/

One day he was summoned from the fields where he was working to catch for John Smith, a pitcher with a Rochester team, one of those who said it could not be done. They started throwing at 150 feet. Then, it gradually shortened the distance to fifty feet. Combs, described as a gentle giant of a man, came through with flying colors as he always did.

Did his hands suffer any damage?

They did not. He explained his technique: “I learned to absorb the shock of the stones and the baseballs at fifty feet by pulling back my hands with the catch at fifty feet. Then I kept them in shape by soaking them in hot water after each game.”

And on the day, he died his obituary headline read “Former ‘Barehand’ Catcher, Jerome A Combs, taken by death” on August 30, 1940.

If you want to learn about some of our local hometown athletes that have gone on to the pro level or just had some records set at local high schools besides Jerome A Combs, then get yourself a copy of our publication written by Marie Villone Poinan the late Tom Sawnor.

Hometown Sports Heroes of Greece NY
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Marketing to Farmers From the 1850s to the 1900s

Cover of the Genesee Farmer
Cover of the Genesee Farmer
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888, Located in the General Store at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan
Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888, Located in the General Store at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan

Prior to the Civil War (1861-65) the farmers in Greece got the latest information concerning all aspects of farming from fellow farmers or a number of monthly publications such as The Genesee Farmer (founded in 1831) or Moore’s Rural New Yorker (founded about 1849). Both papers were published in Rochester and both were priced at $3.00 per year ($3.00 in 1849 would amount to $93.75 in 2015). Both were issued monthly. Advertisements were generally quite small and very often without an illustration of the product. Each issue might be carefully kept and in many cases were bound into book form. Our GHS archive has two bound volumes of Moore’s Rural New York from 125 years ago. The Greece farmer, if he had the money, could become a member of the Monroe (County) Horticultural Society, founded in 1830, or take off a day and attend the Monroe County Fair with his family to see the exhibits and mingle with local fellow farmers.

Just a few years after the close of the Civil War, especially in the northern states, manufacturers began to pro­ duce and distribute consumer goods on a national scale. The big problem was the lack of an advertising medium that was on a national scale. The few national magazines published then were comparatively expensive and not always widely distributed, except in larger urban cities. The mail order companies Montgomery Ward began as a tiny business in 1872 and Sears-Roebuck some 25 years later.

Close up of the Bill of Seeds in the Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888, Located in the General Store at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan
Close-up of the Bill of Seeds in the Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888, Located in the General Store at Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan

A bit of a “eureka moment” occurred in the early 1870s. Colored lithography had been invented in Bavaria, Ger­many in 1835 and by 1839 it was introduced in the United States. The process involved numerous printing plates, each having a different color of ink. By careful registration, amazing full-color prints could be easily and inexpen­sively reproduced. Copies of famous works of art, religious and secular scenes were now offered for framing. The “eureka moment” occurred when someone decided to print advertising cards of modest size as Chromolitho­graphs to be inserted in package goods, mailed, and handed out…….and ….. they were FREE! A collecting craze soon started for these colorful gems, often traded and pasted in appropriate scrapbooks. Every shopkeeper had a group of handouts supplied by the wholesaler which carried a stamping of his business and address. National and international expositions, and county and state fairs, all joined in handing out trade cards by the thousands. The Greece Grange (The Patrons of Husbandry) #311 was founded in 1875 and through meetings and lectures, it brought the local farmers into a fraternal-like setting, making it an ideal place for lectures and demonstrations of the latest is farm improvements. The captive audience was perfect for the distribution of appropriate trade cards brought to the gathering by the friendly lecture salesman.

What was the attraction of the modest, Chromolithograph, trade card? The full-color image was the big draw. The ubiquitous Currier and Ives prints of the period were hand colored and often varied in the quality and variety of colors used. The mania for the vibrantly colorful giveaways lasted for almost twenty-five years and finally faded away in the early 1900s.

Shown here above is a group of typical trade cards all slanted toward the farmer. Some were clever as the fold-down of the couple showing their huge cabbages after a shot of Cracker’s Buffalo Phosphate or the moveable images of the W.H. Rowerdink Co. Several Rochester printing companies of the era produced trade cards as well as colored seed packets for the numerous seed companies in Monroe County. The two better-known local printers of that long-ago period were Mensing-Stecher Co. and the Karle Lithographic Co.

The colorful trade cards of 5 to 7 generations ago still turn up at local antique shows. Even an occasional worn scrapbook, when opened, explodes with the bright colors of the trade cards inside. Someone carefully saved and pasted the cards in an album that might have been purchased at the Phelp’s Store in N. Greece about 1885…….

The Henry Ford Museum at the Benson Ford Research Center has at least 3 catalogs of Hiram Seeds Catalogs from 1879, 1884, and 1886 as well as some of the original packages of the seed packs from the 1882-1888 time frame, and the seeds either shipped from Rochester, NY or Chicago, IL. and you can see the search on Hiram Silbey by clicking on this link here: Hiram Sibley search on Henry Ford Collections.

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Post Mark North Greece, N.Y. – From The Historians Desk

After turning the corner at Latta Road to go south on North Greece Road, one might quickly pass a plain red brick building at the rear of a small parking lot. Across the right front of the building are the letters, United States Post Office. If you aren’t from the area you might not know you are in the hamlet of North Greece. This area was one of the earlier settlements in Greece. It has had a Post Office since 1850 (from the government records, a few say earlier).

Over the last 163-year period the mail operation has occupied at least six known locations, never more than a block away from each other. The first location was a small space in the store of Alfred Phelps at the Southwest corner of Latta and North Greece Roads.

Phelps general store latta and north Greece roads sketch William Aeberli 1970
Phelps general store latta and north Greece roads sketch William Aeberli 1970

For a short period of time in the early 1870s the location moved across North Greece Road to a store operated by William T. Filer. By 1880 it was back again, operating out of the Phelps store by Alfred’s son Henry. For the next sixty-five years, it was to share space with the ever-expanding general merchandise. Changing times in the early 1900s saw the gradual demise of the pickle and cracker barrels. Molasses was no longer dispensed into a jug. Kerosene found fewer uses as Greece gradually saw the extension of electrical service to North Greece and beyond.

Nineteen forty-five saw the end of World War II and the Post Office found it necessary to relocate again as building material were in short supply then. A small building was found on a nearby farm and moved on a flatbed truck to the rear of the original North Greece Fire Station on the Northeast corner of Latta Road at North Greece Road. Remember by older local residents was Mrs. Melinda Germeroth (Right), the postmistress from the opening of the small office in August 1945 to her retirement in December 1967.

A major remodel and addition to the fire station made room for the post office to lease a much larger space from the fire department in 1964.

As a second-class contract post office, it could offer all the amenities of a first-class post office. Mail delivery was not offered in this post office, except to the rented post office boxes on the premises. It also was not necessary for the U.S. Post Office Service to own the building.

Another twelve years and the fire station was bursting at the seams. However, no remodeling was done this time. The entire old building was demolished and a new fire station was erected. There was no small, used building for the post office this time. It was decided to move the post office into a temporary, cramped 12′ By 50′ trailer until a new permanent building was built. The trailer was put on rented property down North Greece Road, barely a block south of the fire station. The postal service put out a call for bids on a building that would have 1,056 sq. ft. of space. George and Florence Ger­meroth Jr. were the successful bidders and the Post Office would lease the building from the Ger­meroths. Florence had taken the place of her mother-in-law (Melinda) on her retirement in 1967.

The present facility is a one-person operation, except during busy seasonal and special times. Numerous postal clerks served there and at the other earlier locations. A more recent clerk with many years of service was Doris Cutter, who is fondly remembered. Doris retired in early 2004 with many years of faithful service. Another is Ann Piazza who worked with Mrs. Cutter for many years.

Though only a mile and a half west of the main Greece Post Office, it is a much slower-paced opera tion. It closes for an hour at lunchtime; the outer lobby has a bank of private mailboxes with a special Zip Code of 14515 for those only.

If you are still writing by “snail-mail” or sending cards, a North Greece cancellation mark is available by dropping your correspondence in a special slot. North Greece is the only location that has a Greece cancellation. A visit there recently found I was in a friendly, unrushed flow of patrons in what seemed to be a flashback to another time. With the postal service running up red ink more every year, will North

Greece eventually cease to have its own post office…?

Photos, data supplied by Alan Mueller, Greece Historian’s Office. If you have any information on our photos, call Alan at 663-1706.

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