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
Hometown Sports Heroes of Greece NY
Hometown Sports Heroes of Greece NY
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