Baseball writer Bill James called Lombardi "the slowest man to ever play major league baseball well." The fact that he was so slow spoke to what an outstanding hitter he was. Lombardi was an All-Star for seven seasons, he hit over .300 for ten seasons and finished his major league career with a .306 batting average despite infields playing very deep for the sloth-like baserunner. He is listed at 6'3" and 230 lbs, but he probably approached 300 lbs towards the end of his career. He was also known as a gentle giant and this made him hugely popular among Cincinnati fans.
Lombardi grew up in Oakland. He attended McClymonds High School, the same school from which baseball star Frank Robinson and basketball star Bill Russell later graduated.
Lombardi started his professional baseball career for his hometown Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He hit well (over .350 with power in 1929 and 1930) and had a strong arm. His talents were soon noticed by the Brooklyn Robins, who purchased his contract for $50,000.
Lombardi played his rookie season for the Robins in 1931 and hit .297. However, Brooklyn had too many quality catchers at the time and Robins' manager Wilbert Robinson contemplated using the strong-armed Lombardi as a pitcher. Instead, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds shortly before the start of spring training for the 1932 season. Lombardi flourished in his first year for Cincinnati, batting .303 with 11 home runs and 68 runs batted in. In 1935, he hit .343, but was not selected as an All-Star until 1936, when he hit .333 that season. In 1937, he hit .334 and made the All-Star team. In 1938, he was selected as an All-Star again, and hit a league-leading .342 with 19 home runs, drove in 95 runs, and won the National League (NL) Most Valuable Player Award. Lombardi became one of the Reds' most productive and popular players. He was the catcher for left-hander Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters, accomplished on June 11 and June 15, 1938. He was again an All-Star the next two seasons, and his hitting skills and leadership helped the Reds to the National League pennant in 1939 and 1940, and the World Series title in 1940.
While Lombardi played for the Reds as the starting catcher, three-year teammate and backup catcher Willard Hershberger became the only major league player to commit suicide during a season. Hershberger, who thought he had been having difficulties playing as a replacement for an injured Lombardi for a few games in 1940, told manager Bill McKechnie in private that "my father killed himself, and I'm going to do it, too!" After failing to appear at the stadium the next day, the Reds checked Hershberger's room at the hotel on August 3 only to find that he had slit his throat and wrist.
In 1942, the Boston Braves (NL team) purchased Lombardi's contract, and he became an All-Star and led the NL and Braves that season with a .330 batting average (albeit, in only 309 at-bats); the next batting title to be won by a catcher came more than 60 years later when Joe Mauer won the AL batting title in 2006. As of 2017, Lombardi remains only one of three NL catchers to win a batting title (the others are Cincinnati Reds catcher Bubbles Hargrove in 1926 and SF Giants catcher Buster Posey in 2012). His final All-Star selection was during the 1943 season (MLB cancelled the 1945 All-Star Game and no All-Stars were named that season), before Boston traded him to the New York Giants before the 1944 season began. He enjoyed three productive if unspectacular seasons with the Giants before seeing his playing time diminish over the next two seasons. Lombardi retired from the major leagues after the 1947 season, having compiled a .306 career batting average, 190 home runs, 990 RBI, 601 runs and 430 walks.
The six foot, three inch, 230-pound Lombardi was legendarily slow-footed, and during the course of his major league career he grounded into 261 double plays. Aside from being the leader in grounding into double plays during four seasons, he also holds the MLB record for grounding into a double play once in every 25.3 plate appearances. An opposing manager once jokingly said that Lombardi was so slow, he ran like he was carrying a piano — and the man who was tuning it. Defenses would often position all four infielders in the outfield when Lombardi came to the plate. Despite this, he became an outstanding catcher on the basis of his strong, accurate arm and his ability to "call" a game.
Lombardi finished his professional career in the minor leagues for the Oakland Oaks, a championship team in 1948.
During the fourth game of the 1939 World Series, in the 10th inning, with the score tied and runners on first and third, Joe DiMaggio singled. One run scored, then Reds outfielder Ival Goodman fumbled the ball. Yankees right fielder Charlie "King Kong" Keller, well known for his sturdy physique, beat the throw to catcher Lombardi and inadvertently hit "The Schnozz" in his groin. Unfortunately for the Reds and Lombardi, he had failed to wear his protective cup and Lombardi was in pain and dazed. DiMaggio raced around the bases and scored while the ball was just a few feet away from the dazed Lombardi. The press was hugely critical of the sensitive catcher because of this and it came to be known as "Lombardi's Big Snooze". Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, says that "Lombardi was now the Bill Buckner of the 1930s, even more innocent than Buckner, and Buckner has plenty of people who should be holding up their hands to share his disgrace." James called Lombardi's selection as the Series goat "absurd." James noted the Yankees were already ahead three games to none and that DiMaggio's run merely made the final score 7-4 instead of 6-4.
In 1953, Lombardi had been battling depression and agreed to go to a sanitorium. While on his way to the facility, Lombardi slit his throat from ear to ear with a razor. He received blood transfusions and was initially listed in critical condition, but within a couple of days newspaper reports said that he would survive. Lombardi worked as an attendant in the Candlestick Park press office and later as a gas station attendant in Oakland, California. Lombardi was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1958. He died in 1977 and was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery (Oakland, California) in Oakland.
Lombardi was posthumously inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1981, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. In 2004, The Cincinnati Reds dedicated a bronze statue of Lombardi at the entrance of Great American Ball Park. He was honored along with four other Crosley Field Era Reds: Joe Nuxhall, Ted Kluszewski, Frank Robinson, and Pete Rose.
The Cincinnati Chapter of the BBWAA annually award the Ernie Lombardi Award to the Reds' team MVP.