Ken Holcombe was born in Burnsville, North Carolina, on August 23, 1918. The family moved when he was 4 years old, to Woodfin, North Carolina, just seven miles from Asheville. Ken attended Woodfin High School, where he played baseball for four years and one year of semipro ball in 1937, in the King Cotton League, in Greenville.
He broke into professional baseball by attending a tryout camp in Asheville in 1938, and was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. His first professional baseball game was in 1938, with the Greensburg Green Sox in the Class-D Pennsylvania State Association.
It was Class-D ball again for Ken in 1939, pitching for the Cardinals affiliated Williamson (West Virginia) Red Birds, in the Mountain States League.
In 1940, he only appeared in nine games. He went to spring training with the Cardinals in St. Petersburg, but when the regular season came, he was in Class D again with the Hamilton (Ontario) Red Wings (in the PONY League), and for three games in Class B, with his more-or-less hometown, Asheville Tourists, of the Piedmont League.
In 1941, he was acquired by the Yankees and pitched for the Piedmont League’s Norfolk Tars. He played for the Newark Bears for the next three seasons, but was seriously ill with an ulcer for most of 1942. The Bears won the International League pennant and Ken was given a full share of the winnings.
In 1943, Ken went 9-7, with a 3.66 ERA. In 1944, he finished with a record of 17-10. The 17 wins were tops on the team. He joined the Yankees in Atlantic City for spring training in 1945. He made the team and his major-league debut was on April 27, 1945 against the Senators.
He had done a lot of para-military training around Asheville. In August he was called for a pre-induction physical, the day after the atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, and a few days later the war ended.
By the end of the 1945 season, he had appeared in 23 games with an excellent 1.79 earned run average. In 1946, with so many veterans coming home from the war, he was sent to Triple A again and released outright to Kansas City in April. He pitched in 10 games for K.C. and was 0-4, with a miserable 6.00 ERA. In June, he was sold to the Newark Bears.
The Yankees elected not to protect him and he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft in November. He never played for the Pirates and in April 1947, the Pirates returned him to the Yankees. Fourteen days later, the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League purchased his contract.
At the end of the 1947 season, he was taken in the November Rule 5 draft again, this time by the Cincinnati Reds drafting him from Sacramento. He appeared in two major-league games with Reds when Cincinnati returned him to Sacramento, where he was 9-10, with a 5.04 ERA in 1948. He stuck with the Solons again in 1949 and had a good year with a 2.86 ERA that ranked him third in the Coast League.
In September, the Chicago White Sox had purchased his contract. He was in the majors for two full seasons in 1950 and 1951, with the White Sox. A broken thumb brought his 1950 season to a halt in late August. The White Sox didn’t have anywhere near enough good pitchers in their system and this helped ensure Ken a chance to stick with the Sox in 1951. He couldn’t win a game in all of 1952, and in seven starts, he was 0-5. In mid-June, he was placed on waivers and was selected by the St. Louis Browns.
He pitched in 12 games for the Browns and in July was released outright to the Louisville Colonels. Louisville was a Triple-A club of the Red Sox, and he regained some success at the lower level of work. In October, the Red Sox purchased his contract.
He was hampered in 1953 spring training by the same chronic arm ailment that bothered him since he was in the Yankee farm system back in 1943. However he learned to pitch through the pain, which was always worse in the spring until he loosened the kinks and worked his way through it. He pitched through the stiffness during spring training, and made the Red Sox team. But at the end of April, he was optioned back to Louisville. There he pitched with a 2.98 ERA, which was second-best in the American Association.
The Red Sox sold his contract to the San Francisco Seals in December. Part of the reluctance of the Red Sox to bring him back was Ken's own decision not to fly. His final year in baseball was in 1954 with the Seals.
In 1955, he took up work as a supervisor for Beacon Manufacturing in Swannanoa, North Carolina, a textile company specializing in blankets. His family enjoyed life in Asheville and he retired from Beacon in 1984.
Ken Holcombe lived to the age of 91, dying on March 15, 2010 at a health and retirement nursing home, the Brian Center, in Weaverville, North Carolina.