The movie pitch: Turn of the century (the 20th). The son of a small-town blacksmith is spotted on the baseball fields of Kennebunk, Maine. Recruited by Colby College, he stars in three sports and earns his tuition money (pre-NCAA rules) playing summer baseball for $25 a week. Planning to go to graduate school (MIT) in chemistry, he is recruited again, this time by Connie Mack, legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The strapping Mainer signs for the then-astounding sum of $2,400 and, immediately upon graduation from Colby, packs his glove and boards a train for Philly. Vaulting to stardom, he pitches his team to back-to-back world championships.
That’s the 30-second version of the story of Colby Jack Coombs (Class of 1906), which baseball writer John Tierney meticulously recounts in Jack Coombs: A Life In Baseball (McFarland, 2008). It’s a remarkable tale, from Coombs’s meteoric rise, to his battles to overcome career-threatening injuries and illness, to his adherence to a strict code of clean living, on and off the field. Said Coombs, speaking at the dedication of Coombs Field at Colby in 1951, “I hope that all young men who play upon it will be inspired to live the lives of clean, honest, true-blue athletes.”
No steroid scandal here. In fact, Tierney’s book can be enjoyed both for its recounting of Coombs’s remarkable career and for its depiction of professional baseball long before nine-figure contracts and A-Rod’s dirty laundry.
Just a year out of Colby, in 1907, Coombs already was one of the top pitchers in baseball. He had beaten Boston’s Cy Young (yes, the Cy Young) and was building a reputation as a gutsy gamer with nasty stuff. “He works like an old-timer,” reported The Washington Post, “and incidentally, has a lot of speed and excellent curves.”
An arm injury derailed that season, but Coombs was back in 1908. That caught the attention of none other than sports columnist Ring Lardner, then with the Chicago Tribune. “For weeks he has pitched every third day at least, and for a while he was used every other day,” Lardner reported. “In the twelfth and thirteenth rounds yesterday he appeared to weaken.” Coombs won the game, and Lardner would go on to describe his pitching as “one of the wonders of the land.”
This was before pitchers became specialists, taking the mound for an inning or even a single batter. In Coombs’s day, a starting pitcher was his own closer. As Tierney tells it, “With darkness beginning to settle in during the sixteenth inning, [Coombs] ended his performance with a flourish, striking out the last three Chicago hitters.” Sixteen innings, 18 strikeouts, three hits. For Coombs, another day at the office.
He would go on to help the A’s win the World Series in 1910 and 1911, his salary climbing to $5,000. The 1911 championship earned Coombs a bonus of more than $3,600. He was a celebrity and formed a vaudeville act with two teammates. A former Colby thespian, Coombs was the star.
In the spring of 1913, Coombs contracted typhoid fever, the infection settling in his lower spine. He spent months in a body cast and missed two seasons. When he returned to baseball in 1915, with the Brooklyn Robins, he was more crafty than overpowering and, while successful, couldn’t bring home another World Series championship.
But, as Tierney recounts, Coombs was stoical about the downturn in his career, seeing athletics as being as much about character as success. When the Black Sox game-rigging scandal broke in 1920, Tierney writes, it was suggested that “somebody like Jack Coombs” be appointed to a board to police the sport.
Coombs went on to coach college baseball, settling at Duke University after a stop at Williams College. He wrote a landmark baseball textbook, a 300-page scientific examination of the game. Coombs and his wife, Mary, had no children, and his players and students came to be his family, Tierney writes. Perhaps because of his illness-shortened career, Coombs was never elected to the Hall of Fame.
A baseball writer and historian, Tierney doesn’t overdramatize his subject. In the end, the facts, some of which were gleaned from Miller Library’s Special Collections, speak for themselves. It seems a fitting tone, just the way Coombs would have told the story himself. “There is much in life if a man lives and does all things above-board,” Coombs said in a 1943 interview with the Sporting News. “I hope I have lived that kind of life at all times.”
Write that into the script.