Back in 1988, Orel Hershiser set the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Most people noted that he just surpassed Don Drysdale. A handful of experts pointed out that Drysdale had taken the record away from Walter Johnson. Almost no one knew that Johnson had replaced Jack Coombs as the record holder. One hundred years ago today, Colby Jack Coombs began a run that eventually led to 53 consecutive scoreless innings.
Coombs was born in Iowa and graduated from Colby College in Maine, hence his “Colby Jack” nickname. Connie Mack brought him to the majors immediately after graduation. He went 10-10 in 1906, participating in the longest game played to that point. In 1907 and 1908 he had equally undistinguished records, then went 12-11 in 1909. The breakthrough came in 1910. For the season he went 31-9 with an ERA of 1.30, striking out 224 men. He led the American League in wins, games, and shutouts. His ERA was second in the AL. In the World Series his Philadelphia Athletics defeated the Chicago Cubs four games to one. Coombs was the winning pitcher in three of the games, including the last one.
The 1911 season was almost as spectacular. Coombs was 28-12, but with an ERA of 3.53, He led he league in wins, games, and in hits given up. The A’s went back to the World Series where Coombs won a game and took a no decision. In 1912 he was 21-10.
Tragedy struck in 1913. Coombs caught typhoid, almost died, and saw his baseball career derailed. In 1913 and 1914 combined he pitched a total of 13 innings, absorbing one loss. In 1915, Mack sent him to Brooklyn in the National League. Coombs was 32 and coming off two lost seasons. He bounced back to go 15-10 for the Robins (Dodgers comes later), then went 13-8 for the pennant winning team of 1916. The Robins lost the World Series in five games. Coombs, of course, won the only Brooklyn victory, a 4-3 win over Boston.
It was essentially the end. He had a losing record in 1917 and 1918, went to the Phillies as manager in 1919. The Phils were awful and Coombs wasn’t much of a manager. So 62 games into the season he was fired. His record was 18-44. He went back to the AL in 1920, getting into two games for the woeful Tigers, then retired.
Coombs overall record was 158-110 with an ERA of 2.78. He had 35 shutouts, walked 841 men, and struck out 1052 in 354 games pitched (268 starts). From 1910 through 1912 he went 80-31, had 15 shutouts, and struck out 529 men, while walking 328. In World Series play (1910, 1911, 1916) he was at his best. He went 5-0 with 34 strikeouts in 53.1 innings, giving up 41 hits.
It took a while, but by 1929 Coombs found another good job in baseball. He took over as head coach at Duke University, where he remained through 1952. Unlike A’s teammate Jack Barry his Duke teams never won a College World Series, but he was successful, particularly in sending players to the majors. In 1945 he wrote a manual “Baseball: Individual Play and Team Strategy”. I’ve read it and it’s pretty good. Combs died in Texas in 1957. The field at Duke is named in his honor.
Jack Coombs had claim to be one of the three or four finest pitchers in all of the Major Leagues for a short period (1910-12), then he got sick. It took two full years to recover and he never made it back to his previous form. He did well for a short while with Brooklyn, but his last several years were mere shadow to his great years. There’ve been a lot of pitchers who have similar patterns of a few good years than something goes drastically wrong. Sometimes its an injury, sometimes arm trouble, sometimes illness, sometimes just a screw loose somewhere in the head. Coombs is, for a short period, a truly great pitcher and a good example of this pattern.
By way of trivia, in the great 1950s western “High Noon” there are four villains. The one played by Lee Van Cleef is named Jack Colby. I wonder if the author of the screenplay was an old A’s fan.