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The Day I Had a Shot At Belting a Colby Jack

By John Gould / August 16, 1996

An inestimable gentleman of respectable repute has suggested I tell again of the time I shook hands with Jack Coombs.

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It's not unlike the time poet John Greenleaf Whittier took Robert Benchley's hat, except that Jack Coombs went to Colby College rather than Harvard. Since I did neither, I'm in the clear.

John Wesley Coombs was a native of the town of Freeport, Maine, and attended Freeport High School soon after the turn of this century. His academic achievement was so-so, but his skill as a baseball pitcher caught the attention of Colby College, which at that time was keen on baseball and had things well in hand.

In the middle of his senior year at Freeport High, Coombs was invited to attend Colby on a scholarship, provided he would attend Maine Central Institute for the spring semester and train with the baseball coach there. John Wesley Coombs, unlike me, was not graduated that year from dear old Freeport High, whereas I came along some 20 years later and did.

My baseball talent spared me a Colby education, partly because I was not a great pitcher, and partly because I played left field. I was the only boy on the squad who owned rubber boots, which is to say our diamond eased off into a slough of despond. As I recall, I played two seasons and won but one game. That was by default against Richmond, as the train was derailed at Harwood's Crossing.

But Jack Coombs did attend my high school for three and a half years and, Colby aside, was faithful to the town and the school. Jack was our hero.

Members of Jack's high school team still lived in Freeport in my time. They were Levi Patterson and Ruel Hanscom. Levi also pitched and was considered good.

Ruel caught, and nobody else could catch Coombs. His fastball would knock Ruel down, but his plucky Irish grit made him bounce up and continue.

Ruel used a long-fingered fielder's glove reinforced with extra padding artfully provided by a horse collar, and between innings he soaked his left hand in a pail of saltwater.

Levi Patterson told me he saw Jack Coombs pitch his 26 strikeouts in one game, and I said, "Yes, but Mr. Patterson, weren't you in the same class?"

"Sakes, no!" said Levi. "Nobody was in Jack's class! Most strikeouts I ever got in a game was 22!"

Jack should be in the Hall of Fame, but that came after Jack retired. An effort by folks who remember Jack has failed so far to get him entered belatedly.

He pitched for Colby College the morning he graduated, and won, and the next day pitched for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in Philadelphia and won.

That fall he pitched three games in the World Series and won all three. After Jack retired, he coached a team in Maine's Pine Tree League, and would return to Freeport every summer to pitch one inning in the "Old Times' Game" against the current high school team, usually on July Fourth.

Shortly before game time, the old-timers would begin to arrive. Almost every boy played high school baseball, so they'd come in droves, walking in groups across the fields, all eager for the fray. Ruel Hanscom would have his extra-padded mitt that caught Jack Coombs.