An inestimable gentleman of respectable repute has suggested I tell again of the time I shook hands with Jack Coombs.
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.
Judge Robert Randall would have his inflatable catcher's belly-pad and the bicycle-tire pump. The thing had leaked for years, and he had to blow it up between innings.
Bob caught except when Ruel caught Jack, and Jack would pitch one exhibition inning. Levi, also, would pitch one inning. I think the high school never won. After nine pitches each, Jack and Levi would tip their caps and sit the game out. We were outnumbered and outtalented. People came from all over to see Jack Coombs.
MY senior year in high school I came to bat in Jack's inning. This should be understood: My rubber boots were in jest. I was never a ballplayer. I didn't always strike out, but I was famous for dribblers to second base, usually taken on one hop by the pitcher.
Left field was my domain solely because in our high school league nobody much ever drove a ball beyond the shortstop. To make things clear, I played left field because we had only nine players on our team.
To put it another way, I was no threat to John Wesley Coombs. He had already thrown six pitches. It was his eighth pitch that I spoiled.
John Wesley Coombs was something to see. Smooth in action, he took little time, and even less at an old-timers' game strictly for fun. I shut both eyes at once, listened for the whiz, and swung with all the force of a bandmaster calling for double-soft on the flute. I connected, a blooper down the line over first.
Like the Roman General who expected a triumph but got only an ovation, I expected an ovation but got only the ha-ha. The old-timers' game was never taken as serious baseball anyway, but in these circumstances a hit off Jack Coombs was cause for unbridled hilarity. Jack Coombs was laughing most of all.
He came from the mound over to first base, and we shook hands. Jack said, "Lotta guys never done that!" I was left on base, as Jack struck out the next batter with three wicked curve balls.
Here, now, is the fuller explanation.
Freeport High School, the building I and Jack Coombs did not attend, is an elegant new structure with modernisms I don't understand. I'd guess probably nobody now in attendance, or on the staff, knows anything about Jack Coombs and the part he played in making Cornelius McGillicuddy an immortal baseball personality. Probably nobody is even aware that the Athletics played in Philadelphia!
It became my desire to find a photograph of Jack Coombs and cause him to be on the august wall of our cherished high school.
First, I applied to the Colby College librarian, thinking a portrait of Colby Jack Coombs would be a cinch. Although I sent postage for a reply, intervening months without one would make me suppose I'm not about to get one. The Freeport Historical Society does not have one. Zounds!
But a short note to the aforetold inestimable gentleman of respectable repute, who is also an editor for the Christian Science Monitor, brought results. As you can see, we have found a photograph of John Wesley Coombs. I am the only baseball player with a career record batting average of 1,000 against Jack Coombs.