He was dog tired. Having pitched an exhausting 353 innings during the regular season, he found himself the “go to” man for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Sure he loved to pitch and who didn’t want a chance to be showcased in the World Series? But he was doubting even he could throw yet another complete game.
It was a brisk Sunday afternoon, October 23, 1910 at Chicago’s West Side Grounds and Jack Coombs was trying hard not to let thoughts of fatigue ovewhelm him. He found it difficult to believe that he was perhaps 20 pitches away from delivering a World Series Championship to the City of Philadelphia.
“Steady”, Jack told himself. “Think logically and concentrate. Just hold them off for two more innings”.
A Human Curiosity
In many ways, Jack Coombs’ life was a study in contradiction.
His family moved to the East Coast from the Midwest at a time when migration was decidedly in the opposite direction. He completed college when many didn’t even attend high school. He studied the difficult subject of chemistry, but after graduation would never don a lab coat or mix volatile compounds. And he was an intellectual who dominated a physically demanding sport.
Born in Le Grand, Iowa in 1882, John Wesley Coombs acquired many nicknames during his lifetime. But “Iron Man” and “Colby Jack” were the most popular. At the age of five his parents pulled up roots and moved to Maine, a fortuitous destination for the young man.
As a teen, Jack entered Maine’s Colby College where he excelled in football, tennis and track. But it was his talent for throwing a baseball which caught people’s attention. And one person in particular took notice. His name was Connie Mack and on a passing visit through Maine he happened to witness the young man’s powerful side arm delivery. Jack made such a favorable impression that Mack offered him a $2,400 baseball contract on the spot.
Three weeks after graduation in 1906 Jack became a starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. Coombs – now called Colby Jack by his teammates- slowly transitioned from pitching against talented college players to facing the best hitters in the major leagues.
During his first season he earned a mediocre 10-10 record but pitched an epic game against the Boston Red Sox. The game lasted 4 hours, 47 minutes and Jack was the last man standing . In the end, Jack came out on top pitching an incomprehensible 24 inning affair while only surrendering one run. Because of events like this he earned the additional sobriquet “Iron Man Jack”.
An Athletic catalyst
His next few seasons continued in an undistinguished fashion until his breakout season of 1910.
During the regular season he won 31 games against 9 losses and tallied 224 strikeouts. He recorded a stingy 1.30 ERA which evidently helped him post 13 shutouts. Keeping to his “Iron Jack” name he completed 35 games. Perhaps most remarkably he didn’t surrender one home run the entire season!
Now he found himself in Philadelphia’s first World Series.
Manager Connie Mack’s strategy to win the best of seven series was to gamble on a untested and risky approach. He would employ only two pitchers for the entire series. Not just two starting pitchers; just two pitchers. No relievers.
Pitchers Chief Bender and Iron Jack Coombs would do all the lifting, both light and heavy. And through the first 4 games the strategy worked beautifully. The A’s were leading the Cubs, 3 games to 1. Jack had pitched complete game wins in contests two and four and here he found himself pitching the fifth and potential clincher.
Mack’s decision to start Jack on just two days rest was either grounded in suspicion of Bender’s abilities or supreme confidence in Jack’s superhuman endurance. Whatever the reasoning, Jack was handed the baseball.
At the end of 7 innings, the Athletics held a slender 2-1 lead. Jack was the first batter in the top of the eight (remember this was when pitchers still batted in the American League) and got things started with an opposite field single to right. The next batter was leadoff hitter, Topsy Hartsel, who exchanged places on the base paths with Jack via a fielder’s choice.
Jack now took his place on the bench and prayed for his teammates to add an insurance run. They did far better than even he could have wished for.
Two doubles, two walks, a single, an error and a wild pitch later, Philadelphia added 5 runs staking a very grateful pitcher to a 6 run lead. Inwardly, Jack began to relax. He knew with such a lead he could tease the Cub hitters with pitches just nipping the strike zone. He would not give them anything good to hit. The Cubs, champions of 1907 and 1908 knew they faced an uphill battle.
In the bottom of the eighth, Jack surrendered one run. But Manager Connie Mack probably reasoned this was a beneficial consession given that the Cubs used up 3 of their last 6 remaining outs.
The visting A’s were retired quietly in the top of the ninth.
In Chicago’s last chance inning the first two batters flied to the outfield; the last one a deep shot corralled by the centerfielder.
“Just one more” Jack silently repeated to himself. But these veteran Cubs would not go easily. Jimmy Archer the eighth batter promptly singled to right. The starting pitcher, Mordecai Brown, now was asked to sit in favor of pinch hitter, Jack Kling. Jack was desperate to keep Kling off the bases, for the top of the Cub’s lineup was next. He knew that a spray hit here, a wild pitch there and the feisty Cubs would come roaring back.
Fortunately those fears never materialized. Kling grounded to shortstop Jack Barry, who ran over to 2nd base for the unassisted putout. The Athletics had earned their first championship thanks to Iron Man Jack.
Jack won 3 of the 4 World Series games, pitching 27 innings with a 3.33 ERA. He also was the third leading hitter for the A’s, batting .385.
In 1911 and 1912 he was also dominant, winning 28 and 21 games, respectively. He appeared destined to be one of baseball’s all time greats. That was until he contracted a severe case of typhoid fever in 1913. He missed a few seasons and when he later returned it was never to the form of those earlier years.
When he retired in 1920, he won a total of 159 games, with 80 of those wins coming between 1910 and 1912. Many of his accomplishments still stand as records in major league baseball today. He is on a select list of 12 other players who have recorded 30 game winning seasons since 1900.
But that was not the end of his baseball career. He got to apply his college learning when he wrote a 300 page “scientific examination of the game”.
And he went on to coach baseball at Duke University and compiled a record of 382-171 managing them to the College World Series in 1952. In the end he married his love of baseball with academia.
Good Chemistry indeed.
Sources: Baseball Reference.com
Major League Baseball- Oakland Athletics history
Colby College Magazine