By Mar ty Adler
John Tierney has been a serious baseball fan since he was about eight years old, when his father took him to Yankee Stadium. As a boy, he read every baseball biography contained in the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. This continuing interest led him to join the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1989. He had become aware of SABR through the publications of Bill James, the man who first popularized statistical analysis of baseball data. Despite his actuarial background, John has been interested primarily in the social context of baseball in American society, rather than the statistical side of the game. Nevertheless, he can do quite well in most baseball trivia contests.
After joining SABR he began collecting books on baseball—fanatically, according to his wife. His baseball library now numbers more than a thousand volumes. His children have questioned the actuarial odds of his living long enough to read them all. After a while, he began feeling guilty about being a consumer of other people’s research while not making any contributions to the supply of baseball literature. He considered writing a biography of Mel Ott, who had been his father’s childhood hero. But while he was contemplating the project, two brief but interesting biographies of Ott were released, and he decided to look for another subject.
His eldest son matriculated at Colby College in the fall of 2002. While reading about the history of the school, he came across the name of John Wesley “Colby Jack” Coombs, undoubtedly the college’s most famous athlete. He recognized the name, as Coombs’ book on baseball strategy was in his collection. Further research taught him that Coombs had been a quality major league pitcher in the early twentieth century, particularly while leading the Philadelphia Athletics to the pennant in 1910 and 1911, with 59 victories. He contributed to their World Series championships both years, winning four games.
Unfortunately, in the spring of 1913 Coombs contracted typhoid fever, for which there was no cure at the time, and nearly died. He missed almost two full years of his career, and was not the same dominant pitcher when he returned to action in 1915 for the Brooklyn Robins, although he won a World Series game for them in 1916. (From 1914 to 1931, the Dodgers were often referred to as the Robins, in honor of their manager, Wilbert Robinson.) Connie Mack, who managed the Athletics (and many eventual Hall-of-Famers) for fifty years from its inception in 1901, believed that Colby Jack was also worthy of inclusion at Cooperstown.
A few years after coming across Coombs’ name, John got down to serious research. A chance Internet search in 2005 uncovered the fact that Coombs had a great nephew living in Kennebunk, Maine. Nelson Wentworth, the great-nephew, had written to Colby College’s Alumni magazine to inform them of an error the magazine had made regarding Coombs’ family history. In short order, John was having breakfast in Kennebunk with Nelson and his brother Donald. Within a week John was fully committed to writing the book.
The Wentworth brothers shared many personal anecdotes regarding their “Uncle John,” and Donald had inherited much of Coombs’ personal baseball and family memorabilia. They provided texture and context to the story. Through their stories, Jack Coombs became more than just a successful ballplayer. Jack Coombs the person was intelligent, articulate, generous, loyal, and dedicated—a real hero in the traditional sense. Subsequent research confirmed this view; Coombs was respected and admired by all who knew him, friend and opponent alike.
John spent a number of brief vacations doing onsite research at Colby College, Duke University, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The research in Cooperstown was particularly enjoyable. He was there in November, when Cooperstown is truly a sleepy little village. Whenever he needed a break from his work in the Hall of Fame library, John wandered around the Hall of Fame exhibits, which he had pretty much to himself. It was an inspiring experience to view the plaques of the Hall of Fame members when the place was quiet.
John learned that there was much more to Coombs’ life than his major league career. After graduation from Colby College, Coombs had planned to get a graduate degree in chemistry from MIT. However, Connie Mack was a native of central Massachusetts, and Mack’s brother came across Coombs when Coombs was pitching in semi-professional leagues during the summers to help pay for his college education. Mack enticed Coombs to forego further education with an offer of $2,400 (big money for an untested rookie in those days) and the fatherly advice that, “Chemistry is a hard and tiresome road to independence.” Coombs spent the rest of his life in baseball, and never looked back on his decision.
After leaving major league baseball Coombs became baseball coach at Duke University in 1928. Coombs was seamlessly able to function in the company of both professional athletes, who were generally considered uneducated ruffians, and university professors.
At Duke he was frequently a guest lecturer in courses in economics and law, and represented the university at many major functions. He frequently recruited Duke University’s president to umpire practice games! Among his circle of friends were the Walkers of Kennebunkport, forebears of two future U.S. presidents. However, some of his personal correspondence with friends indicated that he could speak and write in the coarse language that his fellow ballplayers would understand.
Coombs’ position at Duke led him to write an instructional manual titled, Baseball: Individual Play and Team Strategy. It expressed his philosophy for teaching his players the “right way” to play the game. The first edition was published in 1937, and subsequent editions, including a Spanish language version, were published through 1951. It was a popular textbook (including problem sets!) on how the game should be played, targeted to coaches and players alike. Coombs also taught a course at Duke on baseball for nonathletes, and high grades were hard to come by. His book is no longer in print, although copies are fairly easy to find on the Internet.
Although John has spent most of his career in a consulting environment, he did not keep track of his hours on the project. It was a fun hobby on which he spent much of his free time. The process of researching and writing took about a year and a half. Getting the book published took another six months. The book is titled Jack Coombs: A Life in Baseball, published in paperback in 2008 by McFarland & Company. A synopsis of the book is available at the publisher's Web site.
John Tierney is senior vice president and chief actuary at Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Company. John has been a volunteer on various CAS committees since attaining his Fellowship in 1979; he is currently a member of the CAS Board of Directors.