Monday, December 1, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part III--Jack Coombs and Walter Johnson)

Right-hander Jack Coombs got noticed by Connie Mack's brother while playing for Colby College in New England. The studious Coombs majored in chemistry and had every intention of making a career out of it until the A's signed him in 1905. Five years later, he turned in one of the most spectacular seasons in major league history. Relying heavily on his fastball and drop curve, he tossed twelve shutouts and won 18 of 19 starts during a three-month span in 1910. He held opponents scoreless in six straight September appearances, assembling a streak of 53 consecutive shutout innings. In the first game of a September 25 doubleheader, he relieved Hall of Fame staff mate Eddie Plank in the ninth inning. He dueled with spit-baller Ed Walsh of Chicago for six scoreless frames and started the winning rally himself. With the streak at 52, manager Connie Mack sent Coombs back to the mound as a starter in the second game. Coombs held the Sox scoreless in the first, but yielded 3 runs in the second, putting an end to his record-setting string. The previous mark had been set by "Doc" White of Chicago, who recorded five consecutive shutouts in September of 1904.

After collecting a league-leading total of 31 regular season wins in 1910, Coombs polished off his most remarkable campaign with three complete game victories over the Cubs in the World Series. He guided the A's to a second world championship the following year with a 28-win effort. Slowed by illness and injury over the next several seasons, he gradually faded from the majors. He made his last appearance in 1920.

 Unlike Coombs, Walter Johnson's star burned brightly for a very long time. Ty Cobb once commented that Johnson's fastball "looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed." Sportswriter Grantland Rice compared it to an express train, giving birth to the enduring nickname "The Big Train." Johnson himself was well aware of his ability to throw the ball with alarming velocity, remarking to pressmen one day: "You can't hit what you can't see." 

The broad-shouldered right-hander (listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds) came from humble beginnings--the son of a poor Kansas farmer. He spent the majority of his career on the woeful Washington squads of the Deadball Era. With minimal run support, he set a record for 1-0 losses (26). By the time the Senators climbed into contention, Johnson was nearing the end of his playing days. He remained effective late into his career, capturing his third and final triple crown at the age of thirty-six. When he retired in 1927, he was the game's reigning strikeout king. He still holds the all time mark for shutouts.

One of Johnson's crowning achievements came in 1913, when he broke Coombs's scoreless innings record. After giving up a first inning run to the Yankees on opening day, he held opponents at bay for the next 55.2 frames. On May 14, Johnson joined the team in St. Louis, having taken a long train ride from his home in Coffeyville, Kansas. He complained of a headache during the game. Despite the malady, he turned in three shutout innings before the Browns finally got to him. Outfielder Gus Williams doubled to left field and second baseman Del Pratt followed with an RBI-single. After the Senators had opened up a 9-1 lead, manager Clark Griffith allowed Johnson to rest, replacing him with left-hander Joe Boehling. Johnson's 1.14 ERA in 1913 remains one of the lowest ever recorded. His 36 victories represented forty percent of the Senators' total win share that season.

The accomplishments of Coombs and Johnson are magnified by the conventions of the era. There were no official relievers in those days. Starters worked on short rest and were expected to go the distance. Most teams used a bullpen by committee format. Since Johnson was so durable, he was often called upon in relief. During his record-setting 1913 season, he made 36 starts and 11 appearances out of the bullpen. Coombs started 38 games and made 7 relief appearances during his historic run. In addition to carrying a heavy workload, both hurlers faced some of the toughest batters in baseball history, including Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker--collective holders of thirty-three offensive records.

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