The question, as it always is, is why?
Why do we call Jack Coombs Field historic? It is a question I've been bombarded with over the last several weeks by a number of people.
From day one of my Duke career I never really understood what exactly was historic about Jack Coombs Field. You walk out there and look around and it doesn't look like anything special. Sure, the scenery is pretty, with the trees filling the skyline just over the outfield walls. But the field looks simple enough and the stadium itself is nothing to brag about -- after all, metal bleachers are metal bleachers. What can you expect?
The most historic looking thing out there is the scoreboard, and I would say that it is more old than historic. Can it be any more basic, showing only balls, strikes, outs, the inning and total runs for each team? My little league had a better scoreboard than Jack Coombs Field. At least back when I was in my pre-adolescent years I could see inning by inning how many runs were scored by each team.
Three weeks ago I really didn't have an answer to why it was historic, but I promised to find out and let everybody else in on the secret.
The answer does not lie in the physical charm of the field itself. It is certainly no Fenway Park, or even Durham Athletic Park.
It is certainly not historic just based on its age. If that were the case, then why don't we ever hear of historic Cameron Indoor Stadium or historic Wallace Wade Stadium?
The answer lies in the people and the tradition. Several baseball greats have donned the blue and white over the years, and it is their legacy that has remained behind.
- Jack Coombs is the most storied of the past greats (he is the field's namesake after all). Coombs, who coached the Blue Devils for 24 years, from 1929 through 1952, produced 47 major league players. Duke had a 381-171-3 record during that time, including six Southern Conference championships.
One of the most impressive feats of his 12-year major league career came in his first season in 1906. Coombs, who was playing under legendary Philadelphia Athletics coach Connie Mack, pitched 24 innings against Boston, earning a 4-1 victory while giving up only 15 hits and striking out 18. Over his career, he won five World Series games against no losses, finishing with a 159-110 record and an ERA of 2.78.
- Next up at the plate is Dick Groat, an All-American in both baseball and basketball during his years at Duke. Groat, who graduated in 1953, batted .386 as a junior and .370 as senior, leading Duke to back-to-back Southern Conference titles and the College World Series in his final season.
When Groat graduated he went straight to the major leagues, stepping right into the lineup with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his 14-year baseball career, he was a three-time all-star with the Pirates and the Cardinals and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player for his .325 batting average during Pittsburgh's 1960 championship season.
Others such as Enos Slaughter, a lifetime .300 hitter and Hall of Famer, have donned Duke blue as well. And while Slaughter, Groat, Coombs and many others constitute the rich history of Duke baseball, it is just that -- history. Players now just aren't thinking back to the glory days of Duke baseball and the days these legendary people walked the field. Players today are more concerned with the here and now, and starting to build a new history.
"I haven't heard many people talk about the tradition, but I think we've really started something here," said senior catcher Matt Harrell after a victory last month against an N.C. State team that was ranked in the top five.
The baseball program has done a complete about-face since going 10-35 in 1988, 3-16 in the conference. Steadily, the team has been rebuilt under head coach Steve Traylor, and, at 36-13-1, 10-8, are close to topping last year's school-record 38 victories. Although they will have played more games than Coombs' 1952 team that went 31-7, and played a weak non-conference schedule, the baseball team is making its mark.
"We've turned the program we have into a winning program," Harrell said. "Duke has established itself as a baseball school, where traditionally it's always been a basketball school."
Jack Coombs might take issue with that. But now, as Harrell said, the school is becoming more of a baseball school, or at least more than has been in the recent past. Better players are coming to Duke, players like Scott Schoeneweis and two-sport athlete Ray Farmer, who were both drafted by major league teams straight out of high school.
It just so happens that a team that has no Dick Groat at second or no Jack Coombs in the dugout, can be capable of making history in its own right. Just yesterday, in the last home game of the year and the last ever at the field for the Duke seniors, the defense executed a triple play. A 6-4-3-2 triple play. A sweet moment for the seniors in an historic season.
No more answers are needed to explain why Jack Coombs Field is historic. It is baseball, and it is Duke. And that frankly, is enough.
Michael Robbins is a Trinity senior and sports editor of The Chronicle. He wishes he could be here for the first time an historic home run crashes through a window of the PPS building under construction just beyond the right-field wall.
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