Maine’s Perkins Cove is known for any number of things, bluefin tuna fishing in particular. In the spring, though, when baseball gets under way, I am reminded that this small basin of just a few acres was home port to two fishermen who had played professional ball.
Both were pitchers in the so-called golden age of the game, between 1920 and 1960, and though neither achieved star status at the Major League level, both are in the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was my good fortune to know them, though I knew them as fishermen before learning they were ballplayers.
By the time my family arrived in Ogunquit, in 1962, Raymond (Bobby) Coombs had long since retired from professional baseball and was coaching at Williams College in Massachusetts. Summers he ran the Gath III, a round-bottomed lobster boat 30-or-so-feet long on which he took half-day mackerel fishing charters. Coombs was soft spoken and smoked a pipe. He had a habit of quietly clearing his throat that seemed thoughtful and I always thought he’d be a good guy to work for. As I recall, the same kid worked for him year in, year out. And by the time the kid went off to college or Vietnam, Coombs’ clientele knew the drill, and Bobby never replaced him.
In 1933 Coombs, wearing the uniform of the Philadelphia Athletics, faced off against Babe Ruth in relief. The Babe did not go deep on him, but he made an impression just the same. Coombs told me (among others, no doubt) that Ruth hit a lowball off him as hard as he’d ever seen a baseball hit. He said it was knee high when it went past the mound and chest high when the center fielder caught it at the track.
The other ballplayer, Ken Young Sr., was one of any number of fishermen who gave me a hand at one time or another. Young, also known as the Old Man, was 6’ 3” tall in an era when big men were 5’ 10”. He was a flamethrower and had a change-up Cooperstown Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell called “the best I ever saw.”
Young never faced Ruth, but while he was in the service, Jackie Robinson, playing for the Army, got the only hit off him during an exhibition game Young ultimately won, 9-0.
It was none other than fellow Maine native Coombs who signed Young to a professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, but Young was injured during the war and never made it to the show, instead becoming a scout for the Cardinals.
When he came home, Young worked ashore for a time before going lobstering. He also chased tuna, and eventually he went dragging.
Early in the spring of 1981, I got into a hang with my 37-footer, Hard Times, just as it was starting to breeze up. I tried to break the gear loose with the throttle, but it got rough, and we had to buoy everything off – net, doors, wires and all. We went back out the next day, but we couldn’t break it loose. We tried using a grapple, and that didn’t work either.
The gear represented a lot of money to me, and I was beginning to think I was never going to get it back. I’d owned the Hard Times for a year and a half and had just bought a house and was on less than firm financial footing.
A day later, I ran in to the Old Man at the Cove. Sensing I was feeling sorry for myself, he challenged me: “Do you want to get your gear back or not?” I told him I sure would like to. “Well come on, then,” he said.
His boat, Ugly Anne, was 10 feet longer and tons heavier than the Hard Times. We ran offshore and picked up the beer keg to which I’d shackled the trawl wires and made them onto his winch. We hauled as much wire as we could and tried steaming in different directions, to no avail.
Young had a reputation for being a bull, and he lived up to it this day. He had us let the brakes off and went ahead at half throttle or so. But when we set the brakes, the boat fetched up.
“I’ve had about enough of this,” he said. He shoved the throttle full ahead and we let the brakes go. We clamped them down again and, under full power, the Ugly Anne began to roll onto its side. The Old Man never pulled the throttle back, and the boat kept rolling. “Jesus,” I thought, “we’re going over.” Just about that time, the boat lurched forward a few feet; then a few more, and the gear was loose.
Young came out of the wheelhouse. “What’d I tell you?” he said.
Coombs and Young have since passed, and the cast of characters on the bait wharf has changed. But the cove lives on, and if they’re anything like my generation, kids hanging around Perkins Cove today still dream of fishing, even when they’re playing ball.