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Limestone County native Dick Coffman pitched for 15 seasons in the major leagues and played in two World Series.
Courtesy photo
Limestone County native Dick Coffman pitched for 15 seasons in the major leagues and played in two World Series.

A pair of
pitching aces

They grew up in Limestone County, but Dick and Slick Coffman made their names as pre-World War II major leaguers

By Mark Edwards
medwards@decaturdaily.com · 340-2461

About 15 years ago, Hal and Mary Jo Coffman had the Chicago Cubs game on the television set at their Athens home.

Or so they thought. The game was in a rain delay, and the network broadcasting the game, WGN, had turned to an old baseball highlights film from the 1930s. Hal Coffman recognized the team immediately — the old New York Giants, then dominant franchise in the National League.

As Mary Jo looked at her husband, she saw that he had a tear running down his cheek.

“There’s Dad,” he told her.

“Dad” was Samuel Richard “Dick” Coffman, who spent 15 seasons in the major leagues, including a four-year stint with the 1930s Giants as the team’s top relief pitcher. Coffman’s younger brother, George David “Slick” Coffman, pitched four seasons in the majors, including three with the Detroit Tigers.

Through these two brothers, one family gave the area two of the most significant athletes ever to come from Limestone County.

“It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized what Dad and his brother had done,” said Hal Coffman, 73, who lives in Athens with Mary Jo, whom he married in 1985.

“I knew he played baseball, but I didn’t realize what they had accomplished until then.”

According to Mary Jo, it wasn’t until they got married that Hal and she began collecting baseball cards, books and pictures of Dick and Slick. In their living room, they now have one of Dick’s old rawhide gloves encased in glass along with one of his baseball cards.

“I just thought it was fascinating that they had played major league baseball and were from here,” she said.

Dick and Slick Coffman grew up in Veto, a small community near Elkmont. Dick stood about 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. He was born in 1906, died in 1972 in Athens and played in the majors during 1927-45.

Slick was smaller at 6-0 and 155 pounds. He was born in 1910, died in 2003 in Birmingham and played in the majors during 1937-40.

Their father, Lawrence Coffman, ran a general store in Veto, and Hal said that it was just about the only business of note in Veto, except for a post office.

Neither Dick or Slick Coffman was a star, but both enjoyed their moments of stardom. At the least, they proved a major thorn to one particular Hall of Fame pitcher, Robert “Lefty” Grove, who won 300 games for the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox and led the league in ERA nine times.

Beating Lefty Grove

On Aug. 23, 1931, Grove and his A’s faced Dick Coffman, who was pitching for the St. Louis Browns, a team with a losing record. Grove had won 16 straight decisions and needed one more to set a new record.

Coffman and the Browns beat Grove 1-0. Coffman allowed only three hits, while the Browns scored their only run when Jimmy Moore misjudged a fly ball with two outs.

Grove finished the year with a 31-4 record, while Coffman went 9-13 — sometimes not getting wins because his team was so bad. His 3.88 ERA ranked 11th in the American League and was about a point below the league average.

Grove gained a measure of revenge a couple of years later when he beat Coffman and the Browns 4-1. Grove won the game when he belted a three-run homer. The Hall of Famer hit 15 homers in his career, but two came off Coffman.

On May 21, 1937, little brother stuck it to Grove. Slick Coffman and the Detroit Tigers scored a 4-2 win over Grove, who then was pitching for the Red Sox.

The Tigers led 2-0 on a two-run homer by Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Famer, but Boston tied it with a homer in the eighth. Detroit finally won in the 11th when Gee Walker singled home Mickey Cochrane and Charlie Gehringer.

The two brothers consistently brushed against famous players and managers throughout their careers.

Dick Coffman played for five managers who are in the Hall of Fame — Bucky Harris, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Bill Terry and Casey Stengel.

Slick Coffman played for one — Cochrane, his player-manager with the Tigers.

Major league pitchers Dick and Slick Coffman played for an Athens-based team in the 1920s. According to Hal Coffman, Dick’s son, that’s Slick on the far left on the front row, and that’s Dick on the far right on the front row.
Courtesy photo
Major league pitchers Dick and Slick Coffman played for an Athens-based team in the 1920s. According to Hal Coffman, Dick’s son, that’s Slick on the far left on the front row, and that’s Dick on the far right on the front row.
“Dad brought home signed baseballs from all sorts of big players,” Hal Coffman said, before adding: “But we were kids, so we just took them outside and played with them.”

The two brothers apparently made good money, too, even though they weren’t star-level players. According a Play Ball baseball card from 1940, Slick received his nickname because he was a flashy dresser.

Hal Coffman said that he thought that Dick made as much as $5,000 a year and that when he played for the Giants, he lived in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.

“I think that a Cadillac cost about $900 back then, so $5,000 was a lot of money,” Hal Coffman said.

Slick plays for Tigers

Slick Coffman finished his career with a 15-12 record, mostly as a relief pitcher. After three seasons with Detroit during 1937-39, he played one year for the St. Louis Browns in 1940.

In his first season, he posted a 7-5 record, pitching mostly in relief. He compiled a 4.37 ERA, and it turned out to be his best season in the majors.

In 1938, he was the Tigers’ most-used pitcher out of the bullpen and went 4-4 with a 6.02 ERA. He slipped to 2-1 and 6.38 in 1939, and after the season, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns for Billy Sullivan, an infielder/catcher, who helped the Tigers get to the 1940 World Series.

For the Browns, he began with a bang. He pitched on opening day against the Tigers in front of 49,417 in Detroit. Coffman won 5-1.

He got his last major league win May 6, 1940, when he got credit for the victory in an 11-9 win over the Washington Senators.

He finished 2-2 with a 6.27 ERA, and after the season, the Browns sold him to the Cubs. However, Coffman never made it back to the majors again.

He never pitched against his brother, Dick, in a regular-season game, because all four of Slick’s years in the majors were in the AL. Dick was in the NL during that time.

Senators bring up Dick

Dick Coffman began his major league career in 1927.

In 1926, his athletic talents were discovered when he was a student at Gallatin Private Institute. According to a 1938 story in the Limestone Democrat, a scout named Hub Perdue found Coffman and signed him to a contract. Coffman was sent to Chattanooga, where he played the rest of the season.

By 1927, the Washington Senators brought him to the majors where he pitched briefly. After the season, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns along with veteran outfielder Earl McNeely.

The Browns must’ve thought plenty of him because they gave up two of their regular starting pitchers, Milt Gaston and Sam Jones, to acquire Coffman and McNeely.

He pitched for the Browns from 1928-32, first as a reliever and then as a mainstay starter. His best year came in 1931, the year he beat Lefty Grove. He went 9-13 and posted a 3.88 ERA.

On June 9, 1932, he was traded to the Senators for Carl Fisher and finished the season in Washington. The Senators made it to the World Series the following year, but not with Coffman — they traded him back to the Browns for Fisher.

In 1933, Hornsby took over as the Browns’ manager, and that might’ve been the worst and best thing to happen to Coffman.

Hornsby, who had a reputation as an ornery player and manager, didn’t get along with Coffman. On Sept. 2, 1935, the Browns left St. Louis by train for a road trip. According to baseballlibrary.com, not long after the train left the station, Hornsby and Coffman got into a shoving match.

Later, Hal Coffman could see the remnants of the argument: “Dad was pushed into a nail in the wall during the fight, and he had a scar above his eye for the rest of his life.”

Coffman was put off the train in Edwardsville, Ill., and suspended. He didn’t pitch again for the rest of the season.

A 1936 article about Coffman in the New York World-Telegram said, “When the Brownies tie the can to anybody, it usually means the end of that person’s major league career.”

That didn’t prove so with Coffman. More than two months later, the Giants called the Browns about him. St. Louis sold him to the New York team, and it gave Coffman’s career a major boost.

The Giants had a powerful team left by future Hall of Famers Mel Ott, an outfielder, and Carl Hubbell, a star left-handed pitcher. They needed a relief ace, and Coffman filled that role.

Shining with Giants

For the next four years, he generally was considered one of the top “firemen” in the league.

He went 24-14 and led the league in relief wins twice and saves once. He led the league in games finished twice and placed third once and fourth once.

According to published reports, Coffman didn’t have an overwhelming fastball, but he had a good curve and sinker. He used them to help the Giants to the World Series in 1936 and ’37.

In September 1936 as the Giants battled for the National League pennant, the New York World-Telegram wrote about Coffman, “Dick may prove one of the biggest factors in the fight to clinch the flag.”

In 1936, he proved his worth right away, getting the pitching victories in two of the first three games of the year. He beat the rival Brooklyn Dodgers both times.

The Giants were in fifth place at one point in the season but steadily moved up, and by August, they found themselves closing in on the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Toward the end of a 15-game win streak, Coffman got a win in relief in a 6-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 25. That put the Giants in first place for good.

Four days later, he beat the Cubs in relief to give New York a four-game lead. The Giants never led the NL by less than that.

Pitching in World Series

In the World Series, the Giants faced off against the New York Yankees, who were led by veteran first baseman Lou Gehrig and rookie center fielder Joe DiMaggio.

Future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell pitched all nine innings as the Giants took the opening game, but the Yankees rolled from there and won the series in six games.

Coffman pitched in two games, and both were victories by the Yankees.

He entered in the third inning of the second game with the Yankees leading 5-1 and having bases loaded with one out.

Coffman faced Tony Lazerri, a star second baseman, for his first batter, and Lazerri greeted him with a home run.

After that, he got out of the inning by striking out Lefty Gomez and getting Frank Crosetti to ground out.

In the next inning, he allowed only one base runner — a single to Gehrig. But he did get DiMaggio out on a fly ball to left field.

In the sixth game, the Yankees clinched with a 13-5 win, and Coffman entered in the ninth inning. He pitched to five batters and couldn’t get anyone out. DiMaggio and Gehrig each singled, and an error by an infielder doomed Coffman.

In 1937, Coffman’s year went about like the previous season. Again, he was the Giants’ top reliever.

Again, he won the game that put the Giants in first place for good. On Sept. 2, he scored a relief win in a 5-4 victory over the Cardinals, moving New York out of a tie for first with the Chicago Cubs.

The Giants met the Yankees again in the World Series and lost in five games. Coffman pitched in the first two contests, both wins by the Yankees.

In the opener, the Yankees had battered Hubbell before Coffman entered with one out in the sixth inning, two runners on base and the Giants trailing 6-1. Coffman got out of the inning and retired DiMaggio on a fly ball for the last out.

Coffman also pitched the seventh inning and walked two future Hall of Famers — Gehrig and catcher Bill Dickey.

He also closed out the second game, which was an 8-1 victory by the Yankees. Coffman pitched 2 2/3 innings and allowed two hits — one single each by DiMaggio and Dickey. He also walked Gehrig.

In 1938, Coffman led the NL in games (51), games finished (35) and saves (12), but the Giants finished third in the league as the Chicago Cubs took the pennant.

In 1939, Coffman found himself sharing the top reliever role with Jumbo Brown as New York slid to fifth place.

The following year, the Giants shipped him to the Boston Braves, where he played one season for Stengel and served as his team’s No. 1 relief pitcher.

In 1941, the Braves didn’t have room for Coffman on their roster, and he wound up spending the next three seasons in the minor leagues.

Last stop with Phillies

He returned to the majors in 1945 with the Philadelphia Phillies, a horrid team that finished 46-108.

About the only remarkable players on the roster were Jimmie Foxx, who was in the last season of a Hall of Fame career, and a center fielder named DiMaggio — Vince, who was Joe’s brother.

Coffman pitched in 14 games, all in relief. He posted a 2-1 record, beating two of his old teams once each — the Giants and the Braves.

His last victory came in a 9-8 decision over New York on June 23, 1945. The Phillies released him a week later.

As for that old game film of the 1930s Giants, Hal and Mary Jo Coffman would love to have a copy. Mary Jo wrote the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 asking about any video of her father-in-law.

She received a reply in June of that year from a research assistant, saying that the Hall of Fame’s World Series film archive does not include any footage of Dick Coffman.

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