via Gene Taylor
George Edward Waddell (October 13, 1876 – April 1, 1914) was an American southpawpitcher in Major League Baseball. In his thirteen-year career he played for the Louisville Colonels (1897, 1899), Pittsburgh Pirates (1900–01) and Chicago Orphans (1901) in theNational League, and the Philadelphia Athletics (1902–07) and St. Louis Browns (1908–10) in the American League. Waddell earned the nickname “Rube” because he was a big, fresh kid. The term was commonly used to refer to hayseeds or farmboys. He was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
Waddell, a remarkably dominant strikeout pitcher in an era when batters mostly slapped at the ball to get singles, had an excellent fastball, a sharp-breaking curve, a screwball, and superb control (his strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost 3-to-1). He led the Major Leagues in strikeouts for six consecutive years.
Waddell was unpredictable, and had a habit of leaving the dugout in the middle of games to follow passing fire trucks to fires. He performed as an alligator wrestler in the offseason. He was easily distracted by opposing team fans who used to hold up puppies and shiny objects, which seemed to put Waddell in a trance on the mound. An alcoholic for much of his adult life, Waddell reportedly spent the entirety of his first signing bonus on a drinking binge (Sporting News called him “the sousepaw”). Waddell’s eccentric behavior led to constant battles with his managers and scuffles with bad-tempered teammates, and complaints from his teammates forced his trade from Philadelphia to St. Louis in early 1908 despite his importance to the team and his continued success. Recent commentators (such as Bill James) have suggested that Waddell may have suffered from a developmental disability,mental retardation, autism, or attention deficit disorder (ADD). Essentially, none of these mental issues was either known of or properly diagnosed at the time. Though eccentric and childlike, Rube Waddell was not illiterate (as some sources have claimed). Ken Burns‘baseball documentary claims Waddell lost track of how many women he’d married.
James wrote that Waddell would not be allowed to be himself today, but would be analyzed, compartmentalized and would not be allowed to compete anywhere save for “heaving a rubber-tipped javelin in the Special Olympics.”
Walter Johnson said of Waddell:
- “In my opinion, and I suppose if there is any subject that I am qualified to discuss it is pitching, Rube Waddell had more sheer pitching ability than any man I ever saw. That doesn’t say he was the greatest pitcher, by a good deal. Rube had defects of character that prevented him from using his talents to the best effect. He is dead and gone, so there is no need for me to enlarge on his weaknesses. They were well enough known. I would prefer to dwell on his strong points. And he had plenty.”
Alan Howard Levy, in his book Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, wrote:
- “He was among the game’s first real drawing cards, among its first honest-to-goodness celebrities, and the first player to have teams of newspaper reporters following him, and the first to have a mass following of idol-worshiping kids yelling out his nickname like he was their buddy.”
Cooperstown historian Lee Allen encapsulated Waddell’s erratic behavior:
- “He began that year (1903) sleeping in a firehouse in Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia. In between those events he won 22 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married and became separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.”
At first because of his immature behaviour, and later because of his alcoholism, Waddell’s career wound through a number of teams. His first pro contract was with Louisville (for $500), pitching two league games and a couple of exhibitions with the team at the end of the 1897 season. When the season ended, he was loaned to the Detroit Wolverines of the Western League to gain professional seasoning.
After issues with paying rent and his being fined by owner George Von derBeck, Waddell left Detroit in late May to pitch in Canada before eventually returning to Homestead, Pennsylvania to pitch semi-pro baseball there. Pittsburgh retained his rights, however, and he was loaned to Columbus of the Western League in 1899, continued with the team when the franchise moved mid-season to Grand Rapids, and finished with a record of 26–8. He rejoined Louisville in the final month of the 1899 season and won seven of nine decisions. When the National League contracted to eight teams for the 1900 season, Louisville ownership bought the Pittsburgh franchise and the Louisville franchise was terminated. Louisville’s top players, including Waddell, Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and others, were transferred to Pittsburgh.
Waddell debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900, leading the National League in ERA, but his erratic behavior led manager Fred Clarke to suspend him. After pitching semi-pro ball in small towns such as Punxsutawney,Connie Mack learned of Waddell’s availability, and with Pittsburgh’s approval, convinced Waddell to pitch for Milwaukee for several weeks in the summer of 1900. Milwaukee was in the newly-named American League(formerly the Western League), which was not yet directly competing with the National League. When Waddell displayed his prowess for Milwaukee, Pittsburgh management asked for Rube’s return. By 1901, Waddell had worn out his welcome, however, and his contract was sold to the Cubs, then managed by Tom Loftus, who had had success with Waddell in Columbus/Grand Rapids. Loftus did not have the latitude to cope with Rube that he had while he was the owner/manager in Columbus. When problems led to Rube’s getting suspended, Waddell began pitching for semi-pro teams in northern Illinois, as well as Racine and Kenosha,Wisconsin.
Frank Chance and Joe Cantillon invited Waddell to join a barnstorming team that travelled to California. While there, Waddell was convinced to stay and joined the Los Angeles Loo Loos in a league that one year later would become the Pacific Coast League. Connie Mack, now in Philadelphia, was desperate for pitching, and when he learned Rube was pitching in California, he dispatched two Pinkerton agents to sneak Waddell back to Philadelphia, where he would lead the Philadelphia Athletics to the 1902 American League crown. Mack later described his star left-hander as, “…the atom bomb of baseball long before the atom bomb was discovered.”
Waddell’s pitching repertoire usually consisted of only two pitches: one of the fastest fastballs in the league and a hard curve. However, Rube could throw every pitch, including slow curves, screwballs, “fadeaways”, and a flutterball on demand. Mack once said that Waddell’s curve was, “even better than his speed… [He] had the fastest and deepest curve I’ve ever seen.”
Waddell enjoyed waving his teammates off the field and then striking out the side. He actually did so only in exhibition games, since the rules prohibit playing with fewer than nine men on the field in regulation play. But, in a league game in Detroit, Waddell had his outfielders come in close and sit down on the grass. He struck out the side. Once the stunt almost backfired. Pitching an exhibition in Memphis, he took the field alone with his catcher, Doc Powers, for the last three innings. With two out in the ninth, Powers dropped a third strike, allowing the batter to reach first. The next two hitters patted flies that fell behind the mound. Waddell ran himself ragged but finally fanned the last man.
In his prime, Rube Waddell was the game’s premier power pitcher. In 1903, Waddell had 302 strikeouts, 115 more than the runner-up (Bill Donovan), and followed that up with 349 strikeouts in 1904, 110 more than the runner-up (Jack Chesbro). No other pitcher would compile consecutive 300-strikeout seasons until Sandy Koufax in 1965 and 1966.
Waddell’s 349 strikeouts was the modern-era record for more than 60 years, and remains sixth on the modern list. (In 1946, it was initially believed that Bob Feller‘s 348 strikeouts had broken Waddell’s single-season mark. However, research into Waddell’s 1904 season revealed uncounted strikeout numbers, lifting him back above Feller.) Waddell still holds the American League single season strikeout record by a left-handed pitcher.
In time, however, Rube’s drinking, exacerbated by an horrific marriage to May Wynne Skinner (his second of three wives), and a series of injuries in 1905 and 1906, began to erode his relationship with other players on the Athletics. One-time friend Ossee Schreckengost, who regularly fetched alcohol and fishing poles with Rube, squabbled with both Waddell and Mack as Schreckengost was treated differently for the same problems. Other players complained about Rube’s lack of dependable behavior, and following a season where Rube was the goat of a series that cost the team the 1907 pennant to the Detroit Tigers, Mack finally lost patience with him and sold Waddell to the St. Louis Browns for $5000.
Waddell enjoyed one successful season, helping the Browns compete in the greatest AL pennant race ever. To make sure Waddell stayed out of trouble during the offseason, Browns owner Robert Hedges hired him as a hunter over the winter of 1908 and 1909. However, further issues with drinking and marital strife with third wife, Madge Maguire, led to his being released in 1910. Waddell finished the season pitching with Joe McGinnityfor Newark in the Eastern League. He never played another major league game.
After his major league career was over, Waddell pitched for parts of three more years in the minor leagues, including a 20-win season for the Minneapolis Millers in 1911. In addition to pitching for the Millers, he pitched for the Minneapolis Rough Riders and with Virginia (MN) in the Northern League in 1913. However, that season, Waddell’s health had declined such that he no longer resembled the muscular and long limbed hero of the previous decade.
While at spring training with the Millers, Waddell helped save the city of Hickman, Kentucky from a devastating flood in the spring of 1912. Catching pneumonia, he lost much of the nature that had sustained him – and a second flood in Hickman and case of pneumonia in 1913 took the rest. While in Minneapolis in 1913, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and eventually sent to live with his sister in Texas. Never recovering, he was placed in a sanitarium in San Antonio until he died the next spring.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946 by a veterans committee that looked to enshrine a number of players from his era and the previous century who had contributed to the growth of the game. One of Waddell’s contributions was that he was perhaps the greatest drawing card in the first decade of the century, a man whose unique talents and personality drew baseball fans around the country to the ball park.
In 1981, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. Under what they called “theSmoky Joe Wood Syndrome,” they argued in favor of including players of truly exceptional talent whose career was curtailed by injury (or, in Waddell’s case, substance abuse), despite not having had career statistics that would quantitatively rank them with the all-time greats.
- Won Triple Crown for pitchers (1905: 27–10, 287, 1.48)
- 4-time 20-game winner (24, 21, 25, 27: 1902–05)
- Two ERA titles (1900, 1905), along with two second-place finishes in the category
- Six consecutive AL strikeout titles (1902–07), and five consecutive strikeout titles (1903–07) in the entire Major Leagues.
- Led his league eight times in strikeouts per nine innings (1900, 1902–1908; he finished second in 1901)
- Set league record for strikeouts in a game up to that time (16, 1908)
- Set record for strikeouts in a season for an AL lefty (349, 1904)
- On July 1, 1902, Waddell became the second pitcher to strike out three batters on nine pitches, in the third inning of a 2–0 win over theBaltimore Orioles.
- Collected 50 shutouts.
While a member of the Athletics, Waddell also played professional football in the first National Football League in 1902. He played as a fullback for the Philadelphia Athletics. Newspapers of the time charitably referred to Waddell as “eccentric” while others ranked him between “screwball” and “nutsy.” When football began, Connie saw a chance to keep his star in line for a few months more. He signed the lefty on as an extra lineman, against Waddell’s recommendation that he be placed at halfback. While there is no mention of Waddell’s name in any lineups or game accounts, Wallace may have let the lefty into a few games when the score was safe. Regardless, it was no secret to anyone that the Rube was there to be watched. Mack was still more committed to baseball than football and worried more about losing Rube Waddell than any football game. In Elmira, Waddell was tempted to remain in a town that was home to one of the biggest manufacturers of fire engines, which he loved. Mack had to convince Rube to stay with the team.
The night before the first championship game with Pittsburgh, Connie caught Rube sneaking into the hotel long after curfew. After being delivered a lecture by Mack, Waddell turned return to his hotel room. However, a loaded pistol dropped out of his pocket and fired. The bullet missed Mack’s head by inches.
- Waddell was the opposing pitcher for Cy Young‘s perfect game on May 5, 1904, and hit a flyball for the final out. In 1905, Waddell beat Young in a 20-inning game. In 1907, the two men pitched a scoreless 13-inning tie. What is lost to many is that Rube and Young could have been teammates. According to “Just a Big Kid: The Life and Times of Rube Waddell”, Rube was signed to pitch for Fort Wayne, a minor league team with ties to the Cleveland Spiders. For whatever reason, Rube never pitched there – perhaps his parents would not let him. Had he succeeded, though, he likely would have joined the Spiders and been a teammate of Young at the beginning of his career.
- Rube Marquard, according to his own story, acquired his nickname when a writer compared him favorably to Waddell.
- On August 19, 1900, Waddell pitched the first game of a doubleheader for Milwaukee, winning in the 17th inning on his own triple. His manager, Connie Mack, offered Waddell a three-day fishing vacation if he agreed to pitch the second game (which had been shortened to 5 innings). Waddell threw 5 scoreless innings for the victory, and headed to Pewaukee Lake for fishing. Waddell also won both halves of a 1902 doubleheader (relieving in the second game).
- Waddell was so bad at holding onto money that the A’s once paid him in dollar bills, in the hopes that he would spend it more slowly. Half of his contract was given directly to his wife, while the rest was doled out as Rube needed it. According to Just a Big Kid: The Life and Times of Rube Waddell (Paul Proia, PublishAmerica 2007), the practice of paying Rube in small amounts dated to his time in Pittsburgh where Barney Dreyfusspaid Rube in smaller amounts and Rube would “touch” his owners for cash as he needed it.
- A provision in Waddell’s contract—inserted at his catcher’s insistence—prohibited Waddell from eating crackers in bed. (Players shared beds on road trips.)
- On July 29, 1908, Waddell set the AL strikeout record with 16 in a game. This took place against his former Philadelphia A’s team, which had traded him away five months earlier as a disruptive influence.
- Jimmy Austin has claimed that, in 1909, he hit a home run off of a tipsy Waddell who then glared angrily at him during his entire trot around the bases. However, maintaining the 360-degree pivot made Waddell dizzy, and he passed out on the mound. Evidence indicates, however, that this story could not have happened as Jimmy Austin described it. Austin likely merged three different games against Waddell into one memory. In their first meeting, Austin banged out a triple to the deepest part of center field in the first inning, but was stranded by Waddell, who retired the rest of the batters in order. In their second meeting, Waddell was removed from a game after being hit by a batted ball. In their third meeting, Austin likely faced a Waddell who had been bored by playing for a poor Browns club. In that game, Austin batted with runners on first and second and bunted. Rube twisted as he threw to third—and got the force out. However, he feigned injury and appeared less than cooperative to manager