Grave Story: Rube Waddell (1876-1914)

LOST–ONE BASEBALL PLAYER: PITCHER by inclination; apparently sound in wind and limb, and answers to the name of “Rube.” Address all communications to Connie Mack, manager Philadelphia American League ball club, present keeper.

The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), August 10, 1902.

Here lies Rube Waddell, one of the most dominating pitchers in the game — when you could find him. When he was ready to pitch, he had a blazing fastball and vicious curveball that left batters helpless. He led the American League in strikeouts six straight years and won 193 games in a 13-year career. If you couldn’t find him at the ballpark, he was likely at a bar or chasing down a fire truck. He played for the Louisville Colonels (1897, 1899), Pittsburgh Pirates (1900-01), Chicago Orphans aka Colts (1901), Philadelphia Athletics (1902-07) and St. Louis Browns (1908-10).

His on-field accomplishments have been overshadowed by everything he did off the field. He drank, he was married three times, he skipped starts to go fishing or hunting, he acted, he was a volunteer firefighter, he starred in a circus freak show, and he was occasionally arrested. Maybe all of that is true, and maybe none of it is. If every single article written about Waddell in his prime is accurate, then it’s hard to figure out when he had time to play baseball.

George Edward Waddell was born on October 13, 1876 in Bradford, Pa. He made his debut for Louisville on September 8, 1897 against the reigning champion Baltimore Orioles. He lost 5-1 but pitched well. The southpaw surrendered 11 hits, but 6 of them were to future Hall-of-Famers Willie Keeler and Hughie Jennings.

Source: Courier-Post, September 29, 1902.

He pitched in just two games for the Colonels that season, but he was already making a name for himself with his antics. By his second appearance, he was being compared to Arlie Latham, an earlier “clown prince” of baseball. In between pitching, he coached at third base, which primarily involved doing gymnastics and heckling the other team.

“During the periods he was in the box he left off his clownishness and pitched good, steady ball,” reported The Buffalo Enquirer. “With proper judgment he ought to succeed.”

That may have been the last time “Waddell” and “proper judgment” were ever used in the same article.

Waddell pitched for the Detroit Tigers of the Western League in 1898 and came back to Louisville in 1899 long enough to win 7 games in 9 starts. He moved to the Pirates in 1900 and led the NL with a 2.37 ERA, in spite of an 8-13 record. He wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh the following year after getting torn up in two starts, but he moved to Chicago and won 14 games there.

Waddell showed plenty of potential with the Colonels, Pirates and Orphans, but he blossomed into a superstar in Philadelphia with the A’s and manager Connie Mack. He had gone out West in 1902 and started pitching for an independent team in Los Angeles. After winning 11 games, he joined the A’s and won 24 more. His combined record that season was 35-15 and 444 innings pitched. He won 20+ games in his first four seasons with the team, had an ERA of under 1.70 twice and set a (post-1900) record for most strikeouts in a season with 349 in 1904, which lasted until Sandy Koufax fanned 382 in 1965.

By then, Waddell had also earned his reputation as one of the game’s great eccentrics. He would apparently sign any contract handed to him if he could get cash in hand and had jumped several contracts. His gameday disappearances were already well documented. He was known for doing back somersaults off the mound and playing to the fans at every opportunity. He would walk across the field for no other reason than to bask in the fans’ applause. In fact, The Buffalo Enquirer announced his arrival to the Athletics with the lovely headline of “Rube Waddell, Human Freak, Quits Quakers.”

By 1905, Waddell had become so erratic that A’s manager Connie Mack assigned him a caretaker, known as Mr. Newhouse. Newhouse’s job was to keep Waddell out of trouble, pay for his expenses and, as the 1905 News-Journal reports, “watch over him as a mother would over an erring child.” Waddell couldn’t even go fishing on his own without Newhouse following behind in a patrol boat.

“Rube has no money, no solitude and a surfeit of Newhouse. He is keeping straight and pitching great ball,” the report concluded. Sure enough, Waddell had possibly his best year ever in 1905. He went 27-10 and won the pitcher’s Triple Crown with a league-leading 1.48 ERA and 287 strikeouts. Had there been a Cy Young Award (there wasn’t, chiefly because Young was still pitching at the time), Waddell probably would have won it – though he may have had to share it with Newhouse.

It didn’t last. Though the Athletics won the AL pennant in 1905, Waddell didn’t pitch in the World Series against the New York Giants because of what Mack later referred to as the “straw hat incident.” Waddell and another teammate were jostling for possession of said hat, when Waddell fell and injured his shoulder. The drinking and unreliability steadily worsened, and Mack ended up selling Waddell to the St. Louis Browns in 1908. He lasted with the Browns until 1910, when he was traded mid-season to a minor-league team in Newark.

Waddell’s 2.16 career is 11th best all time, and his 2,316 strikeouts puts him in the Top 50. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which rates a pitcher’s ability to avoid home runs, walks and hit batsmen while causing strikeouts, is 2.033, second only to Big Ed Walsh.

While it’s hard to tell what was accurate in the turn-of-the-century reports and what was the work of imaginative writers, it would be interesting for a professional psychiatrist to “evaluate” Waddell. He certainly had his manic moments; in his early years he responded to a heckler by walking from the mound to the stands and punching him in the face. The good managers figured out how to stave off his mood swings and keep him pitching effectively. I’ve seen people claim that if he had ever taken an IQ test, he would have scored in the “moron” range. But, he had a quick wit and frequently left opponents who tried to out-verbalize him fuming.

If there was any kind of a modern-day comparison to Rube Waddell, picture a young Robin Williams on a coke binge, but with a baseball diamond instead of the set of “Mork and Mindy.”

Waddell found work in Minnesota after MLB was done with him, and he won 20 games for the Minneapolis Millers in 1911. That winter, while living in Hickman, Ky., he helped fill sandbags during a flood, but staying in the icy waters for an extended time wrecked his health. He eventually recovered enough to pitch again, but his time was running short.

Waddell’s last game took place on June 26, 1913 in Duluth. The man who was the toast of baseball finished his career pitching for a team from Virginia, Minn. in the Northern League. He struck out 12 men in a 3-1 loss. In the 9th inning, facing what would be his last batter, he threw strike 1 and turned his back to the catcher just as the catcher threw the ball back to him. Without peeking, he caught the ball behind his back and proceeded to fire strikes 2 and 3 in short order.

As Waddell’s condition declined, he moved to Texas for his health. He died in San Antonio on April 1, 1914, from tuberculosis at the age of 37. He’s buried in Mission Burial Park South. Waddell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee in 1946.

(An earlier version of this article originally appeared at the Hall of Very Good.)

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