By Glen Sparks
What should we make of one George Edward Waddell, nicknamed “Rube,” born Oct. 13, 1876?
The Pennsylvania left-hander threw a blazing fastball and a tumbling curveball. He led the American League in strikeouts six times, ERA twice, and in wins and complete games once apiece. Rube fanned 349 batters in 1904, a figure no major leaguer surpassed until the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax did in 1965.
Waddell pitched well enough to merit a Hall of Fame selection. (Did I mention that Waddell liked to usher his fielders off the diamond at times during exhibition games? “Don’t worry, boys. I’ll strike ‘em all out.” Supposedly, Satchell Paige did the same thing.) The great Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia A’s for a half-century and of Waddell for six seasons, said this of Rube, and I quote: “He was the atom bomb of baseball long before the atom bomb was discovered.”
Then, there was all that other stuff. Like disappearing from his team for weeks at a time. Or marching off the mound to go fishing. Or heading to a swamp in the offseason to wrestle the spare alligator. Or, more unfortunately, drinking himself silly. Mike Royko, the late newspaper columnist from Chicago, once wrote this of Rube, and I quote: “Rube Wadell loved pitching, fishing and drinking. When he died, they found him in a gin-filled bathtub with three drunken trout.”
Now, baseball and booze can go together like ham and cheese. Hack Wilson liked to drink. So did Mickey Mantle. Dock Ellis went one step further. The Pirates hurler always insisted that he threw his 1970 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while under the hazy effects of LSD.
But, some say, something else was going on with Rube Waddell. They speculate that the pitcher may have been battling autism or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), maybe Asperger’s Syndrome. Waddell, it was said, could be easily distracted. He stared in wonder at shiny objects and puppies.
The Louisville Colonel
Waddell broke in with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. He left in 1900 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Early in the 1901 campaign, the Pirates dealt him to the Chicago Orphans, the forerunner of the Cubs. No one knew what to make of Waddell. The pistol-packing pitcher supposedly liked to point his firearm at the bosses. Ah, all in good fun. The Orphans, not seeing the humor, cut him loose. Soon after, Mack came calling.
It was 1902, and Rube was enjoying some offseason sunshine with the Los Angeles Looloos semi-pro team. Mack talked the erratic hurler into coming east. He didn’t take any chances, though, and hired some detectives to ensure Waddell’s safe passage to Philly.
Rube won at least 20 games four straight years for the A’s (1902-05), including 27 in 1905. He also drove some teammates batty in the process with his aforementioned quirks. In the end, Mack didn’t have a choice. He traded his star to the St. Louis Browns in 1907. Not surprisingly, Waddell couldn’t play it straight in St. Louis. Marital issues and other problems, including the heavy drinking, followed him. Even so, teammates and opponents usually found a soft spot for Rube Waddell.
Christy Matthewson, notabable for his great pitching and straight-laced manner, said, “Waddell was one of the most likable men that the game has ever produced, and, in spite of his foolishness, it was impossible for anyone to get sore at the big left-hander.”
Part of Waddell’s legend is that he saved as many as 13 lives. Tales of his heroic exploits grew after he rescued two men from drowning while on a duck-hunting trip. Supposedly, he liked nothing more than taking part in a good ol’ fashioned bucket brigade whenever a local house caught fire. In fact, Waddell’s death may have been due to his fondness for helping others. The story goes that his good health never returned after he stood for hours in cold water, packing sandbags along a swollen Mississippi River in 1912. Waddell contracted pneumonia, which escalated into tuberculosis.
The eccentric hurler died in a Texas sanitarium on April Fools’ Day, 1914, age 37. Mack, who paid for some of Waddell’s care, said, “He was the greatest pitcher in the game, and although widely known for his eccentricities, was more sinned against than sinner.”
The Veteran’s Committee voted Waddell into Cooperstown in 1946.