By Glen Sparks
Randy Johnson has to be one of the most recognizable people in the country, in sports or otherwise. Six-feet-10-inches tall, perpetual scowl … mullet.
That still didn’t keep him from pulling a fast one on the hotel people in New York. The Big Unit flew out to the Big Apple for his Hall of Fame press conference, along with Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. He checked into the Waldorf Astoria as Eddie Plank.
And, most assuredly, he did not pick that name randomly. Plank was sort of the Randy Johnson of his day.
Ok, we’ll get a few things out of the way first. Plank stood almost a foot shorter than Johnson, at 5-11. And he did not sport a mullet. I have seen several pictures of Plank, though, and he did have a decent scowl.
More to the point, Plank, like Johnson, was a left-hander. He, like the Unit, was one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. He won 326 games in his 17-year career, or 23 more games than Randy did in a 22-year career.
“Gettysburg Eddie,” born in that Pennsylvania town just 12 years after the famous Civil War battle, spent most of his career with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. He won at least 20 games eight times and after posting a 3.31 in his rookie season of 1901 and 3.30 in his sophomore campaign never had an ERA above 2.87 for the rest of his career.
Plank baffled hitters with sidearm curveballs and fastballs. A SABR article written by Jan Finkel asserts that Plank swore by an elaborate routine on his every pitch to the plate. He would fix his cap, adjust his shirt, rub up the baseball, etc. He was, at least at the start of his career, the No. 2. pitcher on the A’s staff, behind the fireballing, and rather eccentric Philadelphia ace, Rube Waddell.
Plank’s best year was probably 1904. He went 26-17 with a 2.17 ERA in 357.1 innings. He had a WAR of 8.5 that season. Plank tossed seven shutouts, seven of the 69 he threw in his career, fifth all-time and first among left-handers. Gettysburg Eddie also hit 19 batters in 1904. The man with a reputation for plunking batters hit a grand total of 190 hitters. He is tied for fifth all-time. Which other pitcher left his mark on 190 batters in his career? Oh, yes, Randy Johnson.
Eddie left the A’s following the 1914 season, jumping ship to the St. Louis Terriors of the Federal League. St. Louis finished first, and Plank led the way. He went 21-11 with a 2.08 ERA, leading the league in ERA+ (153) and WHIP (0.991).
Phil Ball, owner of the Terriers, subsequently bought the Browns and retained Plank, who went a combined 21-21 in two seasons with St. Louis’s American League club. Plank retired after the 1917 campaign. Always a bit high-strung, he cited stomach problems for his decision to hang up his glove and spikes. He would be happy to go back to his farm in Gettysburg, he said.
Plank died from complications of a stroke on Feb. 24, 1926. He was just 50 years old. He was buried in Gettysburg.
Plank was 326-194 as a big-league pitcher with a 2.35 ERA. He was the first-lefty win at least 300 games in his career. He remains 13th on the all-time wins list, two wins ahead of Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton. His career ERA ranks 21st all-time. In seven World Series starts, Plank went just 2-5, but he had a 1.32 ERA.
In truth, Johnson, who pitched for six teams in his career, was a better pitcher than Plank. Eddie won a few more games while pitching in an era when winning 25 or 30 games wasn’t headline news. He had a lower ERA when 2-1 and 3-2 games were the norm. His ERA+ for his career was 122, despite that shiny 2.35. The “black-ink test” is something that many baseball analysts use to judge ballplayers. Plank finished with 15 black-ink points; the average Hall of Fame pitcher has 40.
Randy Johnson went 303-166 with a 3.29 ERA during maybe the most prolific offensive era in baseball history. He had an ERA+ of 135 and led the league in that category six times. He also struck out 4,875 batters in his career, second to Nolan Ryan. The Unit topped the league in strikeouts nine times. He had 99 black-ink points, sixth all-time.
Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 97.3 percent of the vote. Plank went into Cooperstown in 1946, selected by the Old-Timers Committee.
So, even if Randy Johnson outdid Eddie Plank, we should still thank the Unit for not forgetting one of baseball’s other all-time greats.
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.) Connie Mack, the Philadelphia A’s manager for a half-century and Waddell’s skipper 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. He hired 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. Even Mack eventually had his fill. He traded Waddell 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 the hurler.
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.