He was born on Friday the 13th and he died on April Fools’ Day.
That somehow seems fitting for Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell, who was one of baseball’s most colourful and impulsive characters, not to mention the American League’s top left-handed pitcher during the first decade of the 20th century.
In parts of 13 big league seasons, Waddell racked up 193 wins, tossed 50 shutouts, recorded the best ERA by a left-hander in history (2.16) and was the first to register back-to-back 300-strikeout seasons.
“He was a dominant strikeout pitcher in an era when there weren’t many strikeouts,” noted Dan O’Brien, who has written an award-winning screenplay about Waddell. “He pitched in the Deadball Era when players were choking up to make contact. During his prime, Rube was striking out eight to 8.5 batters per nine innings and the next closest guy would be four or five (strikeouts per nine innings).”
However, Waddell is at least as renowned for his off-the-field adventures, which included, among other things, chasing fire engines, playing marbles with street urchins, a foray into acting and wrestling alligators.
“He was the biggest drawing card in baseball in the first decade of the 20th century,” said O’Brien. “He was bigger than (Christy) Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Ty Cobb in terms of putting people in the stands, just because he was so colourful on and off the field.
“When he joined the Philadelphia A’s in 1902, their attendance doubled. When Connie Mack sold him to the St. Louis Browns, their attendance went up about 47 per cent and I think the A’s attendance dropped. I’m not saying he was as admired and revered as a Christy Mathewson or a Cy Young, who were good actors on and off the field. But in terms of putting people in the seats, Rube combined his greatness on the mound with his colourful antics. During the game he would talk to the fans and opposing players. He would put on a show.”
Waddell’s whimsical baseball odyssey – which included a 10-to-15-game stint with a team in Chatham, Ont., in 1898 – was fraught with suspensions, fines and unexplained absences. The unpredictable southpaw also married and divorced three times.
“This wasn’t an adult shirking adult responsibilities,” explained O’Brien. “This was a child at heart who didn’t understand adult responsibilities. And when he was the winningest pitcher in baseball, many of his eccentricities were not only tolerated, they were encouraged.”
Why Waddell acted the way he did is unknown. O’Brien has conducted extensive research and even spoken to relatives of the Hall of Famer, but there’s no documented medical explanation for his child-like behaviour.
Born in Bradford, Pa., on October 13, 1876, Waddell, according to O’Brien’s research, was the sixth child of John and Mary Waddell. He moved with his family to Butler County, Pa., in the early 1890s, where he starred for regional school and semi-pro teams and earned a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates in August 1897.
The Pirates didn’t sign him, but the Louisville Colonels, in town to play the Pirates at the time, offered him a contract. Waddell made his big league debut with the Colonels on September 8 in a 5-1 loss to the defending champion Baltimore Orioles.
He began 1898 with the Western League’s Detroit Tigers, but he fell into disfavor with the club brass when he played for a local scrub team without their permission and was fined $25. Waddell refused to pay the fine and left the team, eventually ending up across the border in Chatham, Ont.
“Chatham, at the time, was an independent team,” explained O’Brien. “They were not an official minor league team that adhered to the national agreement. Teams that had signed that agreement honoured the contracts of other teams in other (minor pro) leagues.”
Waddell landed a deal with the Canadian club in early June.
“Rube supposedly had signed with Chatham for $60 a month,” noted O’Brien. “But he also had the freedom to go and pitch for other amateur and semi-pro teams in the area. And Rube was claiming then that he was actually making about $125 a month by picking up games here and there.”
According to newspaper reports, Waddell pitched for Chatham against the Page Fence Giants, a club widely hailed as the best black team in the world at the time, in front of 1,200 fans in Chatham on June 2, 1898.
Freddie Phelps, Waddell’s catcher, endured a horrendous day behind the plate, permitting several passed balls, before leaving the game with a hand injury. To finish the game, Pete Burns from the Giants agreed to catch for the Chatham squad, which was significant in that it, if only temporarily, integrated the Canadian squad. Newspaper reports indicate that Chatham played sloppy defence behind Waddell, while their offence mustered just three hits – two by Waddell himself – in a 9-1 loss.
Later that month, on June 20, Waddell hurled a perfect game and struck out 17 batters for Chatham against a team from Dunnville, Ont. Remarkably, Waddell returned to the mound the following day and tossed another shutout against the same team, this time fanning 20 batters.
A June 11, 1949 London Free Press article written by Art Cartier also describes a memorable performance by Waddell against the London Pastimes in 1898. When Waddell wasn’t pitching, he often manned an infield position (first base, shortstop or third base). In this particular contest, Waddell was playing first base with his club trailing 8-3 in the fifth inning when he was summoned to pitch. His team rallied – largely on the strength of his game-tying triple in the seventh inning – to force extra innings. Waddell ended up hurling eight scoreless innings and whiffing 14 batters in relief as Chatham prevailed 12-9 in 13 innings.
Always confident that he could strike out a batter, Waddell was known to stop games and direct his fielders, with the exception of his catcher, off the field. While it may have made his managers and teammates uneasy and angered opponents, the crowds loved it. Cartier’s article indicates, however, that this trick nearly backfired on Waddell when he was pitching against a team from Ridgetown, Ont.
With his club leading 3-1 in the seventh inning with one out, the quirky yet cocky Waddell directed his fielders to the sidelines. After Waddell purposely walked the next two batters, one of the Ridgetown hitters slapped a high 3-2 pitch into centre field. The two baserunners scored and the game would’ve been tied, except that, according to Cartier’s article, the hitter was so stunned that he had made contact that he didn’t run and the umpire called him out. The runners were then ordered back to their bases and Waddell proceeded to fan the next two batters.
After Waddell had pitched around a dozen games for the Canuck club, Chatham became part of a minor professional circuit called the Canadian League. Teams in this league were governed by the national agreement and Waddell, who was still under contract with Detroit of the Western League, could no longer compete for Chatham.
“The Detroit owner threatened some kind of legal action if Rube played, so then Rube supposedly agreed to come back to Detroit, but then he claimed he was sick,” explained O’Brien. “He got a train back to near his hometown outside of Pittsburgh and then he ended up pitching for an indy team in Homestead, which was a Pittsburgh suburb.”
The following year, Waddell played primarily with Columbus of the Western League, but he returned to the big leagues with Louisville that September. He spent parts of the next two campaigns in the major leagues with Pittsburgh and Chicago.
In 1902, he inked a contract with Los Angeles of the independent California League, before he was convinced by Mack to sign with his Philadelphia A’s.
Waddell would enjoy his greatest big league success in the City of Brotherly Love, accumulating 97 wins in four seasons from 1902 to 1905 and leading the National League in strikeouts for six consecutive seasons from 1902 to 1907.
The St. Louis Browns purchased Waddell from the A’s in February 1908. By that time, Waddell, who had never been one to turn down a cocktail, was reportedly drinking heavily and it had started to hamper his effectiveness. That said, he still managed 33 wins and posted a 2.19 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Browns from 1908 to 1910.
Waddell finished 1910 with Newark of the Eastern League and in 1911, he won 20 games for the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers, managed by Joe Cantillon. Following that season, Waddell, according to O’Brien’s research, was living with Cantillon in Hickman, Ky., a small town “on a bend of the Mississippi River” when a flood threatened the town. Waddell stood in freezing waters for hours on end piling up sandbags to thwart the rising waters.
His efforts, while heroic, led to a bout of pneumonia that some believe was responsible for him eventually contracting tuberculosis. Waddell pitched one more season in Minneapolis and then toed the rubber for 15 games with the Class C Fargo-Moorhead Graingrowers in the Northern League in 1913.
By November of that year, however, tuberculosis had rendered Waddell bedridden and he was transferred to a sanitorium in San Antonio, Texas to be close to his younger sister and his parents (who had moved there). Cantillon paid for Waddell’s travel expenses to Texas, while Mack and the A’s looked after his medical costs.
Waddell died on April 1, 1914, at the tender age of 37.
Please visit Dan O’Brien’s wonderful site about Waddell, where you can also read the story behind his excellent screenplay: http://rubewaddell.net