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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Baseball Phenoms Part 3: Rube Waddell

One of the more interesting characters in the history of professional baseball, Waddell was insanely talented, and insanely insane. This needn't be a long post, as it will consist essentially of a short list of his baseball accomplishments, and a longer list of his eccentricities.

Waddell began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 as a 20-year-old. He would pitch just two games, but would return in 1899 for another short stint before being traded to Pittsburgh with Honus Wagner in a deal that Louisville would totally not regret, ever. No, they really wouldn't, because the franchise folded after 1899.

In any case, Waddell was only in Pittsburgh for a season and a half, but he led the league in ERA (2.37 (153 ERA+)), WHIP, and K/9. The Chicago Orphans (Cubs) would purchase him from Pittsburgh in May, 1901, but after the season he would abandon them for Los Angeles in the independent California League, where he posted a 2.42 ERA in 167 IP, but in June of 1902, Waddell would again abandon his team and sign with the Philadelphia Athletics of the upstart American League. From June on, he posted a 2.05 ERA (179 ERA+), and despite pitching just (just) 276.1 innings, managed to lead the new league in strikeouts with 210.

He would not let up on his dominance in Philly, as from 1902-1907, his full career there, he would go 131-82 with a 1.79 ERA (146 ERA+) with 1576 K's in 1869.1 IP, good enough to lead the league in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (averaging 7.6) every single year. Basically, Waddell was the first great power pitcher, setting the stage for other fireballers in the early 20th-century like Walter Johnson and Smokey Joe Wood.

The St. Louis Blacks purchased Waddell for the 1908 season, and he posted a 1.98 ERA and again led the league in K/9, but it was largely downhill from here. In 1909-'10, he averaged a paltry 127 IP, and posted a mediocre 2.52 ERA (97 ERA+) as years of alcoholism and general insanity caught up with the 33-year-old Waddell. He would put in some work for some minor league teams from 1910-1913, but age, tuberculosis and death would bring an untimely end to his playing career.

Nobody will refute Waddell's level of talent. If the numbers don't impress you, his Hall of Fame plaque might. Walter Johnson once said: "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"

That being said, however, this is not the reason that Waddell is a baseball phenomenon. What made him insanely popular (his biographer, Alan Howard Levy, wrote that ""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.") was his oddities on and off the field.

He had a deep love for fire trucks, and had a penchant for bursting out of the dugout and, indeed, the field, to chase passing firetrucks to nearby fires. He could be lulled into a trance while pitching if fans were distracting him with shiny objects. He wrestled alligators in the offseason, and was, as previously mentioned, like everybody else in turn-of-the-20th-century America, a severe alcoholic. He got into fistfights with managers and teammates alike, and, according to Ken Burns, lost track of how many women he had married.

His personality is perhaps best described by historian Lee Allen: "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."

Waddell's antics could not keep up forever, though, as in 1912, while working to help the town of Hickman, Kentucky during a flood, he contracted pneumonia. He would never really recover, and was hit with another case after another flood in the spring of 1913. He spent the remainder of his days in San Antonia Texas, living first with his sister before being admitted to an insane asylum that fall, where he would eventually die, aged 37, on April 1, 2014.

For his role as both an incredibly talented and successful pitcher and, more importantly, a huge draw and an absolute star of the sport, Rube Waddell was one of the earliest and most important baseball phenoms of all time.

He also had the world's squarest jaw until 1907

Previous Phenoms:
Part 1: Jim Creighton
Part 2: Bob Feller

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