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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,270

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This is the grave of Rube Waddell.

Born in 1876 in Bradford, Pennsylvania, George Waddell, later known as “Rube” when he became a star baseball player, was a weird child and frankly remained a very odd person his entire short life. As a child, he was known to wander over to the local fire station, where evidently the firemen would let him stay with them for days. Maybe he had a terrible family life, I don’t know. But wandering was something that Waddell would always carry with him. He also basically didn’t attend school at all. I don’t know how literate he was, but probably not very.

But Waddell did have one skill–a very strong arm. He used to like to throw stones at songbirds (sadly, this is still a common fun thing for boys in the tropics, contributing to the decline of increasingly rare birds, though hardly the only reason for this) and developed a quite strong arm just at the moment baseball was starting to take over America as its favorite game. In 1897, the Louisville Colonels signed him to their team, though he only pitched two games. He was back in 1899 for ten games, showing some good potential. But he was something of a ne’er do well and so he floated for awhile, getting fired from at least one team. He ended up playing some semipro ball in Homestead, Pennsylvania for one of the steel teams there and then the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up for the 1900 season. He proceeded to lead the league in ERA, with a 2.37, though he pitched only 208 innings, which in this era was the sign of a spot starter and sometimes reliever. Real men threw 300 innings I guess. But he was such a difficult person that the Pirates very quickly got sick of him. He was suspended and finally the Cubs bought out his contract in 1901. But even then, he was constantly suspended and was just about out of professional baseball by the end of the year.

We have to talk about Waddell’s weird behavior. First, he was a massive, unspeakable drunk. But this does not explain all of his weirdness. He would just wander off the field in the middle of games. He was the ultimate in a guy distracted by a bright, shiny object. I mean that quite literally. Fans soon realized that they could distract him with shiny objects. He would wander into the stands to see what they were, causing all sorts of havoc with trying to actually play the game. He also couldn’t resist a puppy. Fans would bring dogs to the game and he would wander over and start playing with the dogs. Remember his thing about staying in a fire house? Yeah, that didn’t really change. He would chase fire trucks into adulthood. Once, he got bored in a game and decided to leave and go fishing. He would get into fistfights with teammates. During the offseason, teams had no idea what the hell he was up to. He would be out of sight for months and the teams just hoped he would show up in the spring. And again, there was the drinking, which made all of this erratic behavior even worse. Given all of this, it’s not hard to see why this guy would have trouble sticking around, despite his incredible talent.

In those first years, Waddell would spend his time between major league stints on barnstorming teams, just traveling around, raising hell, and pitching. Finally, Connie Mack, managing the Philadelphia As, hired the Pinkertons to find Waddell and go bring him to Philadelphia. While his behavior did not improve after he started playing for the As in 1902, Mack figured it was worth it. He stayed with the As through 1907 and was an absolutely dominant starter. He went 24-7 with a 2.05 ERA that first year and things only got better from there. Moreover, this was the deadball era. Players simply did not strike out very often. They might not hit it far, but this was a pitch to contact era. Not for Waddell. Starting in 1902, he led the AL in strikeouts for six straight years. That first year, he had 210, but in 1904, he was up to a ridiculous 349, which for the era was unbelievable and in fact was the major league record until the 1960s. For a bit of context, he still lead the league in 1906, but with only 196 strikeouts. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, his best year was in 1904, when he racked up a remarkable 11.3 WAR, which is one of the best seasons for a pitcher ever. That year, in addition to the 349Ks, he was 25-19 with a 1.62 ERA (ah, the dead ball era) with a mere 383 innings pitched. He nearly matched that in 1905, with a 9.4 WAR, leading the league with 27 wins and a 1.48 ERA, not to mention again leading in strikeouts with 287. Things did slip a bit after that, but he remained a good pitcher through the 1909 season, by which time he was playing with the St. Louis Browns. All those innings though did take their toll.

But let’s face it–Waddell was a goddamn lunatic. Take the 1903 season. Before the season he was living in a firehouse again. Then he went to Philly and dominated. Then he spent the offseason working in a saloon in West Virginia. He married and got divorced. He shot a friend in the hand (by accident supposedly). He toured the nation in some melodramatic play. He was bit by a lion, I assume at a circus of some kind. He couldn’t remember his lines in said melodrama, so the other actors had to let him say whatever he wanted and then they improvised from there. I’m sure it was brilliant. Oh, he also saved a woman from drowning. There are actually a few cases of Waddell risking his life to save other people, including rushing into a burning house to save three people from a fire that started when an oil heater tipped over. But that was a different season. In 1908, Waddell gave an interview to a newspaper in Scranton where he stated he wanted to use the article to find a virgin to marry again. In Ken Burns’ Baseball series, it claimed that that Waddell was in fact unsure of how many times he had married. He also would call in his own outfielders, tell them to sit down, and then strike out the side.

It’s pretty clear that Waddell had some serious mental health issues. Bill James has suggested that he in fact may have been mentally retarded, to use the term that he used at the time. It’s entirely possible. At the very least, Waddell must have had serious ADHD, exacerbated by drinking gallons of booze a year. In 1909, again with the Browns since the As just couldn’t deal with him anymore, he passed out in the middle of a game he was pitching. Finally, the Browns released him in 1910. He played a little semipro ball after that.

But Waddell was also dying. He had contracted tuberculosis and I’m sure the booze didn’t help with that. On top of this, he used up a ton of energy helping the town of Hickman, Kentucky, where he was living at the time, recover from floods in 1912 and 1913. Finally, he was sent to his sister’s place in San Antonio and he died in a sanitarium there in 1914. He was 37 years old.

Whew, now that’s a crazy life.

Waddell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946. No tough call there. He certainly deserved it, despite everything.

Rube Waddell is buried in Mission Burial Park South, San Antonio, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other pitchers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS statistic, Waddell is 62nd best pitcher in history, which is a bit lower than I expected, but his peak was relatively brief. In modern context, that puts him between Bret Saberhagen and Dave Stieb, both of whom deserve more HOF discussion than they’ve ever received. But this does mean that Waddell is a borderline hall of famer, though there are far worse who have been inducted. The superbly named Urban Shocker, ranked 60th on the list and who pitched mostly with the Browns in the 1910s and 1920s, is in St. Louis. Red Faber, ranked 66th on the list, and who pitched for the White Sox from 1914 to 1933, is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

And on that, Happy New Year!

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