Rube Waddell: Major League’s Strangest Pitcher

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In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Rube Waddell attracted crowds to his Major League Baseball games for several reasons. Firstly, he was one of the most dominant pitchers of the time. But perhaps the larger reason had to do with his incredibly eccentric behavior. He would run out of the stadium to chase fire trucks, leave the mound to play with puppies, call his whole infield to the sidelines while he struck out a batter and more. The stories never end with this unusual guy and we talk about his strange career in this week’s episode. Then we chat with Magic Storyteller, Taylor Hughes. 

stealing someones thunder

In 1897, Major League Baseball had already been in existence for 21 years and had 12 teams. Only 4 of those teams still remain under the same names: The Cincinnati Reds, The Baltimore Orioles, The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. The rest are team names that are long forgotten like the Louisville Colonels and the Chicago Orphans. This was the era of players like Cy Young, Kid Nichols, Hugh Duffy and Honus Wagner.  And in 1897, a 20-year old left-handed pitcher from Western Pennsylvania made it to the big leagues. He was a strange man – maybe the most eccentric in Major League Baseball History. And despite his 13 year career and early death, the stories about Rube Waddell are still being told today. 

George Edward Waddell – known by the nickname “Rube” – was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania and spent most of his early life the small town of Prospect, north of Pittsburgh. He was always reported to be an eccentric and strange kid – he once ran away from home at the age of 3 and lived at the local fire station for a few days. He hardly ever went to school and was known to be what they called at the time “simple.” His childhood pastime was throwing rocks at birds. These were the early days of developing his left arm – his throwing arm – into what would eventually place his name in the Major League history books. 

At the age of 18, Waddell got his first pitching experience for the Butler, Pennsylvania baseball team in 1895. His first pro baseball contract came just two years later with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. That first contract paid him $500. He spent the entire amount on a bender. Did I mention Waddell was also a rampant alcoholic? At this point, he had a ton of potential on the mound, but wasn’t very refined. After pitching just a few games for Louisville in that first season, they sent him to the Detroit Tigers to gain experience. He ended up getting in a fight with the manager, who had rented him a place to live (Waddell never paid his rent), so he left Detroit and pitched in various other places – Canada, Homestead PA, Columbus OH, which then became Grand Rapids Michigan, and finally back to Louisville in 1899. By this time, Waddell was putting up impressive numbers. In his time with the Columbus Senators, which became  the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers – I love these old timey team names – Rube Waddell finished the season with a record of 26-8. So by the time the Louisville Colonels merged with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900, they brought over their best players: Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and Rube Waddell. 

In 1900 – Rube Waddell had the best ERA in Major League Baseball – 2.37. If you’re unfamiliar, ERA is “Earned Run Average,” a stat that’s calculated to measure pitchers based on the amount of runs they give up during a 9-inning game. Baseball during Wadell’s era was a different game. Batters made contact much more often than they do now and that’s why Rube’s strikeout percentage was so impressive. His strikeout to walk ratio was almost 3-1, which was unheard of at the time. For 6 years, he led the league in strikeouts. But the stories about Rube Wadell – and the reason that he’s talked about today – have nothing to do with his dominant performance. They have to do with his eccentric behavior. 

There were TONS of weird things about Major League Baseball in those early years. One example is the Philadelphia A’s mascot Louis Van Zelst. He was a boy who had been born with physical deformities who acted as the unofficial mascot for the team from 1910 to 1914. He had a hunchback and players would rub his hump for good luck. Victory Faust was a quote “mentally defective” man (these are turn of the century  terms) who was a good luck mascot for the New York Giants. When he was in uniform in their dugout, they tended to win more games. A little person named Eddie Bennett was a bat boy and good luck charm for Babe Ruth’s Yankees, and to the White Sox and Dodgers before that. In these days, having oddities or physical deformities could be viewed as a sign of good luck for people. Of course, it was dehumanizing and horrible to treat these folks like almost non-human totems, but all of the reports talk about how these non-player human mascots loved their jobs. So it’s not so strange to imagine a different time when bizarre behavior was just seen as personality and eccentricity rather than any sort of disqualifying feature. That’s the case with Pitcher Rube Waddell. The largest difference in his case is that he actually possessed quite a remarkable baseball ability. Here are some of the stories that are often told about Waddell.

Early in his career, he once left in the middle of a game to go fishing. It was a nice day and he didn’t want to waste it on a ball field. 

He was fascinated by fire trucks – perhaps related to his spending those early days at the firehouse as a 3 year old – and would often literally chase after fire trucks as they ran down the road. He was known to have even ran off of the field while pitching to chase after a fire truck. Yes. That’s a thing that actually happened. 

When it wasn’t baseball season, he would disappear for months on end, sometimes leaving on long drinking binges. One time during one of his long absences, he was finally discovered. He had run off with the circus, where he was wrestling alligators. I told you. This is weird stuff. 

When opposing teams saw that Rube Waddell, who was a Southpaw, but people called “Sousepaw” because of his alcoholism, they would purposely distract him. He was distracted by shiny objects and puppies. So people would bring puppies to the game and hold them up. He would inevitably come over to play with the dogs. 

One of the downsides to Rube Waddell’s eccentricity mixed with his lack of brain power was that he was constantly getting in fights. He couldn’t get along with his coaches or management. Legend says that Waddell could never keep track of how many women he married, but records indicate he was married officially at least 3 times. 

There’s one story about Waddell that coincides with another story we’ve told on this show. If you remember the episode about the Straw Hat Riots, we talked about how in early America, straw hats became very fashionable as long as you didn’t wear them after September. Well apparently while riding in a train with his then team the Philadelphia A’s, he became incensed that a teammate was wearing a straw hat and got into a fist fight with the guy. It was a relief pitcher, Andy Coakley, who had been picked up by the train wearing his straw boater hat and in the ensuing melee, Rube Waddell threw out his shoulder. This made him miss most of the September schedule and didn’t play in the world series that his team made it to that year. There have since been other explanations about why he didn’t play – some of them being that the rest of the team just couldn’t stand the guy, and even one story about how Rube got hooked in with a bookie and the whole thing was a set up because he bet against his own team as the New York Giants won the series.

Throughout his career, Rube Waddell played for so many different teams and was traded around so much, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. But his numbers were so impressive in 1905, this was his pinnacle season with the Philly A’s, he recorded 27 wins, 287 strikeouts and a 1.48 ERA. Absolutely incredible numbers. And this was why it was such a big story that he didn’t finish that season out because of a fight on a train. 

By 1908, Waddell was pitching with the St. Louis Browns and strung together 16 strikeouts in a single game. The owner had figured out a way to keep Waddell occupied and out of trouble. He hired him as a hunter when he wasn’t pitching. But Waddell still found ways to get in trouble. His womanizing by this point was pretty legendary. There was actually an article about Waddell in the Scranton newspaper in 1908 titled “Unkissed Girl Sought by Rube Waddell” and he used the article to basically try to solicit a new wife. His alcoholism was out of control and in 1909, he actually passed out on the mound during a game against New York. He was released the following year and never made it back up to the big leagues after that. Rube Waddell died young – at the age of 37. His health was so bad that he developed Pneumonia, then tuberculosis and ended up in a Sanitarium in Texas until he died in 1918. He had been born on a Friday the 13th and died on April 1st – April fools day.

He’s been listed by baseball scholars as one of the top 100 players to ever play the game, and because of his crazy antics is often credited with bringing notoriety and popularity to the game in those early years. People today look at his life and can look at it through a modern lens and guess that perhaps Waddell was Autistic, or had some sort of other non-normative neuro-condition. Baseball historian John Thorn wrote an incredible article about Waddell in his blog, “Our Game.” It’s entitled “Rube Waddell: Baseball’s Peter Pan” and I’ll leave you with the opening paragraph, which I found to be pretty all-encompassing of the man.

“George Edward “Rube” Waddell was baseball’s most kaleidoscopic character. In 1903 he began the year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in Wheeling, West Virginia. “In between those events,” wrote Lee Allen, “he won twenty-two 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 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. The stories go on and on about this wild and crazy guy and, remarkably, most of them are true. Playing marbles under the stands at game time while his teammates searched for their starting pitcher; being paid his year’s salary of $2,200 in one-dollar bills because he was so impulsive a spender; hurling both ends of a doubleheader just so that he could get a few days off to go fishing; calling his outfielders to the sidelines, then striking out the batter.”

That’s right. This guy’s life was so incredible and strange that we didn’t even get a chance to mention some of those things. So now you know the story of Rube Waddell – Major League Baseball’s strangest pitcher. The Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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