This article was written by Joe Niese
This article was published in the The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
The enigmatic Rube Waddell struggled during the first few years of his professional career, and was lucky just to be a .500 pitcher. It was not until Connie Mack coerced him into coming to the Philadelphia Athletics in June 1902 that Waddell was finally able to harness his talents, becoming one of the first great left-handed pitchers the game had seen.
George Edward “Rube” Waddell was an original oddball lefty, who could endear himself to fans, provide fodder for sportswriters, and alienate his teammates and manager. He was also immensely talented. Hijinks notwithstanding, he was the premier power pitcher in the opening decade of the 1900s. The enigmatic Waddell struggled during the first few years of his professional career though, and was lucky just to be a .500 pitcher. It was not until Connie Mack coerced him into coming to the Philadelphia Athletics in June 1902 that Waddell was finally able to harness his talents, becoming one of the first great left-handed pitchers the game had seen.
Born on a small farm on the outskirts of Bradford, Pennsylvania, Waddell’s journey to Philadelphia began in August 1901, when he went missing from the National League Chicago Orphans.[fn]The franchise became the Chicago Cubs in 1902.[/fn] His absence came as no surprise to many in the Chicago organization. After all, he had been obtained from Pittsburgh in May for a cigar after Pirates manager Fred Clarke marched into owner Barney Dreyfuss’s office. “Sell him; release him, drop him off the Monongahela Bridge,” ranted Clarke. “Do anything you like, so long as you get him the hell off my ball team!”[fn]Alan H. Levy. Rube Waddell: the Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers, 2000), 77.[/fn]
In the few months he was in Chicago, Waddell often argued with his manager (Tom Loftus) and teammates, was clawed in the (right) arm by a lion at a sideshow, frequently showed up to games intoxicated, and often skipped practice to go fishing. As the last place team’s only drawing card, Waddell’s eccentricities were initially overlooked, but his output began to drop. He seemed to be bored with the game. Rumors swirled as to Rube’s whereabouts. A lover of libations, it was said that he had quit to enter the saloon business. Some said that he would return to the team after tracking down a dog that had been shipped to him from St. Louis. Others sniffed a conspiracy, noting that Charles Comiskey was trying to lure him to Chicago’s South Side to the White Sox. To stoke the flames, Waddell was seen on the roof of South Side Park taking in a ball game, while the Orphans were playing across town.
It soon became known that Waddell hadn’t given up baseball after all. He was making the rounds in the town ball circuit, playing for teams in northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin. Although he was playing under the assumed name of Brown, Waddell was anything but inconspicuous. In one game, it was reported “every time Brown, alias Rube, came up to bat, he was wagering he could make a hit. Sometimes he won and oftener he didn’t.”[fn]The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI), September 6, 1901, 8.[/fn] In another, Waddell ordered his infield to stand behind him at the mound. His teammates initially protested, but “Rube declared that if he did not have his way he would throw up the game right there as he was not accustomed to being disobeyed.”[fn]The Decatur Review (Decatur, IA), September 20, 1901, 5.[/fn] They finally conceded, watching Waddell strike out the next three batters. His bragging grew more audacious the next inning, when he ordered everyone but the catcher to sit on the bench. Once again, he struck out all three batters.
In early October, Waddell was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, playing for a team from nearby Burlington. He gave up four hits, but 13 errors led to an 11–5 Kenosha victory. Following the game, he decided he wanted to play for the Kenosha Athletics. All he had to do was play one more game for Burlington—against Kenosha. This time, Burlington prevailed with a 6–5 win, as Waddell “struck out seventeen batters and didn’t exert himself to any great degree.”[fn]Kenosha Evening News (Kenosha, WI), October 7, 1901, 1.[/fn]
It was apparent that Waddell had an affinity for Wisconsin. He first fell in love with the state in the summer of 1900, when he spent several weeks throwing for Connie Mack’s Milwaukee Brewers of the newly named American League. It was Mack who sought out the talented, yet erratic Waddell, traveling to Pittsburgh to obtain Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss’s permission to pursue the lefty. Waddell was still under contract with the Pirates (whom he had pitched for earlier in the year), but was then playing for semipro teams in the Punxsutawney area. Waddell had been nothing but a headache for Dreyfuss and Pirates manger Fred Clarke. “Go ahead. We can’t do anything with him—maybe you can,” was the owner’s response.[fn]The Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 19, 1942, 4.[/fn]
In their initial contact, made by phone, Mack made the crucial error of calling Waddell “Rube” (he preferred to be called “Eddie”). The conversation was brief and ended with the pitcher saying he was staying put in Punxsutawney. For the next two weeks Mack sent Waddell daily telegrams and letters. Finally, Waddell wired Mack: “Come and get me.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] The next morning Mack was in Punxsutawney. He woke Waddell and took him out to breakfast. They then went about town settling up Waddell’s debts. Before noon Mack had spent nearly $100 on a bar tab, fishing gear, a dry goods store bill, a watch, and the shipping of a dog Rube had received. Finally, Mack began to worry that they were causing such a stir around town that someone might alert the local baseball club, so they retreated to a hotel. Finally, at 2:45, they headed for the train depot for the 3:00 train.
Mack and Waddell weren’t at the platform for more than five minutes when a large group of men converged on them. They motioned Waddell over for a brief talk and then a man, who turned out to be the head of the local ball club, approached Mack.
“You Connie Mack, manager of Milwaukee?” asked the man gruffly.
“Yes,” replied Mack. He was certain that they were there to talk Waddell out of leaving, and worried for his own safety.
“Well, I want to shake your hand,” said the man, extending his hand to Mack. “My friends and myself have come down here to thank you. You are doing us a favor. Waddell is a great pitcher, but we feel that Punxsutawney will be better off without him.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Mack was still trembling as they boarded the train.
Waddell immediately took to his surroundings in Wisconsin, especially the plentitude of fishing holes. Fishing was one of his favorite hobbies, and the one that he was least likely to injure himself doing, so he was encouraged to indulge. Indulge he did; spending every moment that he could doing so. He traveled all over the area, finding a favorite spot when he took the trolley to Pewaukee.
In just over a month’s time, Waddell went 10–3, including throwing 22 innings in a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox. After throwing 17 innings in the opening game, Waddell turned handsprings when he struck out the final batter. In between games Mack and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey decided to play an abbreviated 5-inning affair for the second game. Seeing Waddell showing no signs of being worn down, Mack approached the lefty about pitching Game 2. “Rube, how would you like to go to Pewaukee for a few days instead of going to Kansas City?” asked Mack. “Pitch the second game and win it for us and you can have a few days off, and can rejoin is in Indianapolis.”[fn]Fred Lieb. The Pittsburgh Pirates (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
University Press, 2003), 71.[/fn] Waddell took the ball and won the second game 1–0, allowing just one Chicago hit.
During his brief hiatus from the Brewers, Waddell was also able to partake in another hobby—fighting fires. On his way back to Milwaukee, word spread that a barn had been hit by lightning and was engulfed in flames. Waddell jumped off the trolley and headed for the smoke. Upon arrival, he found farmers standing around watching the $5,000 barn burn. Waddell snapped into action, rushing into the barn and hitching a piece of wire to a wagon. Salvaged from the fire were “forty head of stock, wagons, buggies, machinery and other things.”[fn]Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), August 22, 1900, 7.[/fn] In the process Waddell badly burned his non-throwing hand.
When asked about what took place, Waddell responded nonchalantly. “I’m a peach at a fire. There is nothing I like better than to fight fires. I was a fireman for seven years at Pittsburgh. I’m glad I was able to help the old farmer out some.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Shortly thereafter, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss heard about how well Waddell was performing, and recalled him to Pittsburgh. Despite finishing with an 8–13 record for the Pirates, his 2.37 ERA was tops in the National League.
With Waddell on the mound in 1901, the Kenosha Athletics made plans to play Appleton for the unofficial 1901 Wisconsin state title. The dream of a state championship was put on hold when the Appleton team asked to be released from their agreement to play. Their reason was that they were playing Racine in a three game series—for the state championship. Rube and the Athletics would have to wait two weeks before they would have their shot at a title.
In the meantime, Waddell immersed himself in happenings around Kenosha. He officiated boxing matches at the Kenosha Opera House and tended bar at the Grant Hotel (often in full uniform, including spikes). He had big plans for the future. Not only did he want to start a football team, but he was looking ahead to next year’s baseball season. He proclaimed that he “planned to remain here for a year and that he would like to have a team here next year.”[fn]Kenosha Evening News (Kenosha, WI), October 4, 1901, 1.[/fn]
While waiting for a shot at the Wisconsin state title, Waddell struck out 16 in a 7–2 defeat of the Chicago Spaldings, regarded as “the crack amateur team of the west.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Finally, after much back-and-forth, a date was set for the postponed game with Racine, which by then had defeated Appleton.
On the morning of October 20, Racine’s Athletic Park filled up fast. Kenosha sent a dozen train cars, and by game time an estimated 5,000 packed into the grandstands, bleachers, and along the foul lines. Waddell’s mound opposition was Addie Joss, a Woodland, Wisconsin native who had gone 25–18 for the Toledo Swamp Angels of the Western Association.
Addie Joss and Rube Waddell could not have been more different. The spindly Joss was a former schoolteacher. Waddell was broad-shouldered and uneducated. What they had in common was that few people could throw a baseball like them. The game in Racine was the start of a long professional rivalry.
Joss had helped Racine win the three-game series from Appleton, but in the top of the first, he showed some nerves. The first three Kenosha batters reached base. Aided by a double play, Joss and Racine escaped unscathed. Waddell then showed his all-around game. After striking out the first three Racine batters in the bottom of the first, he drove in the first two runs of the game in the top of the second when he launched a deep fly ball over a bicycle track in right field. He could have had an easy inside-the-park home run, but loped into third base with a triple, giving Kenosha a 2–0 lead.
Neither team scored in the next two innings. Waddell struck out each of the batters he faced, giving him nine straight to start the game. Racine took advantage of Waddell’s wildness (he walked five in the game) and four errors by Kenosha’s second baseman. The result was four unearned runs—one each in the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth.
After eight innings, Waddell had struck out 19, yet his team trailed 4–2. Still, he had a chance to win the game in the top of the ninth, when he came to the plate with two out and runners on first and second. He overswung at all three of Joss’s offerings. According to Joss biographer Scott Longert, when the final out of the 4–2 Racine victory was recorded, “Delirious rooters dashed en masse out of the grandstand, hoisted Addie on their collective shoulders, and carried him around the park on a jubilant victory lap.”[fn]Scott Longert. Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers (Cleveland, OH: The Society for American Baseball Research, 1998), 33.[/fn] Longert called it called it “probably the greatest semi-pro game ever staged in Wisconsin, and one of the greatest played anywhere.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Joss called it, “One of the greatest games I ever pitched in my life.”[fn]The Toledo News-Bee (Toledo, OH), August 22, 1905, 7.[/fn]
The next weekend found Waddell on the gridiron for the Kenosha Regulars football team. A bruising fullback, he scored the only touchdown of the game, an 80-yard scamper, in a 10–0 defeat of a team from Chicago.
A week later Waddell was found living in Racine and tending bar at Sugden’s saloon and billiards room. He gave no reason for his move from Kenosha other than “Tisn’t what it’s cracked up to be down there.”[fn]The Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), November 8, 1901, 8.[/fn] Once again, Waddell had long-term plans to settle in Racine. He went about forming a football team and talked about plans for the next summer’s baseball team. A few weeks later it seemed his plans had changed. The football team he put together disbanded. By December, all that remained of Waddell in Racine were his clothes at the Drexel Hotel. He had headed to the warm weather of California to play baseball on a major league barnstorming tour set up by Joe Cantillon.
Cantillon, who had umpired in the American League during the 1901 season, got the idea to take two teams made up of players from each league (All-Americans and All-Nationals) on an ambitious 76-game schedule. They started “in Chicago on October 12 and soon moved across the country—meeting, for example in Louisville, Denver, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas—before arriving on the West Coast.”[fn]Thomas Barthel. Baseball Barnstorming and Exhibition Games, 1901–1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers, 2007), 27.[/fn] There was even talk of playing games in Honolulu.
Problems arose for Cantillon when the Boston Americans’ Cy Young, their primary pitcher, dropped out before the team headed west. The promoter scrambled to find a replacement, before cajoling Waddell, who was more than happy to see himself out of the situation he had created in Wisconsin. It didn’t take Waddell long to make an impression. As in most places he went, Waddell wowed locals with his baseball prowess. At Recreation Park in San Francisco, he won a game for the All-Americans with a long home run to center field.
Waddell did little wrong during the trip and was courted by all four teams in the California League. When the rest of the barnstormers returned east, Waddell stayed in the Bay Area. Unable to make up his mind, he agreed to terms with three of the league’s four teams: the Oakland Mud Hens, the Sacramento Mosquitos, the San Francisco Has Beens, and the Los Angeles Looloos. All three wanted him in camp immediately, so Waddell “told the three club owners to shake the dice for him.”[fn]Levy, 95.[/fn] Los Angeles won, so he headed south.
Waddell was an instant fan favorite for the Looloos. Barely a month into the season, he established the league’s single-season strikeout record. He loved batting and was ecstatic to play the outfield or first base when he wasn’t pitching. In Oakland, he was rewarded for hitting the first home run of the season at Freeman’s Park with “several prizes in the way of shoes, clothes, and many other articles donated by charitable shopkeepers, who like to see the ball-tossers dress like members of the swagger set.”[fn]The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), June 19, 1902, 4.[/fn]
Of course, it wasn’t all baseball for Waddell. Beyond frequenting the local taverns and fishing holes, he was able to partake in another of his endless hobbies, boxing. Before a game in Oakland, he sparred with heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. As with most everything, Waddell was good at it. He was described as having a “stiff punch and a block that is said to be a wonder.”[fn]The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), May 10, 1902, 4.[/fn]
Waddell was also able to show his firefighting prowess. During another game in Oakland, a mattress that was being used as a backstop caught fire. The fans and players scattered, and Freeman Park’s wooden bleachers looked as if they would burn to the ground. Waddell swooped into action. “He ran over and tore the burning mattress from its moorings and plopped it on the field, where it burned harmlessly.”[fn]Levy, 96-97.[/fn]
Word of Waddell’s on-field success reached the east. One day, Connie Mack, now manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, was lamenting the state of his pitching staff to umpire Jack Sheridan.
“Why don’t you get Waddell back?” replied Sheridan. “He’s pitching in San Francisco.”[fn]The Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 19, 1942, 4.[/fn]
Mack tracked down Waddell and invited him to join the Athletics, then in their second year of existence. The two worked out an agreement. Mack sent Waddell $100 and a train ticket, but the pitcher never arrived. The Philadelphia manager wasn’t alone in being stood up. The same thing happened to Fred Clarke, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who also tried to woo Waddell.
While in Chicago, Mack was approached by a man who had some firsthand information about Waddell.
“I saw him get on the train at Los Angeles. Some men got on after him and talked to him for about ten minutes. He started to cry and I heard him say ‘I never did want to leave you, you have been so good to me,’ and he got off the train.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Immediately, Mack went to Ban Johnson, American League president, whose office was in Chicago. After hearing the story, Johnson took Mack to the nearby Pinkerton Detective Agency. There, a plan was hatched for detectives to track down Waddell in San Francisco, where the Looloos were playing, advance him $200, and bring him to Kansas City. From there, Mack would personally escort Waddell to Baltimore, where Philadelphia was scheduled to play next. Things didn’t go as planned.
The Pinkerton detectives found Waddell in his hotel room in San Francisco, despondent over a loss earlier that day. He gave little resistance. They traveled without incident to Kansas City, where the detectives ran into a problem. It was there Waddell met boxer William Rothwell, known as Young Corbett II. Rothwell had just defeated Terry McGovern for the featherweight title. Waddell became enamored with the newly crowned champion. He wanted to impress Rothwell, so Waddell decided to seek out one of the two Kansas City teams to pitch for in the coming days. Both would have gladly snatched up a talent like Waddell. The detectives called Mack and told him to come to Kansas City immediately.
When Mack arrived in Kansas City, Waddell refused to come with him, insisting on going to the park.
“I agreed to take him to the park and he came along with his $1 suitcase and $40 fishing outfit,” recalled Mack. “I don’t know how I did it, but I talked Rube out of pitching that day and got him on the train for Baltimore before anyone could grab him.”[fn]The Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 19, 1942, 10.[/fn]
Mack and Waddell arrived in Baltimore on the morning of June 26. Waddell implored Mack to let him pitch later that day. Initially, Mack refused, wanting Waddell to become acclimated, but finally, he gave in.
John McGraw was player/manger for the Baltimore Orioles. Having faced Waddell previously, he knew one of the few ways to beat him was to be in his head. From the Baltimore bench, McGraw jockeyed him relentlessly, agitating the big lefty. In addition, Philadelphia catcher Mike “Doc” Powers had trouble catching Waddell’s hard breaking pitches. Consequently, Baltimore won 7–3.
That same year, McGraw played a role in the Athletics franchise. In mid-season, he left the Orioles and the American League to manage the National League’s New York Giants. Speaking to a reporter about how much money the Athletics were losing, he said that Ben Shibe had “a big white elephant on [his] hands.” Mack, who had a good sense of humor, immediately ordered a white elephant to appear on all Athletics’ gear and apparel.[fn]Charles C. Alexander. John McGraw (New York, NY: The Viking Press,
1988), 91.[/fn] To this day, it remains emblematic of the team, now based in Oakland.
The magic of Rube Waddell in an Athletics uniform began on July 1 at Philadelphia’s Columbia Park against Baltimore. Mack inserted catcher Ossee Schrecongost, whom he had recently signed as a free agent from the Cleveland Bronchos.[fn]The Cleveland American League franchise has used the nicknames Blues (1901), Bronchos (1902–1904), and Naps (1905–1914).[/fn] The pitcher and catcher tandem became instant friends—not an easy thing for Waddell to manage. “They were roommates, drinking buddies, hunting and fishing pals, general partners in crime.”[fn]Levy, 104.[/fn]
Waddell and “Schreck’s” first game together was near perfection. In the second inning, Orioles right fielder Cy Seymour dribbled one past third baseman Lave Cross. On the next pitch, Seymour bluffed a steal. Still in his crouch, Schreck fired a perfect throw to first baseman Harry Davis, who slapped on a tag for the out. In the next inning Waddell set down the Orioles batters on nine pitches, his first documented “perfect inning.”
In the fifth inning, Baltimore’s Wilbert Robinson singled with one out. Trailing 1–0, McGraw, desperate to put a runner in scoring position, sent the 38-year-old catcher on a steal. It wasn’t even close at second base.
In the sixth and eighth innings, Waddell struck out the side. In the bottom of the seventh, he had added an insurance run with a booming double. When he took the mound in the top of the ninth, Waddell gave the crowd a playful wave, yelling “It’s all over, go on home.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He struck out the final three batters, giving him 13 for the game, in facing the minimum 27 batters. Many of the 2,500 in attendance rushed the field and hoisted him onto their shoulders, parading him around the ballpark.
In just over three months with Philadelphia, Waddell amassed a 24–7 record. His 2.05 ERA and league-leading 210 strikeouts helped Mack’s Athletics to an 83–53 record, and the 1902 American League pennant (the World Series was one year away from being re-established).
Over the years, the line between fact and fiction has blurred. Waddell’s bizarre antics overshadowed his abundant skills. Waddell’s tenure in Philadelphia was mind-boggling. In six seasons he amassed 131 wins, including four straight 20-win seasons (24, 21, 25, and 27). He led the American League in strikeouts in all six years, and the major leagues in the last five (including an astonishing 349 in 1904, still an American League record).
Befittingly, Waddell was never the same after he suffered a serious shoulder injury when trying to punch a hole through a teammate’s straw hat in September 1905.[fn] It was ritual for any ballplayer that saw a teammate wearing a straw
hat after Labor Day to nab it off the offender’s head and break it. When Waddell saw fellow pitcher Andy Coakley show up at the train station with one, Rube saw an opportunity to have some fun. Coakley tried to conceal the hat, but Waddell would not let that stand in the way. Trying to avoid the charging Waddell, Coakley tossed his bag at Waddell. In the bag was Coackley’s spikes, which hit Waddell in the chin. Waddell’s jovial mood turned to anger. It took several teammates to restrain Waddell from pulverizing the shocked Coakley. In the process, the peace-keeping scrum stumbled over a suitcase, with all the weight coming down on Waddell’s left shoulder. That night, he rode the train with his left arm hanging out the window, taking in a stiff breeze. A few days later he could not raise it above his shoulder. The zip never returned to his fastball, or the snap to his curve.[/fn] He won 15 and 19 games over the next two years (and his last two strikeout titles), before being purchased by the St. Louis Browns in February 1908. He won 19, 11, and three over the next 2 1?2 years in St. Louis, before spending parts of the next four seasons in the minor leagues. In early 1913, he contracted pneumonia after spending hours stacking sandbags in icy waters in flood-ravaged Hickman, Kentucky, where he was living with Joe Cantillon. The pneumonia proved to be a symptom of tuberculosis which lead to his death on April 1, 1914, in a San Antonio sanitarium.
JOE NIESE is a librarian and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He has written several articles on baseball’s Deadball Era. His first book, “Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer” was published in Spring 2013 by McFarland Press.
The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI)
The Decatur Review (Decatur, IA)
Kenosha Evening News (Kenosha, WI)
Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI)