Waddell, George Edward ("Rube")

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WADDELL, George Edward ("Rube")

(b. 13 October 1876 in Bradford, Pennsylvania; d. 1 April 1914 in San Antonio, Texas), one of baseball's most famous left-handed pitchers, whose 1904 feat of 349 strikeouts in one season held the record for 61 years.

Waddell grew up on a family farm in Butler County, Pennsylvania, one of five children of John and Mary Waddell. He developed a muscular farmer's physique and learned how to throw by hurling rocks at the crows that plagued newly sown seeds during spring planting. Even as a young boy Waddell gained a reputation both as an athlete and as a braggart and eccentric. He always had a fascination with fire fighting and would run off, no matter the occasion at hand, if he heard about a fire in progress. He was also susceptible to other childlike temptations. On several occasions while pitching for local ball clubs, someone came by with fishing gear and easily lured Waddell off the ball field. Yet Waddell was, without any doubt, the best pitcher almost anyone had ever seen. He could hurl a fastball and spin curves like no other, and all with complete accuracy. Waddell was six feet, one-and-a-half inches tall, and generally weighed about 195 pounds. With his broad farm boy shoulders and equally broad grin, people readily came to refer to him as a "rube," and the nickname stuck. Waddell never actually liked the nickname; his friends and teammates always called him "Eddie." Waddell never finished high school, but was briefly in the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1897.

Waddell pitched well for some local clubs in western Pennsylvania, and in the late summer of 1897 he had gained enough of a reputation to be signed by the Louisville Colonels, then a team in the National League (NL). He pitched well for Louisville and was a hit with the fans, but his drinking and eccentric fun-loving ways irritated his manager, future Hall of Famer Fred Clarke. After the 1897 season, Clarke dropped Waddell from the club. In the next season, he pitched for several minor league teams, continuing to show incredible talent and outlandish behavior. Pitching for a team in Chatham, Ontario, Waddell several times called off his fielders and struck out the side with no defense behind him. He did this in several exhibition games and later tried, but was not allowed, to do it in the majors during regular season games (although he once had his outfielders sit down on the edge of the infield for an inning).

The Colonels took Waddell back toward the end of the 1899 season. With the Louisville club then merging with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Waddell, along with teammate Honus Wagner, found himself back in western Pennsylvania. Back home, Waddell married Florence Dunning on 21 October 1899 and opened the 1900 season with the Pirates. Fred Clarke was again his manager, and relations between the two remained strained. In July Waddell was tossed off the club. For a month, he pitched for the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where, in late July, Connie Mack of the new American League (AL) Milwaukee Brewers came and signed him. An entourage of Punxsutawney citizens, including the mayor, turned out at the railroad station to make sure Waddell left town.

Waddell felt comfortable under Mack and pitched brilliantly. In one Sunday doubleheader against the Chicago Orphans, Waddell went the distance winning the first game, which stretched for seventeen innings. Then he came back out and pitched a shutout in the second game. Mack let him go fishing for three days as a reward. Waddell won ten games in four weeks for Milwaukee and received such notice that Pittsburgh reclaimed him on 2 September 1900. Back with the Pirates, Waddell and Clarke continued to clash. Despite his tense relations with Clarke, and being off the club for two full months that season, Waddell still led the NL in strikeouts. (In April he had promised people he would do that, and he was true to his word.) Waddell started the next season with the Pirates, but a few months into the schedule, an again fed-up Clarke traded him to Chicago (for a cigar).

Chicago's management did not know how to handle Waddell either. After three months, Waddell quit the team and ventured out to the West Coast on a barnstorming tour. A club in Los Angeles (the Loo-Loos) signed him for 1902. There he played to great acclaim, so much so that at the end of June, Mack, now the manager of the AL Philadelphia Athletics, enticed Waddell to come back East and play for him again. Comfortable under Mack's management, Waddell tore through the AL. From July to September, he compiled 24 wins and struck out 210, probably the greatest half season any pitcher ever had. With Waddell's fearsome pitching, Philadelphia won the AL pennant. That October, the NL refused to take part in a playoff, so Waddell and Philadelphia laid claim to the championship of baseball.

For the next several seasons, Waddell's pitching continued to terrorize the AL. Unlike the modern game, players then did not swing for the fences but just to make contact. Home runs and strikeouts were thus more rare. Despite this, Waddell struck out over 300 batters in several successive seasons. Before this, no one had ever topped 200. As a strikeout artist, Rube was in a class by himself. In nineteen months of pitching from July 1902 to September 1905, he struck out 1,149 batters, 349 in 1904 alone. The next highest strikeout total in the league in 1904 was 180. Waddell's 1904 record stood for decades. It was seldom even approached and was not broken until 1965 (by Sandy Koufax), with a longer season and with hitters swinging for the fences.

When he was on his game, Waddell was absolutely unhittable. The problem was that he was not always on form. As unfathomable as he was to opposing batters, Waddell was equally uncontrollable to his teammates and manager. After his first marriage ended in divorce, Waddell married May Wynne Skinner, but this second marriage on 2 June 1903 did anything but settle him down. Nothing did, and the lack of dependability inevitably led to problems. In September 1905 the A's were on the verge of winning the AL pennant, with Waddell set to lead them into the World Series against the New York Giants. Waddell injured his shoulder amid some silly horseplay with a teammate and had to sit out the series, which the Giants then won. Such undependability irritated teammates, and after narrowly losing the pennant to the Detroit Tigers in 1907 (with Waddell yielding a home run to Ty Cobb in a key game), several A's went to Mack demanding Waddell be traded. Mack yielded and sold Waddell to the St. Louis Browns.

Waddell pitched well for one season with St. Louis. He led the Browns in wins, and they nearly won the pennant. He also exacted revenge on Philadelphia that summer, striking out sixteen A's in one game, a single game mark that stood for thirty years.

By 1908 Waddell's drinking and generally undisciplined living had eroded his pitching skills. He continued to draw fans to games but was no longer the marvel he once was. Managers found him less useful and no less troublesome. After Waddell was hit on the elbow by a pitch (thrown by Eddie Cicotte) in May 1910, his major league career was over. He continued to pitch in the minors for several seasons. He married a third time (to Madge Maguire on 10 April 1910; they divorced in 1911), and clung to the false hope that a major league club would give him another chance.

Wintering at the Hickman, Kentucky, home of Joe Cantillon, his minor league manager, in 1912 and 1913, Waddell did several bouts of yeoman work, helping to save the town from flooding. He spent days in icy waters laying sandbags, an exposure to the cold that led to pneumonia and pleurisy. His health was never the same. Pitching for a lowly club in Virginia, Minnesota, in the summer of 1913, Waddell coughed incessantly and collapsed on the mound several times. That autumn he was picked up on the streets of St. Louis, a vagrant, now infected with tuberculosis. A sister in San Antonio took him in, hoping the warm climate would prove restorative. The disease was too strong, however, and Waddell died in the spring of 1914, on April Fools' Day. He is buried in San Antonio Mission Burial Park. Waddell left no children. His only legacy was that of one of the greatest and zaniest characters who ever played baseball. One of America's first baseball idols, he was celebrated as much for his off-field antics as for his greatness as a pitcher, and deservedly in both cases. Waddell was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.

Information about Waddell and his career can be found in Mike Shatzkin, ed., The Ballplayers (1990), and Alan Howard Levy, The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist (2000). The website http://www.retroactive.com/july97/rube3.html, is a well-written but rather hard-hitting three-page article about Waddell. An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Apr. 1914).

Alan H. Levym