The Curious Case of the Almost Forgotten Legend Rube Waddell

Rube Waddell (left), then a member of the St. Louis Browns shakes hands with opposing pitcher and another all-time pitching legend Christie Mathewson (right) of the New York Giants in 1908. Image courtesy of the Golden Age

“He had more stuff than any pitcher I ever saw,” – Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack on Rube Waddell.

On October 13th, 1879 George Edward Waddell was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania. It was actually Friday the 13th, and the boy would be better known by the name Rube, Waddell, the left-handed pitcher would see his star rise to amazing heights only to find his own faults bring an end to his promising career and, eventually, his life. The man they mockingly called the “Soused-paw” began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897, where he would play until the team was dropped from the National League. From the Colonels he would move on to the Pittsburgh Pirates. During his tenure with the swashbucklers of the Steel City, he would appear with a multitude of semi-pro independent teams while suspended by the organization.

Rube Waddell as a member of the Los Angeles Looloos. Image courtesy of Our Game.com

Fed up with his antics (we’ll get to that), the Pirates sold him to the Chicago Orphans where he played for just one season, 1901, before heading to the Philadelphia Athletics where, under the tutelage of baseball genius of impresario Connie Mack, he would pitch for six years. In 1908 he joined the lackluster St. Louis Browns where he would spend three years before suddenly disappearing from the game at the end of the 1910 season. He was just 33. During his 13-year career, Waddell made appearances with several independent semi-professional clubs,  much to the delight of minor league fans who were missing out on much of the talent concentrated in the majors. Their names were as fantastic as their roving star hurler. The Los Angeles Looloos were a memorable bunch and he also spent time with squads in Columbus, Ohio, Chatham, Ontario, Newark, New Jersey and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After his career, in 1911, he played for the Minneapolis Millers where he won 20 games.

Waddell wasn’t passed around as much as he was due to a lack of talent. Quite the contrary, in 407 games (340 starts) he posted a 2.16 ERA (2.03 FIP) with 193 victories and 2,316 strikeouts. He actually led the league in whiffed batters six years in a row (1902-1907), totaling 1,576 strikeouts over that span. He was one of the best pitchers of his era, but not even that could keep him the league. In a time where very few people understood mental illness, nobody understood Rube. His attention was easily deterred as he was known to leave games to chase down fire engines because he loved fires, getting distracted by shiny objects or cute animals. He was liable to miss starts because he instead decided to go fishing or play marbles with friends. He drank heavily and got lost in a world all its own.

Part time he was an actor, touring the Vaudeville circuit in the melodrama “The Stain of Guilt”. But nothing could help him to hide his demons, escape from his drinking or control his mental issues. Many have tried to speculate exactly what plagued the Hall of Fame southpaw. Some believe he had Autism or something along those lines, but we shall never know the truth behind what ailed him. He was talented yet inconsistent, a workhorse who couldn’t be counted on. A brilliant master on the mound who was anything but the master of his world. Waddell contracted tuberculosis and later died on April Fools’ Day, 1914. He was not yet 38.

The curious Rube Waddell was laid to rest in Mission Burial Park South in San Antonio. He was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

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