Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Original and Flakiest Lefty

Charles Waddell was born in a small farming community in Pennsylvania in 1876. Little is known of his youth, though he was “given to wild pranks and hijinks”. He had no formal education and claimed to have developed his pitching skills throwing rocks at birds. When he starred for the Butler, Pennsylvania nine he built a reputation as a good-natured hick, earning the nickname ‘Hayseed’ and then ‘Rube’.

Rube would go on to become baseball greatest strikeout artist – but he got off to a poor start. Fined $50 for excessive drunkenness two days after joining Louisville, an infuriated Waddell quit the team and headed to Detroit of the Western League. He lasted nine days there – again fined $5o – this time for playing a sandlot game with kids on his day off. He again jumped the team and apparently finished the season playing for a semi-pro ball club in Canada.

Acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates who were led by player-manager Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner, two future Hall of Famers, Waddell became an instant star. Eventually Clarke suspended him though, probably because of his excessive drinking, though others claimed it was Rube’s habit of packing pistols and threatening to shoot his boss full of holes.

Waddell spent the majority of the 1901 season with the Chicago Orphans, until he was suspended for erratic behavior. He would usually arrive in street clothes just in time for the game. Then he would go into the crowd and ask for beer, ‘red hots’ and bags of peanuts – which he would throw to kids. Then he would cross the field changing into his uniform as he went – an interesting show as Rube never wore underwear. If he heard a fire truck pass the stadium while he was pitching Rube would throw down his glove and run out of the park after it.

Rube was often late for games because he was playing marbles with kids in the street. He often showed up drunk on days he was to pitch, though he was generally allowed to start anyway. He would pitch brilliantly – and field miserably.

After being fined $100 by one of his many distraught managers, Waddell asked him why. He said it was for “that disgraceful hotel episode in Detroit,” to which Rube responded: “You’re a liar! There ain’t no Hotel Episode in Detroit!”

Connie Mack, realizing that he was the only man capable of controlling Waddell, bought what was left of his Chicago contract, and tried his best to put “The Rube” under virtual house arrest. Mack forbade his star pitcher from returning to Florida and his off-season career as an alligator wrestler. Waddell flourished. He entered into a period of stability that saw him lead the league in strikeouts every year from 1902 to 1907.

1904 was a banner year, Rube set baseball’s all-time strikeout record of 349, a remarkable number in a day when no one swung for the fences. The record stood until Sandy Koufax broke it 61 years later. Rube’s only competition was his immortal contemporary Cy Young, whom Waddell bested in 1905 in an epic 20-inning duel.

The citizens of Philadelphia loved him. They delighted in a star who would show up at saloons and work the bar. The fact that he played almost as much ball with worshipful local kids as with his teammates only endeared him to the city more. Mack tried to be the father Rube needed. In his best season Waddell made just $2,500 – which Connie doled out to him in ten dollar payments. Of his remarkably talented star Connie said, “Rube has a two million dollar body and a two cent head.” Waddell sometimes just disappeared, for days or even weeks. At the height of the 1905 pennant race he vanished. He finally reappeared with large offerings of catfish for the managers and coaches.

After saving two drowning men on a duck hunting trip, stories of Waddell’s penchant for lifesaving began to circulate. Though totally unverifiable, reports are that “The Rube” may have saved as many as thirteen lives. One account documents the hayseed enjoying himself on a houseboat cocktail party, where he responded to a frantic cry for help. Waddell dove into the frigid waters and succeeded in rescuing a passing log.

Waddell’s personal life began to mirror his previously unstable professional life. Within one three day period, “The Rube” was cited as a hero for carrying a blazing oil stove from a crowded department store and preventing a serious, fled town to avoid charges for attacking and badly injuring his father-in-law, saved the life of teammate who had been hit in the head by a wild pitch, and was arrested on bigamy charges (“The Rube” forgot to divorce his first wife).

Rube’s drinking continued to escalate and culminated in a 1909 game against New York in which he passed out on the mound after giving up a home run. In 1910 Waddell was pitching in the Eastern League. In 1912 a nearby dike broke and Waddell helped stack sandbags. Standing armpit-deep in freezing waters for 13 hours, he contracted pneumonia from which he never quite fully recovered. Constant illness was exacerbated by his incessant drinking. He was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium where, on April Fools Day 1914, “Rube” Waddell died penniless just 38 years old.


Rick Blechta said...

How come we don't have any characters like that in baseball any more?

Oh...right... They're all either running for political office or have reality TV shows — sometimes both!

Will Braund said...

One inevitable cause of the loss of characters like Rube is greedy parents looking to cash in on their talented kids. In the old days parents believed more in Almighty God than the almighty dollar. Next reason - agents. Other reason, kids who are told from middle school up that they walk on water, don't need to listen to anyone else and deserve $10 million a year. We'll never see another Rube Waddell. He'd have an entourage to protect him today.

Rick Blechta said...

It didn't save Michael Jackson.

John the Tomahawk Trembath said...

I could use the moniker Rube for most politicians. What ever happened to Waddell's jock strap? Probably dropped that on the way to the dugout.

His name sake Rube Foster was indeed no "rube". He founded the Negro National League.

I take it Will that you do not care for the entitled who have little care for the game except what they can get form it. Me too. This happens in music all the time.