There were scores of eccentrics, flakes, and colorful, picturesque characters in the history of the national pastime. However, none of them hold a candle to George “Rube” Waddell. His outlandish behavior is documented in countless stories, some of them no doubt susceptible to apocryphal exaggerations, but with the Rube, it was often difficult to discern fact from fiction.
“He began that year (1903) sleeping in a firehouse in Camden New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling West Virginia. In between those events he won 22 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married and became 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.”
Lee Allen – Cooperstown Historian
Long before the Babe, the Rube was the biggest drawing card in Major League Baseball. The crowds delighted in his pitching performances, the exuberance of his love for the game, and, of course, his spontaneous comedic exploits – which, unlike those of Dizzy Dean or Lefty Gomez, were not staged. Crowds never knew what the Rube was going to do next; and truth be told, neither did he.
The antics usually began before the game, when he would pour ice over his arm and explain that if he didn’t, his speed would burn a hole in the mitt of his catcher. Of course, his catcher, Ossee Schreckengost, was equally as flaky and would often catch Rube’s heater, rated to be the equal of any in the game, bare-handed. During games, the Rube delighted crowds by doing cartwheels off the field or calling in the outfielders, proclaiming that he was going to strike out the side… and most of the times he would. The peculiar behavior on the field didn’t end with the final out, either. The Rube was known to begin changing out of his uniform as he ran across the diamond towards the clubhouse after games, which often caused a bit of commotion – the Rube never wore underwear.
And those were the days he actually made it to the field. Other times he disappeared from the ballpark altogether, even on days he was scheduled to pitch. On these occasions he was often found playing marbles with the kids outside the park, patronizing the village saloon, or simply at his favorite fishing hole. One time, he disappeared for several days in the midst of a tight pennant race and returned to the team as if nothing had occurred, offering manager Connie Mack several catfish he had caught.
Lesser managers might not have withstood Waddel’s behavior, but Connie Mack was also something of a father figure to Rube, and probably the only man patient enough to bear such eccentric behavior. Of Waddell, Mack once said: “The Rube has a two million dollar body and a two cent head.” As such, Mack allotted the Rube’s $2,500 salary one dollar at a time because Waddell had no idea how to handle his money, and on one occasion, had Waddell escorted by Pinkerton Guards to ensure that he made it to the game. Mack even kept a close watch on him after the season, attempting to curtail the Rube’s favorite off-season hobby of wrestling alligators.
Not surprisingly, opponents often attempted to take advantage of his proclivity for distraction. Players in the opposing dugout would wave shiny objects during games in attempts to draw his attention off the task at hand. Once, in the midst of a tight pennant race in 1904, the Red Sox conspired to take advantage of the Rube’s love for wrestling by instructing their biggest player, Candy LaChance, to challenge Rube to a wrestling match prior to a crucial game. LaChance slapped Rube in the belly, then the shoulders, and the match began. The pair wrestled for quite awhile, until the Rube picked up LaChance, hoisted him over his head, and slammed him to the ground. Candy begged off playing the game; Rube went out and pitched a two-hitter.
Such feats were common. On the front-end of a double-header, Waddell pitched brilliantly and won the game in the 17th inning with a triple. Mack, realizing that he was short on pitchers, offered Rube a three-day fishing vacation if he agreed to pitch the second game of the double-header. Rube was thrilled; he pitched a shut-out and promptly escaped to his favorite fishing hole.
In 1905, Waddell engaged the great Cy Young in one of the greatest pitching duels of all time, Rube gave up two runs in the first inning, Cy returned the two in the 6th, and then both threw blanks, until an Athletic crossed the plate in the 20th inning. Rube won the game 3-2, pitching 20 consecutive scoreless innings. Waddell later parlayed the ball for free booze at the local tavern. It was said that more than 50 bars across the country claimed to have the ball that beat “The Cyclone.”
It wasn’t all fun and games for the Rube, though. Turned out, one of the Rube’s favorite hobbies was putting out fires. He was known for immediately dropping whatever activity he was engaged in, even games that were in progress, and chasing after fire-trucks when they passed. This thirst for excitement put Rube squarely in the center of several compromising situations, but not only did he manage to escape those encounters unscathed, he was actually credited for saving the lives of 13 people while assisting in various disasters.
While the Rube may have gained notoriety for his entertaining and bizarre behavior, he was also one of the greatest southpaws in the history of the game. He had a fastball second to none, a brilliant curve, and a pitch that appears to be the forerunner to the cut-fastball; all delivered with pin-point command. Despite the extra-curricular antics, the Rube set season and career strike-out records that stood for sixty years; and he had the 7th-best ERA, 13th-best career WHIP, and 20th-best hits per 9 innings of all-time. He once won 10 games for the A’s – in the month of July alone, a feat unmatched by any hurler since.
In 1955, at age 93, Connie Mack called Rube the greatest pitcher, in terms of pure talent, he had ever seen – and Connie had seen them all, from Hoss Radbourne and Amos Rusie to Cy Young and Walter Johnson, and on through Lefty Grove and Bob Feller. When asked what Rube would have been like if he had maintained his focus, all Mack could utter was, “My, My, My, My!”
The problem was that he often wasn’t focused, and as his career progressed, John Barleycorn got the better of him. He oftentimes would come to the stadium intoxicated, yet still pitch brilliantly. Unfortunately, his fielding was often atrocious and as his behavior deteriorated, even his mentor, Connie Mack, had to eventually let him go. Following his release from the Athletics in 1907, the Rube’s career slowly faded away.
Seven years later, in 1914, Waddell contracted a viral infection while stacking sandbags at a flood site and died at the age of 37. His battery-mate, Ossee Schreckengost – who once insisted Waddel’s contract include a stipulation that forbade him from eating cracker’s in bed, and had nailed a steak to the wall of a tavern when it was not to his liking – was the only player at his funeral. He provided the insightful epitaph for The Rube’s headstone:
“Rube Waddell had only one priority, to have a good time.”