Going back to the long-lost days of my youth, I have always been captivated by baseball lore and anecdotes. In one of the first books I devoured on the subject listed the players that were found worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. I was fascinated by this list, reading over and over again the names of baseball’s immortals, as well as their statistical exploits. At the bottom of the list was a ballplayer named Robert (Rabbit) Maranville. I couldn’t quite understand how a player with a .258 lifetime batting average and no appreciable power, could have been voted into this elite group. After doing considerable research, I continue to have some issues with his worthiness. However, I also discovered Rabbit to be one of the most engaging eccentrics in the history of our National Pastime.
Maranville was the Harpo Marx of the infield. He would mock slow pitchers, yawning, and stretching on the mound. He checked an illusory stopwatch. He stretched out against an imaginary wall when on first base, and would slowly topple on the bag, pretending to fall asleep. He also would make fun of large, ponderous sluggers at the plate, mimicking their motions. Of course, he didn’t neglect the umpires: he would mimic every move the umpire made; from shifting his mask, going down in a crouch, sweeping the plate. The crowd would laugh with glee. He once pulled out a pair of eye glasses when up at bat, to assist the ump in calling balls and strikes. Once, when legendary umpire Bill Klem was calling the game, Rabbit stepped out of the batter’s box, lining himself in back of the catcher. “I just wanted to see where you stood, Bill, to call that last one a strike.” (Let it be noted that Klem once stated that eyesight was overrated in evaluating an umpire’s expertise.) Even the umpires at times had to call time out, as they couldn’t control their laughter. Once he was thrown out of the game for throwing a roundhouse punch at an ump – a not uncommon occurrence in those days. He later returned to the field, apologized profusely, offered to treat the bruises with iodine, and smeared streaks of iodine all over the ump’s face. But his most outrageous antic on the ball field was when he staged a murder, complete with gunshot, in Ebbets Field during a game. Even the Brooklyn crowd, who were used to daffy incidents such as three men on a base at the same time, was in a state of shock.
Rabbit also performed more dangerous acts under the influence, like walking hotel ledges. On one occasion, teammate and drinking buddy Jim Thorpe allegedly held him by one arm as Rabbit dangled 15 stories from a hotel room. On one occasion, the diminutive 5’3″ Rabbit needled the powerful Olympian to such a rage that he chased him throughout Boston; Rabbit escaped by climbing up a tree. Thorpe waited at the bottom of the tree. However, the alcohol had its effect, and Thorpe fell asleep. The agile Rabbit climbed into an upper story window, and started bombarding apples off of Thorpe’s noggin. An enraged Thorpe tried to uproot the tree while Rabbit quietly escaped out the back door. Of course, the most famous escapade was the night that Thorpe and Rabbit were observed swinging from the branches of trees, yowling like banshees, with Jim shouting “I’m Tarzan” and the Rabbit “I’m little Tarzan.” They apparently kept this up all night.
Rabbit had his own version of Willie Mays’ “bread-basket catch” or “vest-pocket” catch of infield pop-ups. He would cup his hands, resting on his belt buckle as the ball skimmed by his peaked cap, strike him in his chest, and roll down his shirt into his glove. One may call this the ultimate in showboating, which of course it was, but old-timers of that period could not report a single instance where Maranville botched the play. He was that good.
Pete Browning is considered one of the outstanding sluggers of the 19th century. Browning is best known for ordering the first custom made bat from the Hillerich & Bradsby Company in 1884, known then and now as the famous Louisville Slugger. He apparently single-handedly kept the company in business throughout his career. His collection included something like 700 bats; each one he cherished, spoke words of encouragement to, and was otherwise lovingly attentive to, and christened each with a Biblical name. Pete later retired them in his home; he believed that each bat contained a certain amount of hits – these were what he deemed his “active” bats – and he examined each Louisville slugger in order to see whether it was a “magical” stick with hits in it. The bats themselves were enormous: 37″ long, and 48 ounces in weight.
Browning displayed behaviors which could best be described as outlandish. He was known to stare at the sun for long periods of time, believing that by doing so, he would strengthen his “lamps” (eyes). He also believed that his eyes periodically needed to be “cleansed,” which could best be accomplished by sticking his head out the window when traveling on a train, in an effort to catch cinders in them. His eccentric behavior later devolved into psychosis, and he unfortunately spent his last years committed to an asylum.
Insanity is a frequent theme in baseball lore. More than fifty years after Browning was wasting away in a psychiatric institution, a colorful outfielder named Jimmy Piersall roamed centerfield with grace and skill. Piersall was always a popular flake, but at some point his eccentric behavior became bizarre and frightening. On one occasion, Piersall was ejected by the umpire for arguing after striking out. Prior to his at-bat, he had acknowledged teammate Milt Bolling’s home run by spraying a water pistol on home plate. Piersall then moved to the grandstand roof to heckle home plate umpire Neil Strocchia. Soon afterwards, he was committed to a psychiatric institution. After discharge, he continued his delightfully eccentric behavior: he once stepped up to bat wearing a Beatles wig and playing “air guitar” on his bat, led cheers for himself in the outfield during breaks in play, and “talked” to Babe Ruth behind the center field monuments at Yankee Stadium. On one occasion, when playing against the Yankees, the preceding two batters were hit by the Yankee hurler. When Piersall came up to bat, he turned around to catcher Yogi Berra, and stated: “Yogi, if your pitcher hits me, I am going to charge the mound and brain him with my bat. Everyone knows that I am crazy, and I will be let off the hook.” Yogi calmly replied: “I wouldn’t worry about it. We never try to bean .250 hitters.” In his autobiography, Piersall commented, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Who ever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?”
During the time of the Great Dust Bowl, Sportsman Park in St. Louis was often covered with a fine layer of dust. The heat during this period was brutal and constant. At one point, for 30 straight days, temperatures were 100 degrees or more. One day during this intolerable spell, St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean built a fire in front of the Cards dugout. He procured two blankets, stomped the earth, and let out blood-curdling war cries in between yips. Dean then pantomimed rain coming down from the skies, took out an imaginary umbrella, and received applause going back to the dugout. During the World Series of 1934, Dean was sent into the game as a substitute base runner. On a ball to the shortstop Billy Rogell, Dizzy roared into second base but did not slide. Rogell’s throw hit him squarely on the head and Dizzy fell “like a marionette whose string had snapped” and lay motionless on the infield dirt. The ball was thrown so hard it bounced 50 ft. into the air. But Diz revived and left the field, and was taken to the hospital. The headlines next day read:
“X-Rays taken of Dean’s head – nothing found.”
Several days removed from the hospital, Dean came back to pitch game five. When he reached the mound, a fan raced onto the field to present him with a mediaeval armor helmet.
One can’t write an article on baseball flakes without including Rube Waddell, described by John Thorn as “The Peter Pan of Baseball.” There are literally scores of tales concerning Waddell’s exploits, on and off the field, and most of them are true.
“(Waddell) 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, describing a year in the life of Rube Waddell.
Rube Waddell often showed his delight in striking out the side by doing cartwheels on the field. He would be distracted by the opposition, who would wave shiny objects in his face. He would change his uniform as he ran across the diamond into the clubhouse after games, which usually drew roars from the crowd, as the Rube never wore underwear. He sometimes disappeared when he was scheduled to pitch; he could be found playing marbles with the kids outside the park, or at times in the village saloon; or sometimes 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. When a fire truck passed by mid-game, he was said to drop everything and run after it; his favorite hobby was putting out fires. (Rube allegedly saved the lives of 13 people, assisting in various disasters.) He would pour ice over his arm before the game, stating that if he didn’t do so his speed would burn a hole in the mitt of his equally flaky catcher, Ossee Schreckengost. When he felt especially frisky, he would call the outfield in, and proclaim that he was going to strike out the side. And most of the times he would. Often Ossie would catch Rube’s heater, rated to be the equal of any in the game, bare-handed.
Rube also loved to wrestle. In 1904, the Boston Red Sox and Waddell’s Philadelphia A’s were in the midst of a tough pennant race. The Red Sox conspired to have their biggest player, Candy LaChance, challenge Rube to a wrestling match before the game. LaChance slapped Rube first in the belly, then the shoulders, and the match began. They wrestled for quite awhile, until 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. 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.
Connie Mack, Waddell’s manager and caretaker, 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 through Cy Young and Walter Johnson, on up to Lefty Grove and Bob Feller. Mack once said, “The Rube has a two million dollar body and a two cent head.”
Waddell died in 1914 at age 37 after contracting a viral infection while stacking sandbags at a flood site. His battery-mate Ossee Schreckengost, who once had a stipulation put in Waddell’s contract that forbade him from eating crackers in bed, and also once 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 headstone, “Rube Waddell had only one priority, to have a good time.”