Rube Waddell: The First American League Ace
George Edward “Rube” Waddell was born on October 13th, 1876, in Bradford, Pennsylvania (northwestern Pennsylvania) to John and Mary Waddell, folks of humble origins. The boys all learned baseball, and Rube stood out because of his “lightning” left arm. He was called “Rube”–a popular nickname of the time, denoting a rural, or less-than-sophisticated view of the world. In addition to his social naivete, Rube was also described as “unusual” or “eccentric”. We now know that he also suffered from developmental challenges such as schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorders. Throughout his life Waddell was easily distracted by “shiny things, puppies, and balloons, etc.” He certainly had what we now know as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). In his early semi-pro and minor league games, he was known to leave the field suddenly to go chasing after firetrucks on their way to a fire. He would also take off to go fishing, forgetting that he was scheduled to pitch that day.We know that by 1894 Waddell was pitching semi-pro ball all over the Midwest, plus Canada. Finally, his talent proved to almost eclipse his eccentricities, and he was signed in 1897 to the National League’s Louisville Colonels. But, his erratic behavior once again caused the front office to ship him back to the minors, including stints in the Western League’s Detroit and Columbus franchises. But, once again, his amazing talent forced him back into the big leagues. During the final month of the 1899 season, Waddell was brought back up to Louisville where he won 7 of 9 decisions. Louisville then purchased the Pittsburgh franchise, called them the “Pirates”, and together with Waddell, and future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, became an instant force in the National League. At about this same time, the legendary Connie Mack bought into the new American League franchise in Philadelphia, the Athletics, and was looking for a star pitcher. He found one in the talented Waddell, and engineered a trade. From 1902 to 1907, with a few absences to go fishing, Waddell was a star for the Athletics, and a top drawing card for the new American League.
Of course, the fabled Cy Young was the ALs best hurler, but Waddell got most of the press due to his attention-getting strikeout totals. In his time with the Athletics, Waddell was joined by such stars as Nap Lajoie, Lave Cross, Eddie Collins, Eddie Plank, Jack Coombs and Chief Bender. They were a contender every time they stepped on the field.One of the great stories told about Waddell concerns his discovery of future Hall of Fame pitcher Addie Joss. During one of his “gone fishing” absences from the Athletics (reportedly, Mr. Mack had refused to give Waddell permission to skip his Sunday pitching start in order to go fishing), Waddell found himself in Kenosha, Wisconsin, fishing the area and pitching for the local team. Kenosha played its way into the State championship, where Waddell faced off against Racine. Racine, behind this unknown pitcher (a kid named “Joss”), won the game and the trophy. Waddell was so impressed with Joss that he immediately cabled Mr. Mack, begging him to sign Joss for the Athletics. But, Mack already had Plank and Bender (2 future Hall of Famers), and he was sure that Waddell would be back. Mr. Mack may also have considered Waddell’s assessment of Joss to be slightly unreliable due to his left-hander’s “loose cannon” reputation. So, Mr. Mack passed on signing Joss, and the Wisconsin native signed with Cleveland…and, the rest as they say, is history. A note: later, in 1905, Waddell outdueled Joss, 2-0, in a complete game sffort by both pitchers. Considering Waddell’s mental/emotional instability, exacerbated by his debilitating alcoholism, the body of his work on the mound is amazing. His 13-year Won-Lost record is 193-143, and his ERA of 2.16 is 10th all time. His WHIP of 1.10 is also remarkable. He led the American League in strikeouts for 6 straight years, from 1902 to 1907. He also recorded 50 shutouts. From 1902-1905, he won 24, 21, 25 and 27 games.
In 1903, Waddell struck out 302 batters, and in 1904, he set a record for left-handers (349 Ks) that is still the American League record. His consecutive years of 300+ Ks was unmatched until the great Sandy Koufax matched it in 1966. Waddell also set a record in 1902 with a ratio of 3.28:1 Ks to BBs. His Ks per 9 innings is still one of the top averages of all time. His career strikeout total of 2,316 still ranks near the top. In 1905, Waddell won pitching’s Triple Crown with 27 Wins, 287 Ks, and an ERA of 1.48.
In 1900, he pitched a complete game 17-inning win (his triple won the game, 1-0), then promptly left the team to go fishing. Waddell and the incomparable Cy Young hooked up in 2 great classics. In 1907, Waddell outdueled Young in a 20-inning, 1-0, complete game effort by both hurlers. Also, in 1907, the two superstars dueled to a 13-inning tie.
By age 34, Waddell’s health had started to decline, and his great fastball had lost some of its zip. He had been dealt to the St. Louis Browns, where he pitched for 3 seasons. He still had a few magic moments, including one game in which he struck out 16 Athletics in a complete game victory. By 1911, he was pitching in the minor leagues in Minneapolis, and still managed to win 20 games. He was still a fan favorite and top drawing card at the gate.In 1913, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and at age 37, retired from the game. He also contracted pneumonia (he became ill while helping to rescue people from rising flood waters in Kentucky). He then travelled to Elmendorf, Texas, to live with his sister, in order to recuperate. But, his health was too far gone. It was there, on April 1st, 1914, that Waddell passed away. He was only 38 years of age.
Many said that Waddell was the most “unaffected” person they knew. He could never remember how many times he had been married (3 times), but always remembered to look up old friends. He was a very frustrating person to deal with, yet many liked him a great deal. He was generally friendly and very charitable, but he was always governed by his totally unpredictable moods.
Whatever he was, he was indeed one of the most dominant pitchers in the early 20th century of baseball history. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.
Rube Waddell: The First American League Ace!