We live in a world filled with oddities. Rube Waddell was one of those oddities. If you’re not familiar with Rube, then now is a good time to make his acquaintance. Should we start with the alligator he wrestled? Or perhaps we should dive into one of the many bottles of alcohol that caused him to forget how many women he had been married to? Whatever path we decide to follow you are sure to encounter a man that lived his weird existence to the fullest, however short that existence may have been.
George Edward Waddell was born on Friday the 13th, 1876. George Edward Waddell died on April Fools’ day 1914. If you knew nothing else about the man, you would probably say, “that’s weird”. Even from the very beginning, people knew they had a different sort of person on their hands. Waddell didn’t attend school very often, had trouble staying focused, and spent a good deal of time throwing rocks at birds to strengthen his arm. Most notably, as a toddler, he decided to take leave from his home one day and visit the local firehouse. His frantic parents found him at the firehouse after he had been missing for a few days.
Waddell took to baseball at an early age. Often children refused to play ball with him because he threw so hard they were fearful of being hit and seriously injured. Eventually, Waddell was able to refine his talents and began to make a name for himself. He started out playing on sandlots and quickly graduated to semipro teams. Eventually, in 1897, Rube earned a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Waddell didn’t make it past breakfast with the Pirates. Unfortunately for Rube, he was seated next to Pirates’ manager, Patsy Donovan during a team meal who, upon hearing Rube speak, released him immediately. But, the visiting Louisville Colonels saw promise in Rube and signed him. He made his major league debut on September 8, 1897, losing the game 5-1 to the Baltimore Orioles. Over the next thirteen seasons, he would play for the Colonels, Chicago Cubs, Pirates, Philadelphia Athletics, and St. Louis Browns. During his major league career, he also played for various minor league teams, mostly due to his erratic behavior and managers not being willing to put up with his antics.
While at spring training he was known to disappear for days on end and was once spotted leading a parade down main street. During one of his disappearing acts, he was found wrestling an alligator. Waddell was known to frequently miss starts in favor of fishing trips or a game of marbles with street kids. And while many managers had a hard time with Rube, there was one, Connie Mack of the Athletics, who tolerated him more than the others.
Because of Mack’s patience, Waddell started with the A’s for six seasons in which they won the World Series in 1905. Although, even in victory, Rube would bring his own flavor. Prior to the start of the series, Rube and teammate, Andy Coakley, supposedly had a small fight over a straw hat. The story goes that Waddell fell and injured his shoulder. As a result, he was unable to pitch in the series. But there were numerous rumors that gamblers had paid Waddell not to play.
Whether or not Rube was on the take we may never know. But one thing is for sure, Waddell loved to drink alcohol and spent most of his money on it. As his consumption increased, his value as a player decreased. He missed games because of his drinking and when he showed up he wasn’t in the best shape. He remained with the Athletics for two more seasons following the straw hat incident before signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1908.
And while his skills as a pitcher were starting to wan, he still put up impressive numbers for the Browns in 1908. He won 19 games and was a huge draw at the box office. He boosted the Browns’ home attendance by 48 percent while his former team, the Athletics, saw a 30 percent drop. 1909 proved to be the beginning of the end for Waddell’s major league career. His numbers were unimpressive and by the end of the 1910 season, the Browns released him after pitching in only 10 games.
Rube would go on to play two and a half more seasons of minor league baseball, during which time he contracted pneumonia. Due to his weakened system, he then contracted tuberculosis. Waddell’s condition worsened by the end of 1913 and he was moved to a sanitarium in San Antonio, Texas where his parents lived. Connie Mack and another Athletics partner paid for Waddell’s medical bills. Rube died 34 years after his parents found him at the firehouse. He was a few months shy of his 38th birthday. Waddell may have been a bit odd, but he was the best pitcher of his era. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946. And for the record, he was married three times.
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