The Eccentric Life of Rube Waddell

The history of professional baseball is full of players with colorful personalities. Athletes like Mark Fidrych, Rickey Henderson, and Jose Lima have made the game of baseball entertaining throughout time. However, none might have been as quirky as Hall-of-Fame pitcher Rube Waddell.

George “Rube” Waddell pitched in Major League Baseball during the turn of the 20th Century. In a career that spanned from 1897 to 1910, he played for the Louisville Colonels, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Athletics, and St. Louis Browns. He amassed a pitching record of 193-143, an ERA of 2.16, and recorded 2,316 strikeouts. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.

Rube Waddell’s Hall of Fame Plaque / National Baseball Hall of Fame

As accomplished as Waddell was on the pitcher’s mound, it was Waddell’s quirkiness that left a mark in baseball lore. “Known to occasionally miss a scheduled start because he was off fishing or playing marbles with street urchins, Waddell might disappear for days during spring training, only to be found leading a parade down the main street of Jacksonville, Florida, or wrestling an alligator in a nearby lagoon,” said Dan O’Brien of SABR.

Born on October 13, 1876, Waddell grew up in the countryside of Pennsylvania. He didn’t attend school often, and it is believed that he strengthened his arm by throwing rocks at birds on his parents’ farm.

He played on numerous teams before breaking into Major League Baseball in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels. His eccentricity was known then, as he would leave games halfway through to go fishing and pause games to run after fire trucks as they passed by. Opposing fans would also attempt to distract Waddell by bringing their dogs to games he was slated to pitch, as Waddell was known to stop what he was doing and climb into the stands to pet dogs that he saw. His eccentric behavior continued into his professional career, where he spent little time between the Colonels, Pirates, and Cubs before joining the Athletics halfway through the 1902 season.

Legendary manager Connie Mack was in the middle of building a championship team when he acquired Waddell. It was here that Mack was able to tame Waddell to a certain extent. Under Mack’s tutelage, he led the league in strikeouts every year between 1902 and 1907, including 349 strikeouts in 1904, a record that stood for 61 years. Waddell also won the pitching triple crown, leading the American League in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. He was retroactively awarded a tie for the league lead in saves, making him one of only three pitchers in MLB history to unofficially win the quadruple crown.

Despite these successes, Mack still had a difficult time controlling Waddell. Mack suspended him for the last month of the 1903 season for pitching for semi-professional teams during the year. Also, in the offseason before the 1905 campaign, Waddell was under indictment for assault with a deadly weapon. Although he was being investigated, a bargain was made that allowed him to finish the 1905 season before legal proceedings began. Eventually he would go to trial in January 1906, but the case would be dismissed.

Many of Waddell’s situations off the field also led to his reputation of uncontrolled behavior. After the 1903 season, Waddell was offered a role in the traveling show called “The Stain of Guilt.” On the night of Tuesday, October 26, Waddell missed that night’s performance in Chicago to go see a rivaling show that featured lions. At some point during the show, Waddell became mad at one of the lions and punched it. In retaliation, the lion bit Waddell on his left hand, which was his pitching hand. The bite was not significant, and Waddell fully healed.

Article explaining the lion incident. / Medium

Waddell was also married three times officially, although there may have been more, as Waddell was quoted as saying that he had lost track of how many wives he married. He suffered from alcoholism, which heavily affected each of his marriages. He was even sued by one of his former wives for bigamy, however the case was dropped when it was proved their divorce was official.

Waddell would only pitch in the majors until 1910, when his behavior and substance abuse drove him out of the league. In both 1912 and 1913, Hickman, Ky. suffered floods that devastated the town. In both occasions, Waddell was one of the heroes, rescuing many of the townspeople. These heroic deeds led to two bouts of pneumonia and an eventual diagnosis of tuberculosis. These health problems eventually led to Waddell’s death on April 1, 1914.

In recent reflection, those analyzing Waddell’s career and life, such as Bill James, have suggested that Waddell’s erratic behavior was the result of an undiagnosed personality disorder, such as attention deficit disorder, or ADD.

Waddell was honored with election into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946 by the Veterans Committee. Although Waddell didn’t have the typical statistics that warranted election at that time, such as 300 wins, the Committee elected him for his contributions to the early game and his drawing power to bring fans to games.

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