The Daily Journal
"He was the biggest drawing card in baseball at the turn of the century. He was the talk of the fans and players" - screenwriter Dan O'Brien on baseball great Rube Waddell
Chasing 'THE RUBE'
Greenwood man pens screenplay about one of baseball's most talented - and odd - players
By Annette Jones
Daily Journal Features Editor
Here's a brainteaser for baseball fans:
Who led the American League in strikeouts for six consecutive years from 1902 to 1907?
Hint: The same pitcher garnered 349 strikeouts in 1904, a Major League record until Sandy Koufax broke it in 1965. And our player still holds the American League strikeout record for a single season by a left-handed pitcher.
If you guessed Rube Waddell, you're right.
George Edward Waddell, called "Rube" since the early days of his baseball career, was not only a phenomenal player, but he was one of the oddest characters in the annals of baseball.
How odd was he?
Well, he once failed to show up for a game he was pitching - he was playing marbles with children outside the stadium.
Another time, he left the mound during a game to chase a fire engine.
"He loved fighting fires," says Dan O'Brien of Greenwood, who has written a screenplay based on the years Waddell spent playing for Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.
O'Brien a former TV sportscaster who now writes as a Daily Journal correspondent, has spent the past five years researching Rube's life.
The information he has uncovered through library microfiche, newspaper clippings and magazine articles fills a five-draw file cabinet in his home office. O'Brien has traveled to Pennsylvania, where Waddell was born and spent his early years, and has visited many towns where Waddell played. He found much of his information on microfilm, which - fortunately for him - most libraries loan out. He has become a familiar figure at the Greenwood Library, where he has spent many days researching.
As a veteran television sportscaster - O'Brien won two Associated Press awards for sports documentaries while at WTHR-Channel 13 in Indianapolis, and an Emmy for a series about women in sports while at the NBC affiliate in Miami - O'Brien's first inclination was to write a screenplay or something visual. But with so much information left over, he decided to write a book about one of baseball's most eccentric players.
"He was the biggest drawing card in baseball at the turn of the century," O'Brien says. "He was the talk of the fans and the players."
Born in Bradford, Pa., on Oct. 13,1876, Waddell was the son of an oil gauger who worked for a division of Standard Oil Co. His family followed the oil well industry in Pennsylvania and eventually settled in Prospect, north of Pittsburgh, where Waddell started pitching.
He was a big man - probably 6 feet, 2 inches - and well muscled with great stamina, O'Brien says.
"He would pitch doubleheaders, but that confidence in his stamina ultimately contributed to his was his undoing because he didn't take care of himself."
At 37, Waddell died of tuberculosis in a San Antonio sanitarium. His demise was most likely the result of standing for hours in icy floodwater, helping to erect a sandbag barricade to save a small Kentucky town on the Mississippi River from a spring flood. He contracted a cold that developed into pneumonia and later tuberculosis, dying April 1, 1914.
Mack, who once said Waddell was his favorite player of all time, paid for the player's hospitalization.
O'Brien says he finds Mack's fondness for Waddell quite interesting.
"Connie Mack was very conservative and genteel. Rube was his complete opposite," he says.
Although Waddell attended school and could read and write he was "probably "mentally challenged," O'Brien says.
Besides chasing fire engines Waddell like to hunt, fish lead parades and drink - a lot of the latter, according to some accounts.
"Drinking was a problem, but not the root of his problems," O'Brien says.
Waddell was married three times. He spent time in jail for failure to play alimony and was generally considered unreliable.
"Sometimes he wouldn't even show up when he was scheduled to pitch," O'Brien says. "But this was not an adult who shirked his responsibilities. This was child in a man's body who couldn't comprehend normal adult responsibilities."
In an article written for the Saturday Evening Post, Mack said that when he would enter a ball park, he'd look at the flagpole to see which way the wind was blowing - and then to the dugout to see of Waddell showed up.
Despite it all, two obituaries - one in the Milwaukee Sentinel and one in the Pittsburgh Press - credited Waddell with saving the American League from bankruptcy.
"He earned a fortune for others, and a pittance for himself," the Pittsburgh Press reported.
He was so careless with money that Mack would pay him a little at a time, O'Brien says.
Waddell started his baseball career with the Louisville Eclipses in 1897. From there he went to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900 and the Chicago Orphans (later Cubs) in 1901. While on suspension from Chicago, he signed to pitch for the Los Angeles Looloos of the California League. His most productive years were with Mack and the Athletics from 1902 to 1907.
In 1902 he had, 24 wins, a 2.05 ERA and a league-high 210 strikeouts even though he didn't pitch his first game for Athletics until June 26. He pulled Philadelphia from fourth place to first. During his career his ERA was 2.16, the sixth lowest of all time and the best for a left-handed pitcher. His season low was 1.48 in 1905.
During the seven years Waddell was with the Athletics, he led the league in strikeouts every year. In 1902, when foul balls were not strikeouts, he had 210 strikeouts, The next closest was Cy Young of Boston with 160. Young pitched in 109 more innings than Waddell. Rube led the league by 115 strikeouts in 1903; in 1904 he led by 110.
Waddell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946.
He was the "greatest pitcher in the game," Mack was quoted as saying.
"The pennants in 1902 and 1905 were won for us mainly through the efforts of the Rube," Mack said in a memorial tribute, describing him as "the best-hearted man on our team."
Mack claimed Waddell had the greatest combination of speed and curves he'd ever seen, O'Brien says.
Waddell also loved heroics.
Once when a young centerfielder was knocked unconscious, the crowd stood around him on the field. An ambulance was called but was late arriving. A doctor was afraid the player would die before he reached the hospital. Waddel was the only person who had sense enough to grab the injured player, carry him to the street, where found a carriage to take the player to the hospital, O'Brien says.
The player, Danny Hoffman, recovered and later said Waddell saved his life.
On one spring training trip in Dallas, Waddell disappeared for three days. Mack sent men out looking for him. No luck. But on the third day, Mack was standing on the sidewalk when a hook and ladder truck went clanging by.
"There was Rube, sitting in the driver's seat, dressed in a fireman's uniform," he reported later. Rube had gone to the firehouse to look for a job, and this was his tryout run.
In fact, he often wore a red shirt under his uniform or other clothing in case of a fire.
He loved fishing so much that while he was with Connie Mack in Milwaukee in the minor leagues in 1900, Mack asked Waddell to pitch both games of a double-header in exchange for three days off, so Waddell could go fishing.
Although Waddell's drinking was legendary, O'Brien says he believes it was exaggerated in the press.
Waddell also had a penchant for acting, which he pursued during the off-season. He played a minor role in "The Stain of Guilt" while traveling with a repertory theater group. During one scene, in which Rube saved the damsel in distress, he was required to physically accost the play's villain. Rube was so "realistic" in this endeavor that the theater manager soon had trouble finding willing actors to play the villain.
Waddell's best full season was 1905 before he hurt his shoulder in a foolish incident in Providence, Rhode Island.
"It was tradition that after Labor Day men didn't wear straw hats," O'Brien says.
To pass time while at a train station, Waddell and a teammate began taking straw hats off men where were wearing them and putting their fists through them. During the horseplay, Waddell slipped and fell on his shoulder. The injury kept him from finishing the season, including the World Series, which the A's lost to the Giants in five games.
"There is no evidence that gamblers got to him," as was rumored at the time, O'Brien says. And as Connie Mack said, Waddell had no sense of money. But the player was never quite the same after his injury.
He was traded to St. Louis after the 1907 season. In his first season with the Browns, he beat his old teammates and set a single game strikeout record by fanning 16 Athletics that afternoon.
He played with the Browns until 1910.
While with the Browns, the team hired Waddell to hunt game during the off-season to keep him out of trouble. Always short of money, he got a paycheck, and the Browns' officials got duck and venison.
"I've been intrigued by Rube since I was a kid," O'Brien says. "But I never thought it would turn into an obsession."