The Indianapolis Star
OLD PITCHER THROWS LOCAL MAN A CURVE
Decision To Research Player Turns Into Obsession
By Curt Cavin
GREENWOOD, Ind.-Rube Waddell was baseball's superstar before Babe Ruth. Dan O'Brien of Greenwood knows him well.
OK, so O'Brien doesn't really know Waddell. but there are times when researching the legendary pitcher that he feels like he does.
O'Brien and Waddell have been inseparable since 1994, when O'Brien decided to write the player's life story. Last year, O'Brien realized how close he had grown to his study.
O'Brien was in Texas, reading newspaper accounts of how Waddell died in San Antonio of a bout with tuberculoses. His weight dropped steadily and he suffered. Despite the gap of 80-plus yeas, O'Brien felt himself on the verge of crying.
"It was like the death of a friend or relative." he said. "It's a strange feeling to feel so close to someone who's been dead 84 years."
O'Brien, a former WTHR (Channel 13) sports, reporter and producer, has been researching Waddell intensely since attending baseball's '94 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. near where Waddell was born.
O'Brien has practically lived in libraries throughout the country since, studying the diverse accounts of Waddell. O'Brien once came across a self-proclaimed Waddell historian in central Pennsylvania, but a funny thing happened: The affable O'Brien did most of the informing.
O'Brien has written a screenplay that he hopes Hollywood will turn into a movie. A book is in the works. Last year, O'Brien quit his job at Citizens Gas to make time for his passion.
"I think Rube's the most unique character in the history of sports," he said. "His story is a natural. It's become an obsession with me, and I've probably gone way overboard, but I think it's worth it."
The lives of O'Brien and Waddell aren't much alike. While O'Brien is intelligent and 'well-spoken, Waddell was backward and quiet. Baseball writers of Waddell's day said the left-hander had a million-dollar pitching arm and a 10-cent brain. He always was more at ease with youngsters.
Waddell's talent helped him become one of the greatest pitchers. He struck out 349 batters in a season, a record that stands today for left-handers. In 1902, when foul balls were not counted as strikes, Waddell joined the Philadelphia Athletics with 87 games to go. He fanned 210 batters in pushing Connie Mack's team from fourth place to the pennant. Waddell was so confident that in exhibition games he often instructed his defenders to leave the field.
Waddell was eccentric but not contrived. He was born on Friday the 13th and died on April Fools' Day. He often tricked bartenders into free drinks by offering them the baseball he used to whip Cy Young. But the token was any old ball he could find.
Waddell had a soft side. too. When teammate Danny Hoffman was hit on the head with a pitch and knocked unconscious, Waddell carried him to medical treatment.
Hoffman credited Waddell with saving his life, but he wasn't the only one who made that claim. Waddell plunged into a burning Washington stable to save the lives of humans and horses. O'Brien has at least 10 documented cases of Waddell's heroism.
Like O'Brien today, people were drawn to him. Through his popularity, Waddell Is credited with saving the financially strapped American League.
When the Mississippi River flooded Hickman, Ky., in 1912, Waddell stood for hours in icy waters to place sandbags. He contracted a severe cold that led to tuberculosis and his death two years later.
O'Brien has traced Waddell's path through newspaper accounts stored on microfilm. When a library mails a reel, he spends days poring through It.
With every bit of information, O'Brien finds inconsistencies that the journalist in him. History has a way of embellishing the truth.
O'Brien cannot estimate the amount of time and money he's invested.
"That's not the point," he said. "I have no wife, no mortgage and no kids. If I can't pursue a dream like this, who can?"
O'Brien isn't sure when, or if, this journey will end. The four drawers of newspaper clippings bulge, and yet O'Brien searches for more. He still wants to visit Waddell's grave site.
When he wrote the screenplay. there were gaps that had to be bridged. He often had to create transitions. part of the difficulty of turning a century-old story into a two-hour movie.
Fittingly, O'Brien has since discovered facts to back up his fiction.
"It's scary, really," he said. "I know Rube so well that it's a ghost like I'm in his mind."