Perhaps the best illustration I can give as to why modern Major League Baseball sucks is the story of baseball's greatest strikeout artist and all-around kook, "Rube" Waddell. Beginning in 1898, "The Rube" set just about every pitching record there was, while indulging in antics that, in today's robotic corporate sportsbar world, would have earned him (at best) a promising career as a stadium peanut vendor.
Charles Edward "Rube" Waddell was born in the small, farming community of Bradford, Pennsylvania on October 13, 1876. He died of either pneumonia, tuberculosis, or (depending on your sources) the cumulative effects of lifelong alcoholism on April 1, 1914. In the intervening 38 years, he achieved immortality as America's greatest southpaw pitcher, alligator wrestler, firetruck chaser, actor, bigamist, obsessive fisherman, rugby player, baton-twirling parade leader, Herculean drinker and philanthropic live-saving hero. Perhaps the flakiest, and most undependable major league star of all time, "The Rube" was known to show up drunk for games regularly. His teams would usually play the soused Waddell anyway; with Rube generally pitching brilliantly, but fielding horribly. His penchant for holding marathon marbles sessions with street urchins caused him to be continually late for games. He was prone to running off the mound (and out of the stadium!), mid-windup, in pursuit of passing fire engines. He would often disappear for weeks at a time (once, at the height of the 1905 pennant race), only to reappear with offerings of catfish for his irate managers. Of his loopy star, legendary manager Connie Mack is on record as having once said: "The Rube has a two million dollar body and a two cent head." Papers of the time regularly attributed Waddell’s bizarre behavior to either emotional immaturity, drunkenness, mental retardation, or some strange combination of the three.
Little is known of "The Rube's" youth, other than his birthplace of Bradford, Pennsylvania, and his lack of formal education. He earned an early reputation for erratic behavior, with friends and acquaintances of the lovable, young hick claiming that he was "given to wild pranks and hijinks." Waddell himself would later claim that his childhood hobby was "throwin' rocks at birds," and that this is how he honed his pitching skills.
By age 18, "The Rube" was already a minor league star in Butler, Pennsylvania. There he built his reputation as a good-natured, but fairly simple-minded hick, earning first the nickname "Hayseed," and then "The Rube." Waddell played there for two years before signing for $500 with Louisville in 1896. His career there lasted two days, ending when he was fined $50 by Club Manager Fred Clarke for excessive drinking. Infuriated, "The Rube" packed up and head for the Detroit franchise of the Western League. His career there lasted a more impressive nine games. It was at that point that Waddell was fined $50 for playing a sandlot game with local kids on his day off. "The Rube" disappeared, and is rumored to have finished the season playing for a semi-pro ballclub in Canada. He was sighted later that winter (in what, for many years, would become his off-season gig) wrestling alligators in a traveling circus. Waddell reappeared in the 1899 season with the Western League's Columbus-Grand Rapids team. There, for reasons having as much to do with his 27 wins as with his weird antics, he became a huge draw for fans. Posters advertising his strange behavior helped to fill the stands to capacity. "The Rube" was known for arriving just before game time in his street clothes, and then strolling through the grandstands raising a commotion. He was said to be fond of drinking beer, eating red hots, and sometimes picking fights with the fans. Often, he'd throw free peanuts to kids, and it is said that he would usually change into his uniform as he ran across the diamond to the clubhouse. This was a spectacle all in itself, as "The Rube", it is claimed, never wore any underwear.
Louisville owner/manager Barney Dreyfuss got word of Waddell's current success, and was quick in bringing the overgrown hayseed back to Kentucky. After the 1899 season, Dreyfuss caught word of the National League's consolidation plans, and its intent to shut down his franchise. He bought into the Pittsburgh Pirates and then "traded" all of his star players to his new team. Rube suddenly found himself in the national limelight, playing on a team which boasted such greats as Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke. It is here that he started to truly build his reputation as a pitching giant and a mental midget.
One teammate of this era recalled Rube soaking his left arm in buckets of ice for hours at a time, claiming sincerely that he feared he'd "burn up the catcher's glove" if he didn't "cool it off."
It was also during this period that supposedly, after being fined $100 by one of his many distraught managers, Waddell incredulously asked the man why. His response was “it was for that disgraceful hotel episode in Detroit." To which Rube responded: "You're a liar! There ain't no Hotel Episode in Detroit!"
Waddell led the league in 1900 with a 2.37 E.R.A., however, racked up an unimpressive 8-13 record. More disturbingly, many of his defeats came as a direct result of his high rate of errors. It is suspected that Rube's pathetic fielding abilities may have been related to his pre-game hijinks at local taverns, where he was known to suck down the suds and don an apron to play impromptu celeb bartender. Some say that it was this inconsistency in Waddell's performance that caused player-manager Fred Clarke to suspend him in late June of that year. Others claim that it was Rube's habit of packing pistols on the road, and threatening to shoot his boss full of holes. Regardless, Waddell soon found himself playing for an independent team in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
Legendary Manager Connie Mack, upon hearing of Rube's availability, immediately signed him for his franchise, the Milwaukee Athletics. Under Mack's stern tutelage, Waddell finally began to excel. In one of his most famous feats, after pitching a 17-inning game (one won by his own triple), "The Rube" turned around and pitched the second game of a doubleheader, completely shutting out the opposing team. This Herculean feat, it turns out, was performed in lieu of a Connie Mack promise of an all expense paid three day fishing trip.
When it became apparent that "The Rube" had straightened himself out, the Pirates demanded his return. Little did they know, he was the same old hayseed. Within two games they dropped him, with Fred Clarke demanding of owner Barney Dreyfuss: "Sell him, release him, drop him off the Monongahela Bridge; do anything with him you like, so long as you get him off my ball team!"
The next two years were marked by more team changes due to a mixture of strange contractual arrangements, and "The Rube's" own general flakiness. He spent the majority of the 1901 season with the Chicago Orphans, until he was suspended for erratic behavior. It seems that his habit of running off the field in pursuit of passing fire engines played an integral role in his disappointing 13-15 record. He later spent a month playing semi-pro ball in Wisconsin, and then traveled to the West Coast with a barnstorming group of big leaguers. Once in California he refused to leave, signing on with a Los Angeles franchise for the beginning of the 1902 season.
It was there, in mid-June, that two Pinkerton guards, under the employ of now Philadelphia Athletics chieftain Connie Mack, tracked him down and dragged him back to Pennsylvania. Mack, realizing that he was the only man capable of controlling Waddell, bought what was left of his Chicago contract, and tried his best to put "The Rube" (at least during the season) under virtual house arrest. Off-seasons were nearly as strict, with Mack forbidding his star pitcher from returning to Florida and his off-season circus career as an alligator wrestler. Instead, for additional income, Waddell ended up playing rugby for a nearby Pennsylvania team. Under these circumstances, Waddell flourished. He entered into a period of stability that saw him lead the league in strikeouts every year from 1902 to 1907. He was still the same small town farm boy (albeit one who was possibly mentally retarded, and suffering from a weird fascination with fire engines) but "The Rube" was now playing legendary ball. By now, his only competition on the mound was his immortal Hall-of-Famer contemporary, Cy Young. His popularity flourished as well. The citizens of Philadelphia loved him. They delighted in a star who would show up at saloons, and then work the bar. The fact that he was known to play almost as much ball with worshipful local kids as with his professional counterparts only endeared him to the city more. He was especially popular with the local firefighters, who actually put him up in local firehouses for days at a time.
Many speculate that it was from these firefighters that Rube earned his reputation for heroism. After saving two drowning men while on a duck hunting trip, stories of Waddell's penchant for lifesaving began to circulate. Though totally unverifiable, reports are that "The Rube" may have, throughout his brief life, saved as many as thirteen lives. One such account (as reported in a 1905 issue of the Philadelphia Daily News) documents an incident in which the hayseed, while thoroughly enjoying himself on a houseboat cocktail party, responded to a frantic cry for help. Faster than you can say, "free agent," Waddell dived into the frigid waters and succeeded in rescuing a passing log.
After the 1903 season, Rube took a turn at bad acting. He toured the nation in the vaudeville play, The Stain of Guilt, garnering critical acclaim not so much for his thespian abilities (he was allowed by his fellow actors to improvise his lines--as he was incapable of remembering them), but for his ability to "throw a villain twice as far as Kyle Bellew." Like later athletic actors, Michael "A Cartoon Bunny Can Out-Act Me" Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, Waddell was able to parlay his stage success into higher wages at the ballpark. In 1904 he recorded a $150 yearly pay raise from the Philadelphia Athletics.
That year, "The Rube" also inspired one of the first extended Major League contract negotiations on record. Not his own, mind you, but those of his catcher and roommate Ossie Schreckengost. In those less sordid days, ballplayers generally roomed two to a room (sharing the same bed) while on the road. "The Schreck," fed up with the nocturnal habits of his teammate, refused to renew his contract until the Athletic’s inserted a "no eating crackers in bed" clause in both their contracts. Despite Rube's objections, Connie Mack gave in, and Schreckengost's contract was renewed.
1904 was a banner year for the hayseed. It was the year that Rube set baseball's all-time strikeout record of 349, which stood until Sandy Koufax broke it 61 years later. The 1905 season saw an epic duel of the pitchers, with Rube besting Cy Young in a marathon 20-inning throwfest. Rube would later take that game ball and parlay it for free booze at a local tavern. In fact, after his death, more than fifty bars across the country would lay claim to owning a Cy Young game ball.
It was during this period that Waddell's personal life began to mirror his previously unstable professional life. Within one three day period, "The Rube" was cited as a hero for preventing a serious fire in a crowded department store (he picked up a blazing oil stove and carried it from the building), fled town to avoid assault charges (he attacked and badly injured his father-in-law), saved the life of teammate Danny Hoffman (who had been hit in the head by a wild pitch), and was arrested on bigamy charges ("The Rube" forgot to divorce his first wife). He later would be cleared of all charges, but this was the beginning of the decline of his fortunes.
Waddell, though leading his team to the 1905 World Series, was unable to pitch due to a season ending injury. This, apparently, was incurred when Rube ridiculed a teammate's new straw hat. The two men ended up wrestling on the crowded floor of a cross country train, with Waddell injuring his pitching arm. Rumors flew that gamblers had gotten to Rube, paying him to keep out of the series. Eventually, the story circulated that a New York betting syndicate had put Waddell up in a Manhattan penthouse with a group of showgirls while the Athletics were demolished by the Giants, four games to one.
Though defended by Mack, "The Rube" would never overcome these rumors, and they would eventually play a part in his 1908 trade to the fledgling St. Louis Browns. There, he would set a single-game strikeout record of 16--against his former teammates, but have an otherwise mediocre season. The Browns' front office, in order to keep Waddell out of trouble, hired him as a hunter for the off-season. Rube managed to avoid scandal for the first time in years, and kept his employers well stocked with duck and venison.
Rube's drinking continued to escalate, however, and culminated in a 1909 game against New York in which he passed out on the mound after giving up a home run. St. Louis released him in 1910, and Waddell briefly found himself pitching for the Eastern League's Newark franchise. When that didn't pan out, Rube moved to Minneapolis to play for Joe Cantillon's Millers. Though reduced to minor league ball, Waddell enjoyed his status as the big fish in a little pond, and developed a close friendship with his new manager.
Never quite able to look after himself, Rube soon moved in with Joe Cantillon's family. It is while living there in 1912 that a nearby dike broke and Waddell immediately volunteered to help stack sandbags to block the rushing stream. Standing armpit-deep in freezing waters for 13 hours, Waddell contracted a nasty case of pneumonia from which he never quite fully recovered. Plagued by constant illness, which was exacerbated by his incessant drinking, he pitched poorly for the Minneapolis Millers in 1913. Concerned by the drastic decline of "The Rube's" health, friend and manager Cantillon sent Waddell to a San Antonio tuberculosis sanitarium in early 1914. It was there, on April Fools Day 1914, that Charles Edward "Rube" Waddell died. Penniless, he was originally buried in an unmarked grave in a San Antonio potter's field. Within months, a number of Waddell's more well-to-do baseball friends passed the hat and provided him with a simple gravestone. Former teammate Ossie Schreckengoest provided the insightful epitaph for the headstone: "Rube Waddell had only one priority, to have a good time."
Garrick H.S. Brown is the author of The Wit & Wisdom of Saddam Hussein and Leadership Principles of the Marquis De Sade. He resides in a tool shed in Irvine, California, and is currently hard at work on a screenplay, Schindler’s Other List.