The Great Waddell
It is difficult to beat the Great Waddell.
Baseball has provided its fans with no shortage of highly eccentric and unquestionably colorful characters throughout its great history.
From the high flying back flips of Ozzie Smith to “Ricky being Ricky,” to that perfectly profound Yogi-ism that really makes you think. Pitchers like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych who would quite literally converse with the ball while on the mound, and yes, even the unforgettable moment of Jim Piersall celebrating his 100th career home run by trotting the bases backwards.
All of these ballplayers and many others have brought a form of secondary entertainment to the sport with their unique personalities, much to the delight of generations of fans. In fact, it may be difficult to choose who your favorite quirky baseball figure is. There is one thing that remains certain, however – it is difficult to beat the Great Waddell.
George Edward Waddell, or “Rube” as was his nickname, was born October 13, 1876 in
Bradford, Pennsylvania, and is without question one of the most remarkably noteworthy men to have played professional baseball. Volumes have been written about his short life and the daily adventures he partook in, all while possessing one of the finest lefthanded pitching arms of his era. While it was clear that Waddell was an absolutely exceptional talent to anyone who followed the game, there is no doubt that his truly one of a kind and at times bizarre behavior served as one of the most alluring draws in the game. It is fair to say that Rube Waddell had something of a genuine celebrity status among the ever-growing world of baseball.
The dominance which Waddell displayed over the course of his career cannot be overlooked when discussing the most fearsome pitchers of all time. Some might go as far to say that he was very much before his time given his eye popping strikeout totals. In today’s game we have become quite accustomed to a high rate of strikeouts in return for things such as launch angle, drawing walks and working pitch counts, and of course, maximum power. However, during the time which Waddell pitched, the entire strategy of the game was precisely the opposite of what we encounter today. Extremely high rates of contact were absolutely crucial and strikeouts in general, and of course power numbers as we know beginning in the era of the game changing Babe Ruth, were incredibly low.
Waddell commanded a very effective arsenal of pitches, though it was his electric fastball and sharp power curve which would cause the American League so much misery during much of the first decade of the 20th century. At a time when strikeouts were astronomically lower throughout the game, Waddell provided staggering strikeout figures with stunning consistency, having led the American League in strikeouts for six consecutive seasons (1902-1907). In a particularly powerful showing on July 1, 1902 while facing the Baltimore Orioles, this being Waddell’s first season as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, he would become only the second pitcher to strike out three batters in one inning while requiring only the minimum number of nine pitches to do so.
Waddell, however, was not a one dimensional pitcher whose primary claim to fame were his high strikeout totals and quirky personality. He was an extremely well rounded pitcher. As a display of his overall quality, Waddell would capture the American League triple crown in 1905, leading the league in wins, earned run average, and strikeouts (27 W – 1.48 ERA – 287 K). In a rare occurrence, the 1905 season produced a triple crown winner in both the American and National Leagues, with the legendary Christy Mathewson capturing the rare feat for the New York Giants as well (31 W – 1.27 ERA – 206 K). On an amazing sidenote, Mathewson would go on to capture a second triple crown three years later in 1908 (37 W – 1.43 ERA – 259 K). Needless to say, it is clear Waddell’s performance on the mound placed him in exquisite company.
Waddell’s talent was evident rather quickly when in his first season with Pittsburgh in 1900 he led the league in ERA at the age of 23, finishing the year with an impressive 2.37 mark. But, it was when Waddell crossed paths with fabled Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack that his talents would reach their pinnacle. This relationship would be highly unique with Mack spending several years trying to reign in this diamond in the rough and to keep Waddell grounded as much as possible.
Considered by many as the rookie card of Waddell, predated only by two large format issues W600 and M101-1, the E107 type 1 series is considered to be extreme rarities and can be particularly difficult to procure.
Mack had a very good understanding of his players and their individual tendencies on a personal level and knew exactly what he wanted in a ball player. He would have a highly unique challenge on his hands with the future Hall of Fame southpaw. Mack did not rule over his players with an iron fist by any means and gave them a good deal of freedom, which certainly would have been beneficial to a player like Rube Waddell.
Mack managed to get very early returns with Waddell when in the summer of 1900 he requested to borrow him from the Pirates to pitch for his Milwaukee Brewers, whom he managed from 1897-1900. On August 19 Waddell pitched the first game of a double header for Mack, going seventeen innings and hitting a run scoring triple to secure victory in game one. Mack then propositioned Waddell to pitch the back end of the double header in return for a three-day fishing trip, to which Waddell responded by pitching a shutout. Waddell would be returned to the Pirates shortly thereafter, however it would not be long before he and Mack would be reunited.
After being suspended by future Pirates Hall of Fame player and manager Fred Clarke in 1900, he was ultimately sold to the Chicago Orphans of the National League in 1901. He would be reunited with one of his former managers Tom Loftus in Chicago, and pitched quality ball for his new club (14 W – 2.81 ERA – 168 K – 28 GS/ 26 CG). Unfortunately, and in increasingly predictable fashion, he was suspended and would see his time in Chicago come to a close the very same year it began. At the advice of teammate and future Cubs Hall of Famer Frank Chance and umpire and minor league manager Joe Cantillon, Waddell traveled with a barnstorming club to California and would ultimately join the Los Angeles Loo Loo’s of what was to soon become the Pacific Coast League. These bumps in the road were all short lived, however, and Waddell’s greatest days in baseball were about to begin via a familiar face.
As Connie Mack began the process of building his eventual dynasty as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, he was tasked with assembling a competitive pitching staff. Many spectacular arms would grace his rotation during this time including future Hall of Fame standouts Chief Bender and Eddie Plank. However going into the 1902 season, Plank was only one year into his career and Bender would not debut until the following year in 1903. Needless to say, Connie Mack was badly in need of quality arms for his club. So intensely did he covet arms, he would proceed to send two private detectives to California to locate Waddell and convince him to come join Mack and the A’s organization across the country in Philadelphia. Mack would not be denied and successfully secured his pitcher who would immediately help the Athletics to secure the 1902 American League pennant (World Series play did not begin until the following year in 1903).
A tremendous example from the improbable and miraculous Black Swamp Find of 2012 in Ohio, featuring the discovery of roughly 600 wonderfully preserved cards from the E98 series. At the time of discovery, this essentially doubled the total population of PSA graded cards and marks an absolutely tremendous find for the hobby.
What Waddell produced on the mound for the Athletics during the 1902-1907 seasons was truly something to behold. During this time frame he managed to post a Win – Loss record of 131-82, good for a .615 winning percentage, a sparkling ERA of 1.97, the aforementioned eye-popping strikeout total of 1576 highlighted by 349 K during the 1904 season, all while completing 168 of 212 starts, and producing 37 shutouts. Put simply, Waddell was an absolute beast on the mound and served as the most exciting source to draw crowds that there was. Truly, he was one of the first genuine celebrity figures in the game and was sending shockwaves through baseball, thrilling fans and bedazzling opposing hitters at the same time. Major League Baseball was learning quickly – it is very difficult to beat the Great Waddell.
It was despite this unquestionable greatness that Waddell would routinely test the boundaries and patience of seemingly every person he encountered. Waddell would go on to have a total of three wives in his short and storied life, sadly struggling mightily in each of his relationships. He would often drink heavily which influenced his behaviors to extreme levels, however history offers us a picture of a man who potentially suffered from at least some degree of cognitive dysfunction. While there is no definitive diagnosis available pertaining to Waddell’s mental state, there is no question that these issues plagued him immensely throughout his life and tragically sunk him into a downward spiral from which he was unable to escape.
On the field Waddell continued to dominate for Mack’s now powerhouse Athletics club. However, his constant penchant for adventure and at times outlandish behavior, or misadventures as Mack likely saw them, would ultimately prove too much to overcome as the years went on.
Waddell’s 1903 campaign came and went in spectacularly action-packed fashion, with stories of
Waddell sleeping in a New Jersey firehouse to begin the year and working as a bartender in West Virginia by its conclusion. In the words of baseball historian Lee Allen, Waddell would court, marry, and become separated during the 1903 season, all while touring the country in a vaudeville show called The Stain of Guilt which was met with critical acclaim – despite Waddell unable to remember his lines. For good measure, he would find time to save a woman from drowning, shot his friend through the hand accidentally, and managed to sustain a bite from a lion. There are some who have challenged these accounts, perhaps due to how unbelievable the life story of Rube Waddell is. After all, this was a man who was said to have wrestled alligators in a travelling circus during an offseason. Still, the more we learn of Waddell, he gives you a genuine feeling that almost anything is possible and nothing impossible.
As was commonplace in the early days of baseball, players would share hotel rooms during road trips. Waddell was paired with his personal catcher and friend Ossee Schreckengost, or Ossee Schreck for short. Comically and somewhat famously, Schreck did reach a particular breaking point with Waddell over Rube’s penchant for eating crackers in bed, resulting in crumbs in the sheets. So frustrated by this was Scheck that he demanded that a clause be placed into his contract which stated that under no circumstance was Waddell allowed to eat crackers in bed. Seriously, he actually had this no cracker clause written into his contract. Despite this scenario and the erosion of their relationship over time, as was sadly a very common theme for Waddell, it is fair to say that Waddell and Schreck seemed to share a good bond with one another during their years together.
A selection from the T206 issue featuring the popular ``portrait`` pose, Schreck is included in the 350 subjects portion of the set and is depicted in his Columbus uniform near the end of his professional career.
Waddell produced a stellar 1904 campaign for Mack’s Athletics, providing them 383 innings pitched while striking out an absolutely gaudy 349 batters. He would win 25 decisions while finishing the season with a miniscule 1.62 ERA to go along with 8 shutouts. Following his astounding 1904 production with a Triple Crown the following season, Waddell was producing on the mound at an absolutely elite level and drawing fans at unparalleled levels. However, it was during this historic 1905 season that the wheels would seemingly be set in motion which would ultimately seal Waddell’s fate. In short, his personality would simply become too much to bear for those around him.
In what must have been a particularly eyebrow raising moment for Connie Mack, it was late August during a road trip in St. Louis when he encountered a caller at his hotel room in the wee hours of the morning. Mack would find himself face to face with a highly intoxicated Waddell who had just returned from an excursion to the amusement park, offering some of his
“Pazzazza” sandwich to his manager. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “maybe it was just a really great sandwich that he wanted to share with Mack.” In that case, you would be wrong, as a “Pazzazza” sandwich is described as consisting of limburger cheese and stale onions.
One can only imagine what was going through Mack’s head in that moment. It is easy to picture the stoic Mack dressed in a fine robe for his mysterious visitor. Perhaps he even donned his iconic top hat for the late-night caller. Probably not, but who knows?
It was this incident which likely served as an indicator to Mack that Waddell’s behavior was becoming more and more erratic. From this point on Mack insisted that Rube’s hotel room be adjacent to his so that he might keep a closer eye on him. Additionally, Mack appointed team trainer Frank Newhouse to watch over Waddell. Newspapers referred to him as Waddell’s “keeper.” Waddell had first met Newhouse during his train ride from California when he was en route to his new team in Philadelphia in 1902. Unfortunately, this move would ultimately prove to be insufficient in reigning in the unpredictable pitcher.
Things quickly went from bad to much, much worse on September 8, 1905. Waddell was knocked out of his start earlier in the day after struggling and was said to have sat with the fans in the bleachers afterwards instead of the dugout or clubhouse, described as being odd behavior even for Waddell. But it is what occurred after the game, or perhaps never occurred according to some, that would bring about big, big trouble for Waddell and the A’s.
The first of two examples issued of Waddell in the W600 series, this being the ``street clothes`` variation and one of the very first cards created of the legendary Hall Of Famer along with the M101-1. W600's were issued from 1902-11 and are considered quite rare and substantial, having only been issued via the mail.
As the story goes, Waddell would attempt to snatch the straw hat right off of teammate Andy Coakley’s head while at the train station, somehow injuring Waddell’s shoulder in the process. This story has been debated by reporters who traveled with the team at the time who later interviewed Coakley about the situation. Further, this came just days after rumors began to swirl that new Giants legendary Hall of Fame manager John McGraw, through associates, would attempt to send Waddell away on a fishing trip so that he would miss the upcoming World Series. This was something that created a snowball effect and was now being talked about in multiple newspapers, even creating the question for gamblers – “would Waddell pitch in the series?”
While there has never been any proof that Waddell faked an injury to avoid pitching in the World Series, rumors began to heat up, with some news outlets informing their readers it would be unwise to place their bets until it was known which players would be participating in the World Series. While Mack would defend Waddell in regards to his potentially lying about his encounter and ensuing injury in the incident with Coakley, he did pose the following extremely damning quote due to what Mack felt was Waddell’s lack of commitment to the team and excessive drinking, as quoted in the October 1, 1905 edition of the Philadelphia North American:
“I won’t need you anymore Rube. You can spend the rest of the season amongst the breweries or anywhere you want.”
Ouch. But suddenly, a miracle would occur. Only two days later Waddell announced after rushing to the ballpark that he had heard a click in his left shoulder whilst shaving, and miraculously all of his pain had disappeared. He went as far as to bring his wife with him so that she too could tell the story of the miraculous click in Waddell’s shoulder during his morning shave. Mack was not buying it, and while his teammates, most frustrated and resentful over the ordeal, stated that Rube was physically fit to play in their opinion. Ultimately, Waddell would not pitch in the 1905 World Series, and the Athletics would lose in crushing fashion to John McGraw’s New York Giants, who were led by Waddell’s fellow Triple Crown winner Christy Mathewson. Notably, Mathewson would proceed to pitch shutouts for his team in all three of his World Series appearances in the 1905 series, a truly remarkable feat.
Cracker Jack cards were issued in 1914 and 1915, with the 1914 examples typically selling for a premium over their 1915 counterpart. Many examples from 1914 will show noticeable staining due to the sugar content of the Cracker Jack's they came with, however unstained 1915 examples can be far more easy to obtain due to the fact they could be acquired as a full set in the mail for the sum of ten cents.
Whether or not there is any truth to Waddell having accepted a bribe to fake an injury and miss World Series play has, again, never been proven by any acceptable metric. However, the tone was set and there were some seriously bad vibes which began to quickly stew. While many believed the Athletics suffered from fatigue due to clinching quite late in the season after a close race with the Chicago White Sox, compared to the Giants who clinched with time to spare, some believed perhaps there was something much deeper at play. Whatever the feeling was in regards to any potential foul play, the feeling of dismay amongst the Athletics and even American League President Ban Johnson was palpable. Johnson would offer the following quote of the A’s 1905 World Series performance and the absence of Waddell shortly after completion of the series, as quoted in the October 15, 1905 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“It seems to me that the Athletics did not play up to the excellent form they showed toward the close of the American League season. They played with lightning speed then, but there was a noticeable diminution in the rapidity of play this week. Perhaps the defection of Rube Waddell discouraged the players.”
Regardless of Waddell’s stunning success over the past several seasons it was becoming clear that the handwriting was on the wall. There was a shadow which now followed the once celebrated pitcher much greater than his own. Having alienated his teammates and manager, Waddell’s image began to change rapidly as many had simply had enough of what they deemed to be irresponsible and selfish behavior which they felt may have cost them a World Championship. Word began to surface that Mack was seeking a trade partner for his once prized asset but with very little interest. Frank Navin, who served as secretary for Detroit Tigers at the time and who would later become owner of the club was quoted in the October 27, 1905 edition of Grand Rapids Press as saying he “wouldn’t give 30 cents for Waddell.”
Waddell continued to pitch for the Athletics for two more seasons in 1906-1907, albeit on a considerably reduced salary. While Waddell struggled down the stretch of 1906, finishing the final month of the season with a 2-6 win loss record, his overall body of work remained quality by all statistical measures. During his final two seasons pitching for Philadelphia, Waddell produced a 34-30 win loss record, gave his team well over 500 innings pitched while striking out more than 400 batters, all while completing 42 of his starts highlighted by 15 shutouts. He was still quite effective and was only in his age 30 season at this point. Still, none of this would be enough to merit continuing their relationship with Waddell in the eyes of the Philadelphia Athletics, and what many around the game thought was coming finally came to fruition in early 1908.
One of two cards featuring Waddell from what is arguably the pinnacle of all baseball card sets, the 1909-11 T206 White border issue. Waddell is featured toward the end of his career sporting a St. Louis Brown's uniform and shown in the highly popular ``portrait`` pose.
Waddell was sent away from the A’s for good on February 7, 1908 in exchange for $5,000. He would go from the highly competitive Athletics organization to the St. Louis Browns, an organization which was typically operating close to or in last place with regularity. Shortly after the move, Mack did not mince words in his reasoning for shipping Waddell away:
“While I still consider Waddell a great pitcher, I figure my team has been considerably strengthened by his sale. There was not the best of feeling between Waddell and several of the players, and as harmony is the chief essential to success he was disposed of to St. Louis.”
For context, Waddell was still pitching at a high level upon his “disposal” from the A’s organization. The St. Louis Browns, who in Rube’s first year pitching for them in 1908, managed an 83-69 win-loss record, a considerable improvement from their 69-83 record the previous year, and a strong improvement from their usual production. Rube served the Browns exceptionally in 1908, posting a 19-14 record to go along with 232 strikeouts and a sparkling 1.89 ERA, highlighted by 5 shutouts and tying what was the single game strikeout record for the time with 16 against his old A’s teammates. He would pitch well in 1909, including another 5 shutouts, however the Browns quickly regressed to their losing ways finishing the season with a 61-89 record. In any event, Waddell was a huge draw in St. Louis who instantly saw a sharp increase in fan attendance.
Browns owner Robert Hedges, perhaps taking a play from Connie Mack’s playbook, implemented the plan of hiring Waddell for hunting trips during the 1908 and 1909 offseasons in the hopes this would keep Waddell out of any serious trouble. Unfortunately, these fixes only proved temporary as they always did with Waddell. With his heavy drinking continuing and problems in his personal life, Waddell continued to spiral downwards, including a reported incident of him passing out during a game in 1909, another claim which has been disputed. Waddell would remain with the Browns until August 1910 before his release, pitching very little that season. At the age of 33, his major league career had come to an unceremonious end. He would finish the season pitching minor league ball alongside future Hall of Famer Joe McGinnity in Newark.
In 1911, Waddell was reunited with a familiar face in Joe Cantillon, the man who along with Frank Chance invited Waddell to pitch in California before he was whisked away by Mack and his Pinkerton agents. Pitching for Cantillon’s Minneapolis Millers, Waddell proved he could still pitch by producing a 20-win season and helping to lead the team to an American Association Championship. Waddell would live with his manager at his farm in Kentucky during the offseason, which unbeknownst to all parties involved would help to seal Waddell’s unfortunate and very untimely fate.
Having already saved a woman from drowning and in a separate incident preventing what could have been a significant fire by heroically lifting a burning stove and hurling it into a snowbank, Waddell seemed to have a keen knack for saving everyone’s life but his own. Yet again he would find himself in a situation where he could save the lives of others, and he would not pass on the opportunity. Sadly, this decision would ultimately cost Waddell his life.
Rounding out Waddell's representation from the iconic T206 issue is the colorful ``throwing`` pose, an image which would also be used in Waddell's T3 Turkey Red issue. T206 were included in various brands of cigarettes from 1909-11 with the set being most famous for the exceptionally rare and sight after Honus Wagner.
It was during the spring of 1912 that an intense flood threatened Waddell’s now hometown of Hickman, Kentucky, which sat on the bend of the Mississippi River. For hours, Waddell would selflessly stand in ice cold water stacking sandbags to help divert the incoming floods. While it is believed his actions that day helped to save lives, this incident led to Waddell contracting a terrible case of pneumonia which developed into tuberculosis. Gamer that he was, he would continue to pitch briefly – however his health continued to deteriorate and he was unable to regain his full strength, made worse by another flood in Hickman the next year. Sadly, by winter of 1913, Waddell had become so ill and so weak he could no longer care for himself.
Waddell was sent to a sanitarium in San Antonio, TX so that he may be closer to his family in this dire time. Cantillon provided Waddell the funds to reach his destination. On a touching note, two of Waddell’s former superiors, manager Connie Mack and Athletics owner Ben Shibe, covered the cost of Waddell’s medical expenses, informing the hospital: “Waddell should have the best of medical attention and nursing, and that no expenses should be spared to either help the once mighty Rube regain his health, or to ease his sufferings if his battle is to be a losing one.” Sadly, the once mighty Rube’s battle would indeed prove to be a losing one.
Rube Waddell would pass away at the age of 37 in San Antonio, Texas on April 1, 1914. He was said to have weighed only 130 pounds at the time of his death, a far cry from his previously impressive and powerful physique. Naturally, some will find it fitting that the greatest character in baseball would pass away on April’s Fools Day, in some small way capturing Rube’s one of a kind personality. It goes without saying that this was a difficult loss for those who knew him, who played beside him, and who cheered so loudly for him. For those who tried for so long to help him manage his demons surely it was particularly difficult. This was a man who had been larger than life and made such a profound impact on baseball during the early 20th century as the game was still finding its place. It is certainly possible that some who knew him well may have asked themselves the question of whether they failed him or if perhaps they could have done more. Some questions are particularly difficult to answer, like what could have been?
Years after Waddell’s tragic and untimely passing, his former manager Connie Mack offered the following heartfelt words: “He was the greatest pitcher in the game, and although widely known for his eccentricities, was more sinned against than sinner. He may have failed us at times but to him, I and the other owners of the Athletics ball club, owe much.”
Waddell’s legend would always remain with anyone who crossed his path, unforgettable as he was. Two of baseball’s most legendary names, Ty Cobb and Cy Young, were asked about their greatest thrill in baseball. Both men recounted their getting the best of the man they referred to as the “Great Waddell.”
In the case of Cobb, he cited during a 1955 live interview that during a heated pennant race during his rookie season the Tigers had a double header against Waddell’s A’s. With Detroit losing in game 1, Cobb tied the score by homering off of Waddell, “over the face,” as he proudly stated, “with two outs and two strikes,” with the Tigers going on to win the game in extras. In the case of Young, the gold standard of pitchers whose 511 career wins can never be matched and who once told a reporter he had “won more games than you’ve seen,” also cited the “Great Waddell” when asked about his most thrilling moment.
In this particular instance, Waddell had dominated Boston for two consecutive starts during the 1904 season, beating Young on April 25 and hurling a one hitter on May 2. Waddell chided Young and challenged him to face him again, to which Young responded by hurling the first perfect game in the history of World Series era baseball (while there are two recorded perfect games in 19th century baseball [Lee Richmond & John Montgomery Ward] it is important to note that the rules were exponentially different than in the World Series era including only underhand pitching being allowed and only 45 feet in distance from mound to home among other important factors). Cleary, the impact that Waddell had on everyone who played against him was immense and truly unforgettable.
History has seen a good deal of research on Waddell who has proven to be a favorite of many. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946 by the veterans committee, Waddell received the great honor with absolute justification. He was a powerhouse. A dominator. An entertainer. He was captivating – and possessed the greatest and most alluring personality in his craft. He was a life saver. A hero. An innovator. A pioneer. A risk taker. He was something out of a story which could not possibly have been true.
Yet it was.
Rube Waddell did things which will never be done again and was as unique as they come. His life had a spectacular impact on the game of baseball and brought true thrills to the ballpark. It is seemingly impossible to do the man justice because there are too many spectacular Waddell stories and legends to count. But there is, however, one thing which cannot be denied …
It is very, very difficult to beat the Great Waddell.
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All imagery for this article is provided courtesy of Robert Edward Auctions, a highly respected establishment. https://bid.robertedwardauctions.com/Lots/Gallery