BY JOHN ROSSI
Ask any knowledgeable fan, “who was the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history?” and they will respond: Nolan Ryan, who struck out more batters (5076) than any other pitcher in major league history. They will also point out that he holds the record for the single season strikeout record of 383 in 1973; one more than Sandy Koufax’s figure set in 1965.
Ryan and Koufax are also members of an elite group of pitchers, nineteen individuals who struck out 300 or more batters in a single season. It’s an impressive group of some of the greatest hurlers in baseball history, eight of whom are in the Hall of Fame (along with Ryan and Koufax, they include Rube Waddell, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, and Steve Carlton).
An interesting question to ponder would be, which of these single season records is the most impressive? I believe a case can be made for Waddell, who fanned 349 batters in 1904.
For starters, Waddell’s strikeout record stood for 61 years, a long time for any statistical feat to last in a sport that is constantly changing. Few record performances in baseball stand for that long. Among dramatic baseball achievements, however, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak and Ted Williams’ .400 season in 1941 have lasted longer than Waddell’s single season strikeout record. But two men who knew something about pitching, Connie Mack and Walter Johnson, agreed that Waddell had more stuff and sheer ability than any pitcher they ever saw.
Waddell was one of the greatest pitchers of the dead ball era, ranking just below Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and perhaps Eddie Plank for overall effectiveness. Born in 1876, he received very little formal education and may have suffered from some form of mental deficiency. His behavior was a mix of aggressive manliness and childlike behavior. Mack said Waddell had a “corkscrew mind.”
He loved puppies and could be distracted while pitching if a coach or a player showed him one; he feared snakes, and once spent the off-season wrestling alligators in Florida; and he loved chasing fire engines. He also had a serious drinking problem, one that would shorten his career. He was known to sneak out during a game to a nearby bar and exchange baseballs for drinks. Yet, despite these quirks, he was a magnificent pitcher.
We don’t have any significant film of him pitching to compare with other early greats, but according to contemporaries the 6’1 ½” lefty threw extremely hard and complemented his fastball with one of the best sharp breaking curves of his era. He also was tireless and would work games in relief without complaint. In one instance he pitched a 17-inning victory and then started and won the second game of that day’s doubleheader.
Waddell broke into the majors in 1897 with Louisville, but made little impression. The next season he played semi-pro and baseball exhibitions throughout the mid-west, shifting from team to team depending on who would pay him. Louisville got him back in 1899 and he showed the first signs of talent, going 7-2. The next year Waddell went 8-13 but with a low ERA and led the league in strikeouts. That was the first of seven times he would do so, leading to six consecutive years for Mack (1902-1907).
George 'Rube' Waddell of the Los Angeles Baseball Club poses for a posed portrait in 1897, a photo that was transformed into this color lithograph in the book by Seymore Church, Baseball Vol 1. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
In 1900 the Louisville franchise moved to Pittsburgh, where during the 1901 season he drove future Hall of Fame manager Fred Clarke crazy with his bizarre antics. Clarke thus sent him to Chicago in the NL, but he quickly wore out his welcome in America’s Second City despite winning 13 games and coming in fifth in strikeouts.
Before the 1902 season, Connie Mack, on the way to building his first great dynasty, took a chance on Waddell despite his various idiosyncrasies. Mack would later become known for his ability to develop the talent of some strange players. But Waddell would test the patience of the individual known as The Grand Old Man of Baseball.
Mack arranged to sign Waddell, who was on the West Coast barnstorming with various clubs. According to Norman Macht’s biography of Mack, the “Tall Tactician” had to send two Pinkerton detectives to round Waddell up. According to the detectives, the trip to Philadelphia with Waddell was so bizarre the agency told Mack they refused to have any more to do with him.
Mack was building a new club from virtual scratch—the American League was just a year old—and he saw something in Waddell worth enduring all the strange behavior: a powerful arm and genuine joy in playing baseball when he was interested. In six seasons with Mack’s team (1902-1907), nicknamed the White Elephants by John McGraw, Waddell put on an astounding performance and was second only to Mathewson as the best pitcher in the majors—and easily the best lefthander.
During those seasons, Waddell won 130 games, had two campaigns with over 300 strikeouts, won 20 games in four consecutive seasons, and overall averaged 262 strikeouts. His highest ERA in those years was 2.44 while in 1904 and 1905 it was 1.62 and 1.48, low even for the dead ball era. In 1904 he struck out a record 349 along with pitching eight shutouts, while the next season his WHIP was 0.9777.
Portrait of Rube Waddell, St Louis, Missouri, 1910. The image appeared in the book, 'The National Game.' (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
What makes these figures so impressive, and perhaps more dramatic than later 300-strikeout performances is that Waddell did it at a time when batters rarely struck out. The approach to hitting before Babe Ruth inaugurated the long ball era was to choke up and slash at the ball, putting it in play. Fielding proficiency was low (gloves were small with little padding, and no pocket to speak of; plus the web linking the fingers together didn’t exist). Field conditions were often terrible. Teams averaged over 200 errors per season, double the figure today. Hitters rarely struck out until the long ball era.
While it is difficult to accurately compare different eras in baseball history statistically, certain aspects of the game have remained the same since the 1890s. To date, the mound distance has been uniform since 1893. All the pitches we are familiar with today were known then although often with different names: a sinker was called a drop; change of pace, a slow ball; slider, a nickel curve, etc. We don’t have any way of measuring past speed, but pitchers like Waddell and Walter Johnson apparently threw in the high 90s.
Comparing Waddell’s 349 strikeouts to Nolan Ryan’s 383 reveals some interesting differences. In 1904 when Waddell set his record there were a total of 5026 strikeouts in the American League. Waddell personally accounted for nearly 7% of them. No other pitcher has come close to that level of strikeout efficiency. Ryan’s 383 was a little over 3% of the American League total of strikeouts in 1973. And as we had mentioned, given the way the game was played in 1904 it was more difficult for Waddell to fan batters. For example, no batter in 1904 struck out 100 times (one did it 99 times), while during Ryan’s record-setting campaign, there were ten American League batters who struck out 100 times. Equally impressive is to compare their figures in today’s highly regarded WAR category. Waddell’s was 10.4 in 1904; Ryan’s 7.9 in his record-setting strikeout season.
So, can we say with any degree of certainty that Rube Waddell’s record in 1904 is the single most impressive strikeout performance in baseball history? The game of baseball has changed dramatically in the 125 years since Waddell set his record. Waddell did not have to face the level of competition pitchers today confront. On the other hand, the best athletes in Waddell’s day played baseball. There was no other sport yet competing with baseball. Hence, his record is a remarkable one and should not be forgotten.