It is hard to believe that this dignified gent to the right was actually the pitcher about whom Bill James once wrote, "[He] would have been as great a pitcher as Walter Johnson if only he had the sense God gave a rabbit."
Turn-of-the-20th-century lefty pitching star George Waddell, known to the ages as "Rube," was born on this day in 1876 in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
Rube Waddell may have been a congenital idiot, but he was also one of the most feared left-handed pitchers in organized baseball at the turn of the century. A big, powerful, grinning, heavy-drinking man/child, Waddell was as easily distracted by a friendly barroom brawl as by little wind-up toys, a fact which gave his managers no end of frustration. The list of reasons why he would simply fail to show up for games would make a 10-year old boy proud: Waddell would get sidetracked while fishing or playing marbles, or he'd hurt his arm wrestling, or would chase a fire engine down the street and help the firemen put out a fire, and he'd temporarily forget about baseball. Sometimes, however, he was just drunk.
When he could be coaxed into the ballpark (sometimes under guard of his teammates or even hired Pinkerton agents) and made to focus on the game, his blazing fastball, biting curve and (ironically) his pinpoint control made him nearly unhittable. In 13 fitful major league seasons (6 with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics), Waddell led the league in strikeouts 7 times, setting a 20th century single-season record for strikeouts (349 in 1904) which would not be beaten until Sandy Koufax pitched 382 in 1965. In 1905, Waddell led the Athletics to the American League pennant with a record of 27-10, 7 shutouts and an ERA of 1.48.
For all his talent, he could not be relied upon, and only the patient Mr. Mack could have withstood him as long as he did; but ultimately Waddell's antics wore thin even with him, and Mack sold Waddell's contract to the St. Louis Browns in 1908. Waddell returned the favor by striking out 16 batters the next time he faced the Athletics.
His lack of practical sense meant that he could not be paid a regular salary; to avoid it being cheated out of him, or instantly spent on boyish vices, his team owners would dole out a few bucks to him here and there as he required it.
By 1910, Waddell's erratic behavior and declining skills landed him in the minors. He died on April 1, 1914 in San Antonio, Texas at the age of 38, from tuberculosis supposedly contracted while standing shoulder-deep in cold water for hours, repairing a dike during a flood in Kentucky. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.