Friday, 18 May 2018 05:04

The Rube: The Greatest Baseball Player You’ve Never Heard Of

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George "Rube" Waddell George "Rube" Waddell Photo from Pixabay Stock Images

WILMINGTON - Baseball at the turn of the 20th century is typically highlighted by the era’s most celebrated players, including Honus Wagner (the subject of one of the most valuable baseball cards in existence) and Cy Young (whose name graces the annual award for the game’s best pitcher).  However, a third player alongside Wagner and Young was just as talented and arguably even more popular at the time.

George “The Rube” Waddell was born in 1876 in Bradford, Pennsylvania and his dominant, 13-year career as one of the game’s greatest strikeout pitchers ultimately landed him in the Hall of Fame. 

Despite being ranked as one of the top 100 baseball players of all time, “The Rube” never became a household name, due in no small part to his on (and off) the field antics, bizarre behavior,  and "impressive" alcoholism. 

The nickname, “Rube” (see: Country Bumpkin) was given to him in the minor leagues as a reflection of his “simple-mindedness” and after it was discovered that Waddell didn’t exactly know the rules of the game. 

If a ground ball was hit back to him at the pitcher's mound, The Rube would pick up the ball and throw it at the runner as hard as he could.  This happened often enough that opposing players, after hitting the ball back to Waddell, would hesitate to run to first base, wanting to ensure that The Rube would remember not to try to peg the runner. 

More than once, The Rube demanded that his teammates leave the field and he would pitch to batters with no defense behind him. 

Luckily, Waddell averaged 15 strikeouts per game (in 7-inning games, no less). 

To add insult to injury, The Rube would celebrate 3-strikeout innings by walking on his hands, somersaulting, or cart-wheeling off the field and into the dugout. 

His talent overshadowed his “personality quirks” and he was soon noticed by the Louisville Colonels of the Big Leagues, with whom he signed in 1896. 

Two days after signing his rookie contract, Waddell was fined $50 for excessive drinking and Rube quit the team. 

Waddell was then picked up by Detroit, where he lasted 9 games before being fined another $50 for playing sandlot ball with a few local kids.  Instead of paying the fine, Rube, again, quit his team. 

Waddell was signed by the Columbus Grand Rapids in 1899 and won 27 games. 

His game-day routine around this time is the stuff of legend. 

The Rube would arrive at the ballpark just before game time.  He would normally head to the field through the grandstands – grabbing fan’s beers out of their hands and chugging them along the way. 

Because Waddell always arrived in his street clothes, he would typically change into his uniform as he ran out to the mound.  Note: The Rube generally wore no underwear. 

Waddell was also notorious for being easily distracted.  Fans of opposing teams used this to their advantage and would hold up puppies and shiny objects (seriously) and The Rube would run over to investigate. 

He would sometimes just leave in the middle of a game to go fishing. 

When a fire truck would ride by the stadium, The Rube would chase after it - every time. 

Eventually, the Pittsburg (how it was spelled then) Pirates got word of his success in Grand Rapids and signed Waddell to their team. 

In Pittsburg, Waddell would play alongside Honus Wagner and go on to lead the league in ERA (2.37) during the 1900 season. 

Despite his low ERA, his win/loss record was below average.  This was due to his high rate of errors.  Before games, Rube had a habit of visiting the local tavern and pounding beers up until game time.  He could throw it across the plate but was unable to consistently get it to first base due to his drunkenness. 

Waddell was eventually kicked off the team after threatening to shoot his manager and was subsequently picked up by the Milwaukee A’s. 

While with Milwaukee, Waddell pitched a 17-inning game and then stayed on the mound to pitch the entirety of the second game of a double header (and shut out the opposing team both games). 

After a brief stint with the Chicago Orphans, The Rube returned to Pittsburg where he would lead the league in strikeouts for the next 5 years. 

In 1904 he set the MLB strikeout record with 349 - which remained unbroken for 61 years. 

In 1905, The Rube faced off with Cy Young in a 20-inning pitching duel.  Neither pitcher gave up a run. 

In true Rube fashion, Waddell took the game ball, maybe one of the most sought-after game balls ever, and gave it away for free beers at a local tavern. 

He was traded in 1908 to the St. Louis Browns where he set a single game record of 16 strikeouts. 

Waddell’s drinking was becoming worse, however, and in 1909 he passed out on the mound after giving up a home run. 

The Rube was released in 1910 and he bounced around from town to town for a while. 

In 1912, a local dam broke and Waddell stood armpit deep in freezing water for 13 hours stacking sandbags to help save the town.  He contracted pneumonia from this feat, from which he would never recover.  Waddell was admitted to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Texas where he eventually died, appropriately, on April Fools’ Day, 1914. 

George “The Rube” Waddell played 13 major league seasons, led the league in strikeouts 7 times, won the pennant in 1905 and had a career ERA of 2.16 (Cy Young career ERA: 2.63). 

He was also bitten by a lion, shot a friend in the hand, had no idea how many women he had married, saved as many as 13 people from dying, and wrestled alligators for a traveling circus in between seasons. 

The Rube may not be a household name (at least not until the inevitable movie is made) but he did have one of the most unusual and entertaining careers of all time.

 

Editor's note:  This article was contributed by Caison Craven, the newest addition to the Richmond Observer's team of highly talented writers.

Last modified on Monday, 21 May 2018 11:00