Waddell: Oddball with a fastball
Watching Clayton Kershaw pitch against San Diego last Saturday reminded me that one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time spent his last days in Boerne before dying in a sanitarium in San Antonio.
George Edward (Rube) Waddell was born in Butler, Pennsylvania on Oct. 3, 1876. He was tall with long arms and big hands. He was born to throw a baseball.
He broke into the majors in 1900. His fastball had lightning speed, and he threw an assortment of pitches that curved, hopped and dropped.
Philadelphia Phillies manager Connie Mack said “for pure stuff alone, Rube Waddell was the best left-hander who ever threw a baseball.”
Rube was a strikeout artist. In 1902, he struck out 106 batters in a span of 10 games. The next year, he fanned 130 batters in 12 games. He struck out 10 men or more 54 times. In 1904, he struck out 343 batters in 377 innings — a modern-day record until Sandy Koufax broke it in 1965.
“When he was on,” said Connie Mack, “he was near unhittable.”
As good as he was, and he is a Hall of Famer, Waddell is best remembered as an eccentric. He possessed a variety of quirks too numerous to mention. He lived up to his nickname and then some.
A friend described Rube as having “the body of a giant, the heart of a child and the mind of a butterfly.” He was easily distracted by children’s laughter, the sound of music or a wandering thought.
In Brooklyn, on a day he was scheduled to pitch, Rube went missing. A coach found him playing marbles with children on a street corner.
“Tell them to hold up the game until I’m through,” Rube told the coach. That afternoon he pitched a 3-hitter.
One year, Rube didn’t show up for training camp. Connie Mack found him days later in a minstrel show, wearing a tall furry hat, swinging a baton and leading a marching band down the street.
He disappeared every once in a while during baseball season to go fishing.
He was fascinated with firetrucks. He would leave the dugout between innings to chase a screaming fire engine down the street.
One night he dove off a ferry boat between Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey to save what he thought was a young woman drowning in the icy waters of the Delaware River. The woman turned out to be a log.
Rube liked to drink. When he signed with Philadelphia, his entire signing bonus went to pay his bar tab.
Connie Mack tried to keep Waddell from drinking, but Rube often fell off the wagon. It didn’t help that he had a second job tending bar at several Philadelphia saloons.
But when Rube was on a mission, he had a childlike ability to focus completely on a cause he believed in.
In 1912, Waddell lived in Hickman, Kentucky. That winter the rain fell, and the Mississippi River rose. Waddell stood for hours, up to his armpits in icy water, stacking sand bags to protect the town from flood waters. The town stayed dry, but Waddell developed pneumonia and later tuberculosis.
By the fall of 1913, Rube was broke, sick and unable to care for himself. The Elks Lodge in Hickman raised money to send him to live with his sister in San Antonio.
That winter he recovered enough to spend time with his parents who were living in Boerne, but as spring approached, his condition worsened. The family placed him in Lutheran Sanitarium in San Antonio. By the end of March, he was down to 100 pounds.
He died, without a cent to his name, on April Fool’s Day, 1914. He was 37 years old.
The family buried Waddell in an obscure San Antonio cemetery. A pine board marked his final resting place until John McGraw, Hall of Fame Manager of the New York Giants, raised money for a suitable tombstone.
Several months ago, I found Rube Waddell’s grave in Mission Burial Park. A visitor before me, who knew the story, left a toy firetruck.
So good to know someone remembers.