Friday, November 12, 2010

Rube Waddell: A Real Piece of Work

By: C.G. Morelli

Charles Edward Waddell was a small town Pennsylvania farm boy when minor league scouts recognized his ability to throw lightning. Before long, he’d attracted a nickname (“the Rube”) and he was hurling fastballs in the minors. He found immediate success and, by 1902, he was wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.

In Pittsburgh, however, the Rube found success a little more fleeting. Sure, the kid had great stuff.  But he also had a bit of a strange side to him to say the least. Waddell quickly gained more notoriety for his wild antics than for his ball playing. The man was known to actually leave the playing field during games to chase fire engines, and his unpredictable drinking binges caused him to be chronically and excessively late to games and practices.  Frustrated with his odd behavior, the Pirates cut him loose…and who was there to scoop him up but the old baseball gentleman himself, Connie Mack.

Mack signed Waddell in 1902 to compliment his already burgeoning roster of solid players. Waddell joined the likes of Eddie Plank, Lave Cross, and Nap Lajoie. But the Rube immediately shot to the top of the list, leading the league in strikeouts every year from 1902 through 1907. He led the Athletics in team ERA four times during this span.

For a while, with Mack acting as his surrogate father, Waddell kept his strange behavior at bay, and when he couldn’t restrain himself the citizens of Philadelphia ate him up anyway. Fans especially loved him because he would hang out at local bars in Philly and end up bartending by closing time. He was also known for playing random pickup games in the streets with local kids and for volunteering his services to the fire department.

But eventually, Rube lost his way once more and his erratic, sometimes personally endangering, behavior began to wear on Papa Mack. Waddell was beginning to wear out his welcome. A breaking point appeared to have occurred at the conclusion of the 1905 season. He had led the Athletics to the World Series that year, but couldn’t pitch against the Giants because he’d supposedly injured his elbow in a bizarre incident that culminated in a barroom brawl. It didn’t take long for the public to suspect gamblers were pulling Rube’s strings and rumors began to fly. Nothing was ever proven, but the scandal haunted the Pennsylvania hayseed for the rest of his career.

The scandal, his increasingly flaky attitude towards the game, and his strong taste for drinking, led Mack (who was at the end of his rope) to sell Waddell to the hapless St. Louis Browns for $5,000 before the start of the 1908 season. Mack’s Athletics, who had finished a hopeful 2nd with an 88-57 record the season before, could not recover. Without Rube’s services they skidded through the 1908 season, finishing a pitiful and disappointing 6th in the American League with a 68-85 record.

Many Philadelphians, who had almost unilaterally exalted the venerable Connie Mack, lost some respect for their beloved manager who, in the end, could not control his wayward “son.”  The city eventually learned to live without their loveable idiot, but it never found anyone unique enough to replace him in their hearts.

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