George “Rube” Waddell was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania on October 13, 1876. He was one of the best pitchers in the history of professional baseball, but today he is mostly remembered for his unconventional behavior and antics, both on and off the field.
Waddell didn’t attend school often as a child. Instead, he preferred hanging out at local fire stations and following them as they went out on calls. He was later remembered by locals as having a hobby of throwing rocks at birds, an odd and cruel talent that undoubtedly helped him when he later began his career as a baseball pitcher. At 18 he tried out for and was given a roster spot on a local semi-pro baseball team. In his short time there a fellow player called him “Rube” because of his simpleminded nature, a nickname he embraced and was known as for the rest of his life. His incredible pitching talent was quickly realized and he was awarded a professional contract by the Louisville Colonels.
Over his 13-year professional baseball career, Waddell accumulated numerous accolades. In 1905 he led the American League in wins, strikeouts, and lowest earned run average, winning the “Triple Crown.” He led the league in strikeouts for six straight seasons. (In 1903 and 1904 Waddell had back-to-back seasons with over 300 strikeouts, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated by another player for over 60 years.) To this day, Rube Waddell holds the single-season record for strikeouts in the American League by a left-handed pitcher. In exhibition games, to show off, he would occasionally wave his teammates off to the side of the field and successfully play defense with only his catcher.
Despite all of this, Waddell is better known for his eccentricities that were exacerbated by his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He was notorious for arriving at the stadium moments before the game began, still wearing his street clothes. He would change into his uniform while walking through the grandstands, occasionally stealing and chugging fans’ beers as he went. On more than one occasion he ran out of the stadium because he heard a firetruck drive by blaring its sirens and he chased after it to help. He once left mid-game because he decided he would prefer to be fishing. Opposing fans would sometimes successfully distract him by holding up puppies, which Rube would gleefully run off the mound to play with. After the 1905 season, Waddell’s contract was amended to forbid eating crackers in bed after numerous complaints from his roommate, catcher Ossee Schreckengost.
In the off-season, Waddell would pick up odd jobs that included bartending, semi-pro football, and wrestling alligators in traveling circuses. He was notorious for going on multi-day drinking binges and marrying women he met while he was drunk—it’s unknown how many wives Waddell had over his lifetime. After a drunken brawl in 1908, a warrant for his arrest was issued in Massachusetts. For the rest of his career, Waddell missed games whenever his team traveled to Boston. After the 1908 season, his team’s owner paid Waddell to be the groundskeeper of his remote hunting lodge in an attempt to keep him out of trouble. But his drinking got worse—in 1909 he passed out while on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a game.
After the 1910 season, no professional teams wanted to hire Waddell, and he was forced to play semi-pro. In the winter of 1911, Rube was working on a farm in Hickman, Kentucky, when it was struck by catastrophic flooding. He spent hours in the frigid waters stacking sandbags and reinforcing levees and afterward came down with pneumonia and tuberculosis that hampered him for the rest of his life. By 1913, his health problems became too severe to continue playing. Waddell moved to San Antonio, Texas, where his sister lived and could care for him as his tuberculosis worsened. He died on April 1, 1914, at 37 years old, and was buried there.
Pitcher Walter Johnson said “Rube Waddell had more sheer pitching ability than any man I ever saw” and his longtime manager Connie Mack described him as “the atom bomb of baseball long before the atom bomb was discovered.” During his lifetime he was often described as childlike and simple, but modern analysts have concluded that he likely had a developmental disability or similar condition that couldn’t have been diagnosed at the time. In 1946, Rube Waddell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.