The One and Only Rube Waddell
- Updated: March 6, 2013
Hey baseball fans!
I recently reached out to Dan O’Brien (see pic below), the screenwriter of a play called Rube the Screenplay, a play that talks about a very famous pitcher in the Deadball Era named Rube Waddell. O’Brien also has a website called rubewaddell.net. Dan is a very nice man and a former Emmy award-winning producer and television sportscaster. He has co-authored two books: Mark May’s Tales from the Washington Redskins and MizzouRah! Memorable Moments in Missouri Tiger Football History. He is currently a freelance writer who resides in Greenwood, Indiana. O’Brien’s work has been published in a lot of places, from Western Horseman Magazine to Sports Illustrated. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism is a member of SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research. Anyway, you probably don’t know who Rube Waddell is, which is why you should read the following paragraph.
One of the top lefties in the history of baseball, Hall of Famer Rube (see pic below) was also one of the most eccentric and energetic players. Waddell had a great fastball and curve, probably because of his pinpoint control. In 1905, Waddell captured pitching’s Triple Crown with 27 wins, 287 strikeouts and a 1.48 ERA. Known for his strikeout prowess, he led the American League for six years in a row. His career stats are as follows: a record of 193-143, an ERA of 2.16, and 2,316 career strikeouts. Although he got traded a lot because of his eccentric behavior, he is still known as one of the greats.
So, when I reached out to Dan, I asked him some questions about Rube’s career. Here are his answers:
Matt: What should Rube be remembered for in his Hall of Fame career?
Dan: On the mound, Rube was the most dominant pitcher in the first decade of the 20th Century. He led the American League in strikeouts six consecutive seasons and compiled the best career earned run average (2.16) for a left-handed pitcher.
I think Rube’s greatest impact on baseball was at the box office. Due the combination of his extraordinary pitching and colorful behavior, Rube Waddell was easily the biggest gate attraction of his era. I have anecdotal stories and statistical information to back up that statement. For instance, when Rube joined the St. Louis Browns in 1908, the Browns enjoyed a 47 percent increase in home attendance while the Philadelphia Athletics – the team he left – experience a 27 percent decrease in home attendance. When Rube died, newspapers in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh reported that Rube personally save the American League from bankruptcy. So, Rube had an impact on baseball, much greater than I had realized before I began my research.
Matt: Which of Rube’s pitches do you think was the most effective to strike out batters?
Dan: That could be dictated by the situation but I’d have to say his fastball or curve were his most effective pitches. The legendary Connie Mack – who managed Rube in Philadelphia and spent nearly seven decades in the majors as a player, manager and owner – often said Rube had the great natural talent – the best combination of speed AND curves – of any pitcher he saw. “He could start a curveball for a batsman’s bean and drop it among his shoestrings while the baffled athlete was swinging in vain to connect,” wrote Grantland Rice. As umpire Billy Evans noted, Rube’s fastball and curve worked in concert: “When Rube Waddell was at the top of his game, as the greatest southpaw in baseball, he boasted the most deceptive curve of which he made use. The fast ball was his best bet, but the curve more or less made it so.” Of course, movement and command are also essential to a pitcher’s success. By all indications, Rube’s fastball had plenty movement on his fastball, in addition to pure velocity. Rube’s Strikeouts-to-Bases on Balls ratio was 2.88 for his career and better than 3.0 during his prime years. Incidentally – like Connie Mack – Walter Johnson was among those who believed Rube had more natural ability than any other pitcher who ever lived.
Matt: What makes Rube unique from the other great pitchers of his time?
Dan: His eccentric and zany behavior – on and off the field – certainly set him aside from any player of his time, and probably any other time or era. But, I assume you’re asking about his pitching. Rube was in a class by himself in terms of strikeouts.
Keep in mind, Rube pitched in the “Deadball Era” when strikeouts were less frequent than today. Hitters placed more of a priority on contact instead of “swinging for the fences.” Rube’s best season total for strikeouts was 349 in 1904. That year, the average American League pitcher struck out about four hitters-per-nine innings. In 2012, the average AL pitcher struck out about 7.4 batters-per-nine innings. Only six pitchers have recorded consecutive seasons of 300 or more strikeouts. Rube is the only one to do so before the 1960s. Of the pitchers who finished with a career mark of 7-plus strikeouts-per-nine innings, Rube is the only one who finished his career before World War II. His major league single season strikeout record stood more than 60 years. He still holds the American League single season strikeout record by a left-handed pitcher. There are many, many personality quirks which make Rube unique but, looking at pitching stats alone, his strikeout numbers really stand out.
Matt: What do you think was Rube’s best season?
Dan: I think most would point to 1905. Even though he essentially missed the last month of the season due to injury, Rube won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the American League in Wins (27), ERA (1.48) and strikeouts (287). However, I think in many ways, his 1902 season was even better. Rube began the year in the California League and didn’t pitch his first game with the Philadelphia Athletics until June 26, 1902. The A’s had only 87 games remaining on their schedule. Yet, Rube finished second in the American League in wins (24) and ERA (2.05) and led the league with 210 strikeouts, 50 more than runner-up Cy Young, who pitched 109 more innings than Rube. He personally accounted for 7.65 percent of all American League strikeouts. To do that today, a pitcher would have to strikeout more than 1,200 batters. Rube’s efforts catapulted the A’s from fourth place to the 1902 American League pennant.
Matt: Can you describe some of Rube’s off the field accomplishments?
Dan: That’s very difficult to answer succinctly since Rube was extremely busy off the field. About a year ago I began emailing a “This date in Rube history” to friends and colleagues. They are astounded by the number of items I send (I have at least one for EVERY day of the year, including the off-season). One of my personal favorite periods of Rube’s life was his four-month tour with with a theater company, starring in a melodrama called “The Stain of Guilt.” In one scene Rube is required to physically subdue to the villain. Rube apparently believed in a realistic approach to his acting. Before long, the company manager had trouble finding actors who were willing to withstands Rube’s assault. Although his skills as a bona fide thespian were questionable, Rube proved to be a box office smash – as he was in baseball. However, the most dramatic off-the-field event in Rube’s life involved his activity during the 1912 flood of the Mississippi River at Hickman, Kentucky, where Rube was wintering with this minor league manager, Joe Cantillon. A concrete flood wall now protects Hickman. At the time, it was only a sandbag levee. While others worked in shifts, Rube toiled through the night, standing in freezing, chest-high or waist-high waters while stacking sandbags to repair the ruptured levee. As a result of his work, Rube contracted a bad cold, which developed into pneumonia and, later, tuberculosis. He died from tuberculosis on April 1, 1914.
Matt: Please tell us something about Rube that most people don’t know.
Dan: That’s also difficult since I can never be sure what people do, or don’t, know about Rube. I’m amazed that many – even baseball fans – never heard of Rube Waddell. Those who are at least vaguely familiar with Rube are probably aware that he was a talented, but eccentric pitcher. They are amused to learn that he was born on Friday the 13th and died on April Fools Day. But, rarely do I find someone who realizes just how dominant Rube was on the mound. All are even more surprised when informed of his enormous popularity, fame and appeal. Rube made a substantial contribution to baseball which greatly exceeded his statistics – as impressive as they were.