Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rube Waddell and the Los Angeles Looloos

Baseball is a game that has always had a place for eccentrics and misfits, but never has the combination of eccentricity and pure talent come in the same package in quite the same way as it did for pitcher Rube Waddell.

Waddell was an imposing 6' 1" 190 pounds, and had an intimidating fastball, which he combined with a wicked curve, as well as great control. He was the most dominating strikeout pitcher of his era. He pitched for five major league clubs, but it was his colorful personality and odd behavior that prevented him from staying with any team for very long, and perhaps from having an even greater career than he did.

A few of the stories about Waddell: He would leave the dugout and wander off in the middle of games. Opposing players would hold up puppies and shiny objects, knowing Rube could be easily distracted. He was so bad with money that the A's paid him in dollar bills - doled out a few at a time. Waddell once wrestled an alligator. He was contractually prohibited from eating crackers in bed. He claimed to have lost track of how many women he had married. He would miss starts because he was fishing or playing marbles with street kids (though the stories of him running off the mound in the middle of a game to chase fire engines are probably apocryphal). Alcohol certainly exacerbated his behavioral eccentricities. Today he might be diagnosed as autistic, or a borderline personality. Thousands would no doubt be spent by his team on therapy and medical tests, or most likely, his personality quirks would prevent him from reaching the big leagues at all. But at the time the most common description of him was that of a big kid who wouldn't grow up.

George Edward Waddell was born on Friday the 13th, October 13, 1876 in Bradford, Pa. He grew up in Butler County - oil country - the son of a Scottish immigrant. News of his prowess on the mound in local semi-pro leagues was enough to be offered a contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1897 without ever having spent a day in the minors. However it was Rube's fate to be seated next to Bucs manager Patsy Donovan for his first team meal. After hearing Waddell speak, Donovan released him immediately, without ever having Rube throw a pitch. Waddell spent most of the next two seasons playing semi-pro and minor league ball, before finally joining Louisville (major league at the time) and winning seven of nine decisions. Waddell went back to Pittsburgh when most of the Louisville players were transferred there in 1900, and finished second in the league in strikeouts, though he was suspended by player-manager Fred Clarke, who had no use for Rube's eccentricities. Waddell found himself playing semi-pro ball in Puxsutawney, Pa. when he was spotted by Connie Mack - at the time managing Milwaukee in the new American League. However, as he was still the property of Pittsburgh and Mack had to return Waddell to the Pirates after Rube won ten games in one month with Milwaukee and the Pirates wanted him back.

After quickly wearing out his welcome again in Pittsburgh, he spent some time with the Chicago Orphans, and then went back to semi-pro and barnstorming. It was on a western barnstorming swing that Waddell was enticed to sign with the Los Angeles Looloos of the California League (the forerunner of the Pacific Coast League). The Looloos (whose nickname, incredibly, had nothing to do with Waddell) were locked in a pennant race with the Oakland Dudes, and the league (which the next season would become the legendary Pacific Coast League) was an outlaw circuit fighting for west coast legitimacy against the rival Pacific National League.

During the 1902 season Connie Mack - now in Philadelphia and desperate for pitching - learned that Rube was playing ball out on the Coast. He dispatched two Pinkerton agents to Los Angeles with instructions to return with Waddell. It was under the patient tutelage of Mack that Waddell experienced his only period of relative stability. He found an ideal battery-mate (and drinking buddy) in catcher Osee "Schrek" Schrecongost, and won 24 games and led the league in strikeouts despite playing only slightly longer than half the season. The Athletics doubled their attendance from the year before, and Waddell was such a popular draw around the league that he was credited with saving the junior circuit from bankruptcy. Numerous products, from soap to cigars, bore his name.

1903 was a rocky year for Waddell. In July league president Ban Johnson suspended him for climbing into the stands and attacking a spectator who had baited him. After missing one too many starts, Mack also had had enough, and suspended him in late July for the duration of the season. Waddell spent the off-season tending bar in Camden, NJ, and appearing in a theatre company melodrama called "The Stain Of Guilt". Waddell's thespian exploits soon came to an end, though, when he was unceremoniously dumped from the production after a dispute over pay.

In 1904 Waddell was the opposing pitcher and made the last out during Cy Young's perfect game. He struck out 349 batters that season, his second straight 300+ season, a record that would not be equalled until Sandy Koufax did it in 1965-66.

Waddell's long decline began with a strange incident late in the 1905 season. He fell and injured his shoulder while fighting over a straw hat with teammate Andy Coakley. Tensions had also developed between Waddell and Schrecongost, who had "taken the pledge" to stop drinking. Mack - who believed Rube was never the same after the straw hat incident - sold him to the St. Louis Browns in 1908 in the "interest of team harmony". At the same time, Waddell's wife sued him for divorce and Rube was accused of assault against his wife's parents, a situation which prevented him from pitching in Boston when his team traveled there. His tenure with the Browns was still a success, however, as St. Louis nearly doubled its attendance after signing him. In what must have been sweet revenge, Waddell struck out 16 of his former teammates on July 29th, tying the league record. But by 1910 his skills were fading, and the Browns released Waddell, leaving Rube to bounce around the minors for a few more seasons (including a 20-game winning campaign for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association).

Waddell contracted pneumonia in 1912 while spending hours standing in icy water in Kentucky, helping a town trying to ward off a flood. His health declining, he moved to a sanatorioum in San Antonio, Texas, with Connie Mack paying the medical bills. He died at the age of 37 on April 1st, 1914, April Fools Day. Rube Waddell was elected to the Baseball Hall Of Fame in 1946.

Rube Wadell (kneeling, far left) with Connie Mack (center, in bowler hat) and the Philadelphia Athletics.

Our new Flannel of the Month is the 1902 Rube Waddell Los Angeles Looloos jersey, $99 for a limited time. (No jersey numerals were worn during this era).