Mon, Jul 28, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Everybody wanted to see Rube Waddell play ball


Rube Waddell was baseball's biggest drawing card before Babe Ruth, a screwball with an unhittable fastball whose popularity legitimatized the American League and led to the first World Series 100 years ago.

Zany if not always brainy, he sometimes left his club to fight fires or go fishing, only to return to pitch a shutout. He played marbles with school kids outside the ballpark, sometimes while a game was going on. In Philadelphia, the A's were forced to build a bigger ballpark partly because of the crowds he lured.

Always confident in his ability, he ordered his teammates off the field during exhibition games, then would strike out the side. Despite pitching one season when foul balls didn't count as strikes, his many strikeout records lasted decades until Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan broke them.

His name-calling pitching duels with Cy Young were legendary as his eccentricities were peculiar; he so loved fighting fires he wore red fire fighter's gear under his uniform.

Though Waddell was largely forgotten over the years after dying in 1914 at age 37, he was remembered Saturday in the tiny Pennsylvania community of Prospect as being not just larger than life, but greater still in death.

"He was for baseball what Seabiscuit was for racing," said Dan O'Brien, an Indianapolis-based writer who has written a screenplay about Waddell. "The people loved him."

And they turned out to watch him. In the peak years from 1902-1907, he won 131 games -- an average of 21 1/2 a season -- and the A's more than tripled their attendance from 206,329 to 625,581, causing them to open Shibe Park in 1909.

Waddell's life was cut short by an act of bravery during a Kentucky flood, and he was not chosen for the Hall of Fame until 32 years after his death. On Saturday, a Pennsylvania historical marker was dedicated in his memory in a school yard not far from where he grew up.

"People today don't realize the tremendous impact he had on baseball," O'Brien said. "He combined great pitching talent with terrific eccentricities ... of all the great stars of his time -- Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson -- he was the biggest drawing card in baseball, it's indisputable.''

It wasn't just for the wonderful way he pitched, but for his wackiness.

He wrestled alligators in Florida, was bitten by a lion, fought fires in almost every city he visited -- he saved several lives -- and was barred from eating Animal Crackers in bed under a contract provision insisted upon by Ossie Schreckengost, his catcher and roommate. At the time, teammates shared not just a room but a bed on the road, and Schreckengost wearied of waking up with cookie crumbs all over him.

Apparently, his women tired of his oddities, too; he was married three times during a time when divorce was uncommon.

Waddell was under contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the turn of the century, but disliked Hall of Fame manager Fred Clarke's disciplinarian ways and jumped the club. The Athletics of the rival American League, then a fledging outfit looked down upon by the NL for its player-raiding tactics, signed him in 1902.

A's owner-manager Connie Mack found him pitching for a town team in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There, Mack was greeted by a mob of fans eager not to see Waddell stay but to go; it seemed he owed money all over town.

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