Thursday, March 31, 2005

Rube Waddell: The Peter Pan of Baseball

Happy April Fool's Day. On this date in 1914 Rube Waddell, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and one of my favorite personages, left this world.

George Edward “Rube” Waddell was baseball's most kaleidoscopic character. In 1903 he began the year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in Wheeling, West Virginia. “In between those events,” wrote Lee Allen, “he won twenty-two games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men's Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married, and separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.”

The stories go on and on about this wild and crazy guy and, remarkably, most of them are true. Playing marbles under the stands at game time while his teammates searched for their starting pitcher; being paid his year's salary of $2,200 in one-dollar bills because he was so impulsive a spender; hurling both ends of a doubleheader just so that he could get a few days off to go fishing; calling his outfielders to the sidelines, then striking out the batter.

The Rube was not merely an oddball, like Germany Schaefer, or an entertaining tippler like Bugs Raymond, or a braggart like Art Shires, though he was all of these things and more. The eccentric “sousepaw” was an original, a boy who never grew up yet was a giant among men on the ball field.

A quick look at Waddell's career record reveals seven strikeout crowns, six of them in succession in 1902-07; a lifetime ERA of 2.16 with a single-season best of 1.48; and four straight 20-win seasons. But a closer examination shows just how awesome he was at his peak. In 1902 he won a commendable 24 games for the Philadelphia Athletics—but he didn't pitch for them until June 26, by which time he had already won 12 games with Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League. He won 10 games for the A's in the month of July, a feat unmatched by any hurler since. His 24 wins for them came over a period of only 87 games played by the club, a percentage of team wins also unmatched since. In 1904 Waddell fanned 349 batters, a total not surpassed until Sandy Koufax came along in 1965; nearly one hundred years later, Waddell's mark is still the best by an American League lefthander. In 1955, at age 93, Connie Mack called Rube the greatest pitcher, in terms of pure talent, he had ever seen—and Connie had seen them all, from Hoss Radbourne and Amos Rusie through Cy Young and Walter Johnson, on up to Lefty Grove and Bob Feller.

In his six years in Philadelphia, Rube married four times. Although the aforementioned Miss Skinner, the second of his wives, left him after only three weeks of marriage, and he did spend some time in jail for throwing flatirons at each of his in-laws (an impulse with which some of us may empathize), this man-child had a good heart. On more than one occasion his penchant for running after fire engines led him to rush into a burning building to effect a rescue. And his premature death, at age 37 in 1914 (on April Fool's Day) resulted from a severe cold he contracted after standing for hours in icy waters up to his armpits, placing sandbags in advance of rising waters from a broken dam.

No one Waddellian tale conveys the heroic quality of the man; Rube's whole life had the quality of legend, the kind that sustained our nation in the years before The Great War. Before the frontier closed, before radio and rural electrification truly united our states into a homogeneous national culture, America gave rise to such icons as Paul Bunyan, the all-powerful lumberjack landscaper; Mose the Bowery B'hoy, the common rough, comic boor, and guardian angel of the underprivileged (and, like Waddell, pride of the volunteer fire laddies); and Sam Patch, the foolhardy millhand who won fame by jumping off bridges and immortality in his failed leap over Niagara Falls. (Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of him, though the words might as easily have been applied to Waddell: “How stern a moral may be drawn from the story of poor Sam Patch!... Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame, and seldom so triumphantly as he?”) These three, along with other folkloric figures of America's formative years, culminate in the form of Rube Waddell.

In baseball, he descended from a line of hell-raising, hard-drinking heroes like King Kelly, Arlie Latham, and Radbourne. When college man Christy Mathewson came along to contend with Waddell for favor in the first decade of the century, the moralists at last had a suitable role model in baseball; but the conformist Matty never captured the hearts of boys as the Rube did. While adults clucked their disapproval, Rube's sense of mischief and disregard for adult ways endeared him to youth. He was them, figured large, with the power not only to move about in the adult world but also to transform it, to make it uniquely his.

The arrival of Babe Ruth marked a restoration of the rebellious spirit in sport, as did Dizzy Dean. But while both were “naturals” like the semi-demented Waddell, the Babe was neither a clown nor a yokel, and Ol' Diz played the rube act with self-promotional cunning.

Why do we glorify natural athletes when hard workers, conscientious practitioners of their craft, are so much more admirable as men? Because in their untutored excellence these fortunate few seem to be touched with the divine, the mysterious gift of the gods—a spirit of play akin to the inexplicable animating force of art.

Waddell was a legend while he was alive; that he has ceased to be one in death is testament to how our country has changed. Why are heroes today so colorless, so pale? Even great talents like Michael Jordan or Nolan Ryan are personally boring. Why do we still gravitate toward the bad boys, the rebels, even when their abilities are beneath those of the goody-two-shoes of the sports world? Conformists may be admired, but nonconformists are adored and/or feared.

Man's attraction to fame is like that of moth to flame. The moralists among us—like Hawthorne in his dispatch of Sam Patch—delight in the failure of heroes, affirming that man should not be so filled with hubris as to presume to deity. Thus is played the inevitable cycle of fame, paralleling that of life itself: hero to celebrity to commodity to trash. Rube Waddell sidestepped that descent by dying young, but perhaps more importantly, by never really enlisting as a functional adult. Like a messenger of God, or one who has struck a pact with the devil, in the cadences of conventional life Rube was always an outsider. He stood outside civilization, culture, rationalism, team play, the work ethic—all Western, Christian values. He was an individualist, nonconformist, rebel, hero—honored and scorned at the same time, for he was also a rube: a bumpkin, rustic, hayseed, farmer, yokel, hoosier, backwoodsman, fool.

The term “rube” derived from Reuben, a hinterlands name that provoked mirth among the city swells and traveling gents and those rural types who fancied themselves “in the know.” Waddell began pitching for his town team of Butler, Pennsylvania, at age 18, in 1895, later moving on to pitch for the Prospect nine. When he showed up at Franklin in 1896, green as any farmboy ever was but hoping for an audition, one of the Franklin men called out, “Hey, Rube!”—the circus/carny term used as a cry for help, or rallying charge, against outsiders, like those who would cut the canvas to gain free admission. (Often as not, the call “Hey, Rube!” would lead to a heyrube—a fracas or hubbub, what Red Barber and other Southerners came to call a rhubarb. The Franklin players were not only mocking the farmboy Waddell (“Reuben”) but also rallying the clan against an outside intrusion.*

Rube the farmboy was an outsider when he stepped onto the rural ballfield of Franklin, but perhaps less so when he went on to pitch for big cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis. The enclosed ballparks there were designed to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all those rubes to the metropolis in the first place. After all, baseball itself is inextricably tied to the land, deriving as it does from a pagan rite of fertility.

And George Edward Waddell was also an outsider in that he was lefthanded (sinister, evil, endowed with sorcery) and dimwitted. The age of magic in baseball was in full flower during Waddell's career. Society at large feared the misshapen as manifestations of God's wrath, regarded the feebleminded as signs of God's humor, and imbued the lame and the halt with heightened goodness, like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. Major league teams employed mascots like Louis Van Zelst, a hunchbacked cripple, who drew luck to the A's until he died in 1915; dwarf Eddie Bennett, who brought pennants to the White Sox in 1917 and 1919, then to the Dodgers and Yankees; and the aptly named Victory Faust, a hayseed mental defective who “helped” the Giants to pennants in 1911-13. All of these mascots sat in uniform on the bench or, in the case of Faust, entertained the crowd before the game.

In baseball's version of the Faust legend, Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and the ensuing musical version, Damn Yankees, the devil stops time so that the aging process of a fiftyish salesman can be reversed, transforming him into the heroic Joe Hardy, savior of the downtrodden Washington Senators. For Rube Waddell, the aging process was simply halted--as it was for Peter Pan and the lost boys who died before reaching manhood. Waddell was the ultimate man-child, with the body of a man and the brain of a child, an emblem of what baseball is all about—to play, to play past when your mother calls you in for supper, to play and play and play until mortality itself is cheated.

Sam Crawford, who faced Rube Waddell many times in his years with the Detroit Tigers and went on to join Rube in the Hall of Fame, said in his later years: “Rube was one of a kind—just a big kid, you know. He'd pitch one day and we wouldn't see him for three or four days after. He'd just disappear, go fishing or something, or be off playing ball with a bunch of twelve-year-olds in an empty lot somewhere. You couldn't control him ‘cause he was just a big kid himself. Baseball was just a game to Rube.”

It was never just a game to him, of course; he was paid to play, and so he was termed a professional. But he was at heart an amateur, playing the game because he loved it. That was part of what made him a hero, and it is the same essential condition of heroics on the playing fields today: we admire proficiency, but we cherish the men who have retained their zest for play.

Green kids breaking into professional ball today are no longer called Rube. Maybe this is a good thing; it is a divisive name, a mean one. But it would be fine if baseball were again to be visited by an outsider who conveyed the Rube's message: honor your childhood, cherish a sense of play, and show a healthy disrespect for convention and order.

* According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” was “the muttering of actors when simulating the sound of a crowd.” Rube Waddell may thus be viewed as a man of the people or a demotic demigod.

--John Thorn


Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Wow. What a great piece. Thank you for teaching me.
Stu Shea

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Dan Barton said...

Awesome work, John. And thanks for your comment about mine last night.

6:22 PM  

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