Memories & Dreams: Rube Waddell

By Marty Appel

Pete Sheehy, who worked in the New York Yankees clubhouse from 1927 to 1985, saw a lot of left-handers come and go during those 58 seasons. And with the wisdom that one acquires observing human behavior, he had the science of “handedness” down to a gesture.

If a player did something odd, or was a little “flaky,” Big Pete would simply flick his left wrist as though snapping off a curveball, and write it off to left-handedness. It could be a loony act by a right-hander, but Pete would categorize it as left-handed behavior and everyone around would nod.

If he didn’t develop that belief during his years with Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez, perhaps it came from tales learned of Rube Waddell, a major league pitcher from 1897-1910. After all, when Pete broke in, “Pop” Logan ran the clubhouse, and he went back to 19th century baseball. Tales would have been told.

Waddell died of tuberculosis in 1914 when he was only 37, but what remained of his legacy well into the 20th century was his remarkable strikeout record of 343 in one season, 1904. That year, he finished more than 100 strikeouts ahead of his nearest competitor, Jack Chesbro, with names like Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank and Cy Young far behind.

It seemed as though he was playing a different game from everyone else.

His record attracted particular attention in 1946, when Bob Feller challenged it, and finished with 348. The assault on the mark led statisticians to revisit Waddell’s box scores, and he was suddenly credited with 349.

The debate over Waddell’s and Feller’s marks continued until 1965 when Sandy Koufax (a non- flaky southpaw) fanned 382, passing them both. But Rube’s name was back in the news for modern baseball fans, and his feat of leading the league in strikeouts every year from 1902-1907 certainly helped propel him in the Hall of Fame in 1947.

But even the voters of 1947 knew him more for his erratic behavior than for his pitching prowess, and even his manager, the still-active Connie Mack, must have felt wonderment over the idea of Rube being immortalized for his mound work. For baseball people of the century’s first decade knew him far better as the fellow who was often suspended, sometimes jailed (usually over non-support of spouse issues– involving his four wives), unreliable at showing up for games, unnecessary injuries during silly scuffles, disputes over salary advances, and generally eccentric behavior.

His greatest stretch of pitching was surely his Connie Mack years, 1902-07 when he had all those big strikeout seasons. He was a lovable rogue, and though Mr. Mack’s patience eventually ran thin, he cared for Rube’s well-being long after he had left the Athletics.

“We had our anxious moments with Rube,” noted Mr. Mack in his autobiography, “but he was worth it. When he wandered away from a game we usually found him fishing or playing with the kids.”

Pete Sheehy never met George Edward Waddell, but suffice it to say, his flick of the wrist gesture would have applied.