The colorful, eccentric, and talented Waddell was “one of the best lefthanders I ever saw,” according to Connie Mack, for whom Waddell had his best seasons. His great fastball was compared to that of Walter Johnson, and he threw a sharp-breaking curve. He collected 50 career shutouts. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost 3-to-1.
Waddell grew up on the farmlands around Bradford, PA. “He often missed school,” said his sister, “but I could always find him playing ball, fishing or following a fire engine.” He pitched for a college team for one year, and for town teams at $25 a game, before signing his first contract with Louisville (NL) in 1897. He was playing for Pittsburgh when, unhappy with the stern discipline of manager Fred Clarke, he jumped the club. Clarke, preferring not to have to deal with the flaky hurler, let him go.
Connie Mack “borrowed” Waddell from the Pirates’ Barney Dreyfuss for his Milwaukee team in the newly christened American League, which was still a minor league in 1900. On August 19, Milwaukee played a doubleheader against the White Sox. Waddell went all the way in the 17-inning opener, winning it 3-2 on his own triple. The two managers agreed the second game would be five innings. Mack, knowing Waddell was an avid fisherman, asked him, “…how would you like to go fishing at Pewaukee for three days instead of going with us to Kansas City? All you have to do is pitch the second game.” Waddell threw a five-inning shutout.
Waddell joined Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1902 and went 24-7, leading the AL in strikeouts for the first of six straight seasons. In 1904 he struck out 349 – an AL record that stood for over 70 years until surpassed by Nolan Ryan. (He had been credited with 343 until after Bob Feller fanned 348 in 1946; further digging later increased Waddell’s total to 349.) In 1905 he led the league with 26 wins, 8 relief wins, 46 appearances, 287 strikeouts, and a 1.48 ERA.
It was rumored that gamblers paid Waddell to fake an arm injury and sit out the 1905 World Series against the Giants. “That’s ridiculous,” maintained Mack. “Money meant nothing to him.” In truth, Waddell had fallen on his left arm while horsing around with teammate Andy Coakley. It stiffened up overnight, and he didn’t pitch again that season. Though he pitched four more ML seasons, he never again threw with the same snap.
It is believed Waddell never made more than $2,800 a year, and he spent money as fast as he got it. For a time the A’s paid him in dollar bills, hoping to make his money last longer. He was forever borrowing or conning extra money out of Mack.
Waddell enjoyed waving his teammates off the field and then striking out the side. He actually did so only in exhibition games, since the rules prohibit playing with fewer than nine men on the field in regulation play. But, in a league game in Detroit, Waddell had his outfielders come in close and sit down on the grass. He struck out the side. Once the stunt almost backfired. Pitching an exhibition in Memphis, he took the field alone with his catcher, Doc Powers, for the last three innings. With two out in the ninth, Powers dropped a third strike, allowing the batter to reach first. The next two hitters patted flies that fell behind the mound. Waddell ran himself ragged but finally fanned the last man.
Waddell wrestled alligators in Florida, hung around in firehouses, married two women who then left him, and tended bar when he wasn’t the saloon’s best customer. He held up the start of games he was scheduled to pitch while he played marbles with children outside the park. There was a provision in Waddell’s contract barring him from eating Animal Crackers in bed. In those days, two players had to share a double bed on the road, and Ossie Schreckengost was Waddell’s catcher and roommate. “Schreck wouldn’t sign unless he saw that clause in Waddell’s contract,” said Mack, “so I wrote it in there, and the Rube stuck to it.”
Though Waddell was always a fan favorite, his erratic behavior and declining effectiveness strained the tolerance of his teammates. Some threatened not to report in the spring of 1908 unless Mack got rid of him. Waddell was shipped to the Browns. That July 29, he tied what was then the AL single-game strikeout record by fanning 16 of his former A’s teammates.
By 1910 Waddell was back in the minors. He won 20 games for Joe Cantillon’s Minneapolis (American Association) club in 1911. In the spring of 1912, he was staying at Cantillon’s house in Hickman, Kentucky, when a nearby river flooded. Standing in icy water, Waddell helped pile sandbags on the embankments. The incident affected his health; though he went 12-6 that year, he collapsed while with Virginia (Northern League) in 1913 and landed in a sanatorium in San Antonio, Texas. He died there in 1914 on April Fool’s Day.
For several years there was no monument on Waddell’s grave. The president of the San Antonio ballclub told Connie Mack and John McGraw, whose Giants trained there. They raised enough money to put up a six-foot granite marker. Waddell was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Baseball Veterans in 1946.