Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Curse of Distraction

I have been silent for well over a month now, distracted by the business of life and by the many joys and chores that are commonly associated with summer. I tend to be easily derailed from things that I should be doing, often by a burning desire to follow a thought or idea until I am completely satisfied that I have given it adequate thought and/or study. I will try to make up for my wanderings with a story for you about an individual who was famous in his time for being unable to control these impulses.

On October 13th, 1876 George Edward Waddell was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania not far from the Kinzua Viaduct site that was the subject of a previous Errand post. Like most boys who grew up in places like Bradford, he was raised very differently than similar boys raised in or around big cities. George’s oddness may not have been apparent to the good folks of Bradford at the time, a lot of young boys have problems focusing their attention on a given task. To them I am sure that he was just “a boy being a boy”. A boy with a particularly live arm.

Sometimes these simple country boys are born with a talent that can only be realized by transplanting the boy straight into the heart of the big city. George was a big, strong country boy who had an impressive command of the mechanics of pitching a baseball. A great fastball, a curveball with control, and the ability to throw the screwball to get the batter to chase a bad pitch got him noticed by Major League scouts and landed George in Louisville to pitch for the Colonels in 1897. His country boy ways quickly earned him the nickname “Rube” which was a common term for a hayseed or hillbilly at that time.

Rube Waddell did not let the scouts who assessed his talent down. After a period spent with several minor league clubs, Rube was back with the Colonels by the end of the 1899 season. Before the season started in 1900, the National League pared itself down to eight teams, which led to the “pirating” of the Colonels’ roster , including Waddell, Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke by the Pittsburgh team of the new National League. This is the story as to how the Pittsburgh Pirates got their name.

Rube pitched for the Pirates in 1900 and 1901, and went on to pitch for the Chicago Orphans, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns. One of the first “power pitchers” in baseball, Rube led the American League in strikeouts every season from 1902 until 1907. He won the American League pitching “Triple Crown” in 1905 with a 27-10 record, a 1.48 ERA and 287 strike outs.

Unfortunately for Rube Waddell, his brilliant performance when in focus would be eclipsed by his antics when he lost focus. Rube was notorious for his binge drinking episodes, but this was not entirely uncommon amongst players at this time. What was unusual was the times that he lost his focus while on the mound.

Apparently it was not unusual for Rube to forget he was playing baseball all together. It was not un usual for him to be on the mound in the midst of a game and become so distracted by the sound of a passing fire company that he would throw down the ball and glove and run out of the park to watch it go by. Eventually fans in opposition parks caught on to his attention span problems and came up with distractions of their own such as holding up shiny objects or cute puppies to get Rube’s attention between pitches. Reportedly he could become transfixed by these distractions as if he were entranced. He even missed a few scheduled starts because he was off fishing or shooting marbles with kids. Through all of these attempts at getting Rube unnerved on the mound, he still found enough focus to strike out 2,316 batters in his choppy career. In a 1902 game against Baltimore Rube struck out three batters on only nine pitches. He also threw 50 shut-outs in his career and once struck out sixteen in one game.

An undistracted Waddell may have been too much for opponents to handle in his prime. His frequent lapses in judgment and discipline did cause several problems with managers and teammates, which is why he was pawned off on other teams so often, even when he was a dominating force on the mound. The following story is told about Rube by Cooperstown historian Lee Allen:

"He began that year (1903) sleeping in a firehouse in Camden, NJ, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia.. In between those events he won 22 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 became 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 truth of this story may be slightly stretched.

When Rube’s Major League career was over, he hung on to pitch a couple more years in the minors. After the 1911 season, Rube moved to Hickman, Kentucky where the Mississippi River flooded that winter and threatened the town. Rube spent hours standing in the icy waters stacking sandbags to save Hickman, but quickly developed a cold that became pneumonia. The weakened Waddell soon became victim to tuberculosis.

Eventually the very ill Waddell was sent to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he passed away on April 1, 1914. He was just shy of his 38th birthday. Rube was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1946.

I hope that this story will interest readers who visit The Errand on a regular basis, your patience is very much appreciated.

Do I hear a fire truck ?

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