Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part II--Rube Waddell)

Consult three different sources and you are likely to get three different theories about what was wrong with pitcher Rube Waddell. Some say he was "simple" while others contend he was "immature." Since psychology was still in its infancy during Waddell's lifetime, we will never know precisely what caused him to march to the beat of his own drum. But it's safe to say that he was more than just a little "off."

From his first full season of 1900 to the end of the '08 campaign, Waddell was the most dominant left-hander in the game. He won an ERA title in 1900 and a triple crown in 1905. He paced the AL in strikeouts for 6 consecutive years and became the first man to be officially recognized for striking out the side on 9 pitches. Though he played for mediocre clubs at several points during his relatively brief career, he still averaged 15 wins per season.

Waddell's thumbnail bio at baseball-reference.com estimates that his maturity level was equivalent to that of a seven-year old (a seven-year old in a hulking 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame). Despite his numerous talents, he drove more than one manager to distraction. In Pittsburgh, Fred Clarke suspended him for "irresponsible" behavior. In Philadelphia, Connie Mack traded him "in the interest of team harmony." Before then, Mack had tirelessly looked after the eccentric hurler's interests, doling Waddell's money out to him in small increments to avoid the epic spending sprees that would inevitably follow. Waddell had numerous difficulties outside of baseball. A two-fisted drinker and notorious womanizer, he was sued multiple times for divorce. In 1908, he was accused of assaulting his in-laws. It seemed wherever he went, trouble followed. But that's what made him one of the most entertaining characters in baseball history.

He was known to miss a start from time to time off fishing or playing marbles with street kids. He would disappear for days on end then later be found leading a street parade or wrestling alligators (seriously!). In one possibly apocryphal tale, he turned up underneath the A's team bus after a lengthy absence. His presence became known when he began shaking the vehicle violently back and forth. In spring training games, he was known to pull his players off the field then strike out the side (a trick famously employed by Satchel Paige in later years). Legend has it that Waddell would run from the mound to chase passing fire wagons. Though this is grossly inaccurate, he did maintain a fascination with fires throughout his career. He participated in numerous bucket brigades and assisted trained firemen in multiple cities including Philadelphia and Detroit.

Waddell's heroic tendencies eventually led to his death. In the winter of 1912, he stood in the icy waters of the Mississippi river for hours stacking sand bags when rising waters threatened the town of Hickman, Kentucky. He came down with pneumonia, which progressed into tuberculosis. By November of 1913, he was admitted to a sanitarium in poor health. He passed away the following spring just shy of his 38th birthday.

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