It all started with a hat. A straw boater, to be precise, with a flat, round brim and brightly colored ribbon tied around the crown. Originally popularized by gondoliers in Venice, this jaunty accessory had reached the height of American couture by the turn of the 20th century. The boater became not just a style, but a closet staple, worn by everyone from politicians to athletes⁠⁠—at least between the months of May and September. Fashion of the era adhered to strict seasonal rules, and just as women could be shunned for wearing white after Labor Day, any man seen wearing a boater past some ill-defined moment in late September was liable to suffer the disdain of his more fastidious friends.

Men in straw boaters
Men in straw boaters

So it made perfect sense when, in September of 1905, George “Rube” Waddell set out to smash the straw hat of his friend, Andy Coakley. At the time, both men were professional baseball players for the Philadelphia Athletics, and they were traveling home by train with the rest of the team after a disappointing loss to the Boston Americans (who would eventually be known as the Red Sox.) Waddell wasn’t especially concerned with hat etiquette; he was just an oafish, playful man who would take any excuse for a physical prank. Coakley, however, was understandably irritated by the assault, and he swung his heavy suitcase at Waddell in self-defense, striking him in the left shoulder.

Or perhaps, as some reporters heard it, Coakley closed the train door to keep Waddell out, and Waddell slammed his shoulder against it repeatedly trying to break through. Possibly the blundering Rube simply slipped and fell all on his own. Most agreed it had happened at the station in Providence, Rhode Island, but maybe it was outside on the platform in New London, Connecticut. No one could get their story straight on how Rube Waddell had injured his shoulder, which was especially odd considering he was the Athletics’ star pitcher. The paychecks of more than a dozen teammates, trainers, and coaches⁠⁠—not to mention thousands of baseball gamblers⁠⁠—hinged directly upon the strength of Waddell’s left humeral ligaments, yet his sudden and complete inability to pitch was being justified with only vague rumors about suitcases and hats. Each reporter who asked was given a similar but never identical version of the same ludicrous story, leading some to suspect the worst: that Rube Waddell had never been injured at all.

Whether they believed him about the shoulder, most sports writers were already quite familiar with Rube Waddell’s antics, both on and off the field. He was born on a Friday the 13th in October of 1876, the sixth child of a homemaker and an oil field worker in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He usually declined to attend school, preferring instead to occupy his time with fishing, baseball, and, according to one sister, “following fire engines.” At the age of 3, Waddell disappeared from home for several days and was eventually found living at the local fire station. As an adult, he always wore a red undershirt so that he could strip down to his first-responder uniform and help any local fire crew at a moment’s notice. If firefighting hadn’t involved so much boring downtime between emergencies, Waddell might very well have joined the profession⁠⁠—but his attention span was too fleeting to stick in any one place for long. Unlike a lot of men with his nickname, “Rube” was not short for “Reuben.”

Fortunately, his physical talents more than made up for any intellectual deficits. While other boys were just starting to hit their growth spurts, Waddell was already working alongside his father on drilling sites, and he excelled at every sport he could remember the rules for. Most impressive of all was his deadly accurate aim, which he perfected by throwing rocks at flying birds. At 18, Waddell traveled to the nearby town of Franklin, hoping to convince the manager of a semi-pro baseball team to give him a trial. He’d already been turned down once in Oil City, and at first glance, the Franklin team’s manager seemed equally unimpressed. “There he was on the street corner, gaping about in open-mouthed wonderment, a big, awkward, red-faced country lad, with ill-fitting clothes and a slouch hat pulled down over his head so tightly that his big ears protruded.”

Rube Waddell
Rube Waddell

Despite his doubts, the manager agreed to put Waddell up in a hotel for the night so he could see the young man’s pitching arm on the field the next morning. Several hours later, he received a furious call from the hotel’s owner: his guest had destroyed the hotel’s barn, and someone had to pay for the damage. When the manager arrived, he discovered that Waddell had offered to demonstrate his pitching skills to a group of children by throwing rocks at the barn wall. “There were scarcely a whole board remaining in the barn,” he said, “and most of them were completely shattered.” Waddell was hired.

Things were shaky in the beginning. During his first game, Waddell threw a ball into empty space, believing that the baserunner would be out as long as the ball “crossed” his path⁠⁠—but his mistakes must have seemed forgivable, in light of what he could do when he got it right. In addition to throwing fastballs at more than 100 miles per hour (based on the pounds of force required to smash a wooden board), Waddell’s untrained, awkward windup meant that batters struggled to predict exactly when the ball would leave his fingers. Nearly every opponent who faced him struck out. Unfortunately, the Franklin team’s so-called “gem in the rough” turned out to be completely unpolishable. By the end of the season, all but $20 of Waddell’s annual salary had been taken back in fines for drinking, tardiness, property damage, and maddeningly cheerful insubordination.

Fans who saw him play, however, weren’t privy to the frustrations of the dugout, and word of Waddell’s extraordinary left arm began to spread. Logically, the next step up from a semi-pro team should have been to the minor leagues, but Waddell’s skill was so apparent that at the age of 20, he was offered a direct tryout in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He never made it to the mound. On the first morning that Waddell joined the team at breakfast, he happened to sit next to Pirates manager Patsy Donovan. No record exists of what Waddell said, but as one reporter described it, Donovan “heard him talk and released him as soon as breakfast was over.” Years later, a different paper would claim that Waddell did, in fact, throw a few pitches in demonstration, one of which struck Donovan, “nearly putting him out of the business.” But whether it was a wild arm or an even wilder mouth that ended his tryout, the Pirates clearly decided that neither were worth the hassle.

Fortunately for Waddell, the Louisville Colonels quickly snatched him up. A week after his major league debut with Louisville in 1897, Waddell found himself facing off against his erstwhile teammates from Pittsburgh on the field. Managers in this era often served double-duty as players, so when Donovan came up to bat, Waddell struck him out, then loudly mocked him for not hiring such an obvious talent when he had the chance. And that wasn’t the end of Waddell’s theatrics. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal,

He kept the spectators splitting their sides with laughter by his ludicrous antics… He ‘shoos’ the runners off first, talks to the pitcher like he was driving cows, and twists and curves his body into all sorts of fantastic contortions… [The Pittsburgh players] tried their best to guy him, but his backbone stood him in good stead, and he parried every remark with some homespun witticism which carried with it a flavor of the soil.

Despite being a fan favorite, however, the Colonels soon realized that Waddell’s miraculous pitching came with some serious personality downsides. So for the start of the 1898 season, they loaned Waddell out to the Detroit Tigers, in the hopes that he could gain some maturity and experience. It only took nine games before Waddell became embroiled in a dispute with the Tigers’ owner over unpaid rent and fines. Waddell told his new boss that he would go and get the money from someone who owed him in Canada, then later sent a letter from his parents’ house claiming that he’d taken ill in the northern weather, and didn’t know when he’d be able to return. Reporters from the Detroit Tribune, however, discovered that Waddell had been playing baseball on the sly the whole time he’d been missing⁠⁠—first for the minor leagues in Ontario, and then for a semi-pro team back in Pennsylvania. In response, the Tigers officially suspended Waddell, but not even the pay cut could bring him back to Detroit. Waddell was a man who lived in the moment, and he could always find someone who would pay him to pick up a ball.

As the 1898 season wound down, a lengthy and public drama played out over who would take Waddell next. Detroit traded the rest of Waddell’s borrowed contract to Columbus, but Waddell refused to go, and the two teams began arguing over who should receive Louisville’s “contract release” money to send him home. Meanwhile, the fans of all three cities were demanding that Waddell be returned to them under any means possible⁠⁠—he was just that good. Even amid the strife, Detroit’s owner admitted that “The loss of Waddell practically put us out of the race.”

The next several years of Waddell’s career played out in a similar fashion, with everyone clamoring for the benefits of his big left arm while trying desperately to keep the rest of him under control. Between 1899 and 1902, Waddell played for the Columbus Rippers (who would eventually become the Cleveland Guardians), the Chicago Orphans (wisely renamed the Cubs), the Milwaukee Brewers (precursor to the Baltimore Orioles, with no relation to the modern Brewers), and the Los Angeles Looloos (whose name was so reviled by fans that they were informally known as the Seraphs before switching to the Angels). Waddell also re-appeared with the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates, and filled in the gaps with various semi-pro teams whenever he was suspended, which was often. Yet despite being absent for at least half the season in all three years, in 1900, Waddell ranked second in strikeouts for the entire National League. During this time he also met, married, and divorced his first wife.

Finally, in 1902, the 25-year-old Waddell met his match. The Philadelphia Athletics were revamping both their lineup and their league affiliation under the leadership of a man named Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, who had first managed Waddell during his short stint with the Brewers. Waddell’s performance on the Brewers had been solid under Mack’s guidance, and had ended, for once, not because the Brewers were sick of him, but because the Pirates saw him thriving and demanded his return under what was, at that point, their contract. Unfortunately for the Pirates, Waddell hadn’t suddenly matured; Mack just knew how to handle him. Now, with the Athletics’ lineup under Mack’s control, they were going to secure the best pitcher the world had ever seen⁠⁠—and they were going to keep him.

Cornelius McGillicuddy (a.k.a. Connie Mack) in a straw boater
Cornelius McGillicuddy (a.k.a. Connie Mack) in a straw boater

The most important thing for Mack to know about Waddell, it turned out, was how bad he was with money, to the point that he barely seemed to understand how it worked at all. When Mack arrived in Los Angeles to convince Waddell to sign on with the Athletics, he discovered that the owner of the San Francisco Seals had already come to woo him. It was unclear whether anything formal had been signed, but Mack knew that Waddell walked out on contracts as easily as he walked into bars.

“How much have they given you to stay here?” Mack asked.

“This,” Waddell replied, showing him a check for $500.

“What, just that piece of paper?” Mack scoffed. He began laying out $1 bills, until the stack had reached a hundred tall. “Look at that,” he said. “Then look at your measly little slip of paper, and figure out which you like best.” Rube Waddell shoved the fistful of ones into his pocket, and mailed the check back to San Francisco.

Waddell played his first game for the Athletics on 26 June 1902. Five days later, he became the second major league pitcher to ever throw an “immaculate inning,” with nine back-to-back strikes. By the end of the season, he led the league with 210 strikeouts⁠⁠—50 more than Cy Young, who had pitched for 108 more innings than Waddell⁠⁠—and the Athletics won their first American League pennant. Stadium attendance had doubled to a record-breaking 420,000 for the year, and merchants began hawking cigars, soap, and liquor with Waddell’s name on them. As Mack later reminisced, “He had more stuff than any pitcher I ever saw. He had everything but a sense of responsibility.”

The trick to handling Rube Waddell, he explained, was maximum forgiveness combined with maximum supervision. Who cared if Waddell did somersaults off the mound, or delayed the game to chase a loose puppy around the stadium? The fans loved it. And if he wanted to pitch both halves of a double-header so he could have several days off to go fishing, what did it matter? His arm could handle it. Sure, it was a little nerve-wracking when Waddell chose to wrestle an alligator during spring training in Florida, and no one liked it when he knocked on their bedroom door at midnight to offer them a bite of his “pazzazza” sandwich made with limburger cheese and onions. But these were, according to Mack, merely opportunities for Waddell’s teammates to strengthen their tolerance. As for Waddell’s drinking and money problems, both were kept in check by a physical trainer named Frank Newhouse, whose job was “to stick as close to Waddell as if he was porous plaster.” Newhouse held Waddell’s salary for him and doled it out in small bills as needed, and when Waddell went to a bar, Newhouse was instructed to steal gulps out of his pint glass whenever Waddell was distracted.

Still, there were some hazards that even Mack couldn’t neutralize. In June of 1903, Waddell married his second wife, having only met her three days earlier. Their relationship was predictably rocky, and over the next several years Mrs. Waddell would frequently have her husband jailed for non-support. A month later, Waddell leaped into the stands mid-game to assault a spectator who had been shouting slurs, and suffered both a short arrest⁠⁠—which Mack bailed him out of⁠⁠—and a five-day suspension from the president of the league. (Coincidentally, Waddell’s father had come up to visit during that game, and told reporters that he was proud of his son’s actions. “I told [him] more than once when he was a boy that if anyone ever called him that name, and he did not fight him for it, he was no Waddell and I would not own him in the family.”) During the off-season that year, Waddell also accidentally shot a man in the hand, saved a drowning woman, and made a brief cameo in a circus act when he allowed a lion tamer to give him a leisurely shave while sitting inside the animals’ cage.

This last stunt was so well received that Waddell decided to join a touring theatrical company for the rest of the winter, starring as himself in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt. The actors quickly realized that Waddell was incapable of learning his lines, but his improvised performances⁠⁠—which included throwing another actor across the stage each night⁠⁠—were so loved by the crowds that the show simply went on. One newspaper reported that “He is let out only two minutes in each scene, and the ensuing repair bills are pretty bulky for even those few minutes,” while another reassured their readers that “all the members of the company had been carefully coached in the ‘first aid to the injured’ drill.”

Waddell managed to stay with the touring company for 17 weeks⁠⁠—longer than many of his sporting commitments⁠⁠—but this, too, went sour in the end. The tour’s producer claimed they could no longer suffer Waddell’s erratic behavior, and had thrown his luggage in the street. Waddell’s publicist, Joe Finnegan, insisted that the company had actually tricked Waddell into a salary of just $40 per week while his performances raked in thousands of dollars, and that Waddell had been the one to quit after the company wouldn’t renegotiate. But the end of Waddell’s theatrical run also meant the end of Finnegan’s obligation to defend his client, and just six months later, he told a reporter, “I would sooner do missionary work in the Cannibal Islands than to again officiate as Rube’s general manager.”

But when judged on the metric of baseball, and only baseball, Waddell was nothing short of a prodigy. The 1903 season saw him extend his own strikeout record to 302, then to 349 in 1904. In both years, the runner-up was more than 100 strikeouts behind him. Waddell’s 1904 record held for more than 50 years until Sandy Koufax finally surpassed him in 1965, and he remains in fourth place to this day behind Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. Had Waddell been focused and sober for any single season of his career, there’s no telling how far he would have gone.

Waddell's base ball card
Waddell's base ball card

How, then, reporters asked, could Rube Waddell⁠⁠—the man who wrestled alligators, and threw actors across a theater, and sometimes poured ice water on his arm before a game because he was worried he would injure the catcher’s hand if he threw at top speed⁠⁠—how could he possibly have damaged his shoulder so badly over a simple whack with a suitcase? The particulars of the train scuffle were met with equanimity: “Straw Hat Day” was a known cultural phenomenon of the era, in which the violent destruction of summer headwear in September was shrugged off not only between friends, but complete strangers. An assault over an out-of-season boater would have been credible even if one of the men hadn’t been Waddell. The idea that he couldn’t simply shake off the injury, however, was much harder to swallow. Just a few months before the train incident, Waddell had heroically run into a restaurant, hefted a flaming stove into his arms, and thrown it into a snowbank outside. A few days after that, he’d gotten into an altercation with his estranged wife’s stepfather, and walked away with a severe bite from the family dog. Neither of those events had stopped him from playing⁠⁠—yet Mack was already telling reporters that Waddell’s suitcase mishap could potentially keep him off the field for the rest of the season.

The timing of the injury was also highly suspicious. The American League pennant would soon be awarded⁠⁠—almost certainly to the Athletics, given the current standings⁠⁠—and the winner would go on to face the National League’s New York Giants in the 1905 World Series. Rumors had been spreading for weeks in the gambling community that some serious investors were banking on the Giants to win, which would be far more likely to happen if Waddell weren’t on the mound against them. The accusations that Waddell had taken a bribe to sit out the Series were so immediate and widespread that on 22 September 1905, he was forced to issue a written statement:

In the first place, I most emphatically deny that I have been ‘soldiering’ or have been approached by anyone in regard to throwing games. I would rather lose my left arm than betray a confidence reposed in me by the sporting public.

Strangely, no one at the time seemed to question Waddell’s sudden increase in vocabulary. Mack, meanwhile, began to claim that the impact had been only the first step in a chain of misfortune. “Waddell was covered with perspiration [during the incident] and he must have got cold in his shoulder… I am convinced that the trouble is rheumatism.”

On 27 September⁠⁠—roughly three weeks after his purported injury, and less than two weeks before the start of the Series⁠⁠—Waddell made a brief test appearance on the mound, taking over mid-game from his teammate Weldon Henley. He stepped down again after facing just one batter, but it was unclear whether this was due to pain, or an executive decision by Mack. Then, a few days later, Waddell loudly announced to reporters that he was cured.

“I was shaving,” he explained, “when something went click in my shoulder. All of a sudden I was all right again. I can fling as well as ever now. I want the doctor to look my arm over and see for himself.” When pressed for specifics, he said, “What it was I don’t know. It may have been a stiffness, or a cartilage or something out of place. Something happened, anyway, and I know that I am all right. Watch me.”

The official response from the team was more cautious, suggesting that the “snap” had occurred during exercise rather than basic hygiene, and that “Waddell will be allowed to work his arm slowly until he is certain it will stand the strain of a nine inning game.” Though it was starting to seem as if Mack was the only one trying to keep Waddell out of the Series, his attitude was no doubt influenced by Waddell’s behind-the-scenes behavior, which remained as unpredictable as ever. During this time, one dedicated fan even stalked Waddell⁠⁠—likely to gain insight on the financial viability of his shoulder⁠⁠—and reported his hour-by-hour movements to the local papers:

8 a.m. – Waddell left his hotel in the direction of tall timber; said he would pitch no more.

9 a.m. – Reported that Waddell had drowned himself in a tank of mineral water. [Note: it’s unclear whether this was a euphemism for drunkenness, or a literal report of Waddell’s death. If the latter, it wouldn’t be the first: a news ticker had once declared mid-game that the absent Waddell was confirmed dead, only to have him saunter onto the field in the second half, amused by all the tears. The next item on Waddell’s agenda, however, seems to indicate that the mineral water was indeed alcohol-related.]

10 a.m. – Rube telephones that he “can still say sarsaparilla.”

11 a.m. – Rube’s keeper shows up with a black eye and a story of falling down stairs in the dark.

Noon – Rube returns and announces he will pitch the afternoon game.

1 p.m. – Rube lunches on fried pickerel, stewed cabbage, spinach, apple dumplings, lemon pie, and ice cream.

2 p.m. – Rube takes a little exercise up and down the fire escapes, winding up by climbing the flagpole on the hotel building.

3 p.m. – Rube says his shoulder still hurts and he’ll be tarred and feathered if he pitches again this year; kisses his teammates good-by.

4 p.m. – Extra editions of the evening papers announce the departure of Waddell for a sanitarium on the Green mountains.

5 p.m. – Waddell discovered asleep in the grand stand at the ballpark; assaults the groundkeeper for disturbing his slumbers.

6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 p.m. – Waddell lost to public view.

11 p.m. – Waddell suddenly appears in hotel lobby; whips bellboy who suggests that he go to bed; declares he’ll sleep no more.

On 06 October 1905, Waddell officially returned to a standing ovation from the crowd. He threw for six innings, and observers felt that his performance was solid, if perhaps a little rusty after so much time off. But Mack was unenthused, citing instead the six runs, five walks, and two wild pitches that Waddell had served up amid his usual spate of strikeouts. Meanwhile, the White Sox lost a game elsewhere that day, and shifted the league stats to a point of no return: though the Athletics technically had one more game left in the season, they would be going to the World Series regardless of its outcome.

In their final game of the season, Mack gave Waddell one more chance, but pulled him after the opposing team scored two runs in the first inning. Some interpreted this as a sign that Mack wasn’t bothering to keep Waddell in shape for the upcoming contest, but others considered it proof that Waddell would play, because he would be well rested for the real battle against the Giants. As the World Series opener loomed, speculation reached a fevered pitch, with most newspapers cautioning their readers not to bet one way or the other until they could be sure. Everyone seemed to agree that Waddell was the deciding factor in which team would win, with the notable exception of Giants manager John McGraw. He told the Boston Globe that his team would win regardless of Waddell’s presence, and to demonstrate his confidence, he had placed a bet of $3,500 on the Giants (equivalent to more than $100,000 in 2022.) According to McGraw, his players had pooled another $1,500 to bet on themselves as well.

At the time, of course, this was not only legal, but assumed. Managers, players, owners, and fans all placed bets with bookies and among themselves, with terms ranging anywhere from a full season’s point spread to whether the next pitch would be a ball or a strike. The conflict of interest was obvious, but the idea of cutting ballplayers out of the process seemed both impossible and cruel⁠⁠—gambling was as integral to baseball as gloves and chewing tobacco. Sometimes, observers would even shout their bets to players on the field, and offer to share the profits if they could secure a win: Waddell himself once publicly collected a $25 bounty from a gambler in the stands after serving up the final strikeout in a semi-pro game for which his actual salary was only $2. By 1905, Waddell earned $2,400 per season⁠⁠—though Mack told reporters he could have commanded three times that, if he’d simply been a more tolerable human being⁠⁠—but the disparity between salaries and gambling windfalls persisted at all levels of the game.

So fans and professionals had reached an unspoken agreement: as long as athletes only bet in support of their own teams⁠⁠—thus motivating them to perform better, and not worse⁠⁠—the harm was considered minimal. A player might deliberately miss a swing or drop a ball for a small-stakes bet, but too many errors would put their job in danger, or worse, lose the respect of the crowd. Besides, with nine players on the field, it was almost impossible for one man to sink an entire game, let alone a series⁠⁠—unless, of course, that man were as talented as Rube Waddell. In the heated debate leading up to the World Series, only one thing seemed unanimous: if there were financial hijinks being perpetrated, the fault rested solely with the profligate, volatile, and frankly insane pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics.

John McGraw
John McGraw

On the morning of 09 October 1905, just hours before the opening pitch of the World Series, more than 100 major newspapers across the U.S. ran stories involving the name of Rube Waddell. Alabama and California were certain he would play; New Jersey and Washington, D.C., were convinced he would not. More than one paper suggested that the entire injury was a ruse not for the sake of gambling, but as a coup d’etat by Connie Mack to lull John McGraw into complacency before sneaking Waddell onto the roster at the last moment. Indeed, the two men had a rivalry of their own that traced back to the Athletics’ defection to the American League three years earlier, when McGraw famously declared that Mack’s team would always be “a white elephant” in their new home⁠⁠—i.e., losers in both sport and character. Now, as a throng of 22,000 fans crammed themselves into every available inch of Philadelphia’s Columbia Park stadium, a huge piece of blue bunting stretched across the outfield fence with a white elephant proudly displayed upon it.

Whether Mack intended for Waddell to play, he certainly understood what the crowd wanted⁠⁠—so when the pre-game celebrations began, Waddell was the first person to set foot on the field. He waved gleefully, then batted a few balls to some local boys selected for the honor, for which he was “applauded and hissed with equal vigor.” Bands played, gifts and good-natured handshakes were exchanged, various patriotic anthems were sung… then Waddell returned to the dugout, and the Athletics’ second-best pitcher, Eddie Plank, took the mound. Two hours later, the Athletics lost the first game of the series, 3-0.

Still, many held out hope that this was all a strategic ploy by Mack, and that Waddell’s shoulder was being held in reserve as a secret, now fully functional weapon. Series games were scheduled back-to-back, with minimal days taken off only to travel between the teams’ home stadiums. Even in top form, Waddell wouldn’t be expected to pitch in every game. His presence alone seemed to make it clear that the benching was a managerial decision: when Waddell didn’t want to play, he just didn’t show up at all. Waddell’s teammates, however, saw things differently. As third baseman Lave Cross told reporters, “I’d like to clout him on the head with a bat. He worked out yesterday on the quiet, and had both speed and curves. There is no reason why he should not pitch. He’s jeopardizing our chances of getting the bulk of the money, and it is not fair to the team.”

Cross’s statement, however, was disingenuous at best. League rules stated that the players’ share of the profits would be split 75-25 in favor of the winning team⁠⁠—hence Cross’s desire for “the bulk” of the money. But in fact, the players of both teams had already agreed to a 50-50 split for the first four games, regardless of who won. This revelation, when it came, only bolstered the accusations that at least one member of the Athletics, and possibly more, were unmotivated to win. As team captain, Cross would certainly have known about the agreement, and was promoting a deliberate lie to reporters when he complained about the financial impact of a Series loss.

Meanwhile, the Giants began to face accusations of their own: if someone had paid Waddell to sit out, reporters at the time speculated, then perhaps their motivation was ego, rather than money, and the culprit was someone on John McGraw’s team who couldn’t bear losing to Connie Mack after their public falling out. When asked, one Giants player vehemently denied it⁠⁠—yet he also chose to keep his name off the record, and quixotically offered the team’s own bet for themselves as evidence that their motives were pure.

Suspicions died down a bit in New York the next day, as Game 2 once again finished 3-0, this time in the Athletics’ favor. Waddell rode the train up to Manhattan with his team and served as first base coach for most of the game, but did not play. Then it was back to Philadelphia, where the Athletics (again sans Waddell) lost 9-0. Yet despite all evidence, the debate over whether Waddell might eventually step in continued in earnest. Game 4 would be critical, the pundits argued: if the Giants won again, they’d be just one game away from the championship, but if the Athletics kept pace, the teams would be tied and anything could happen. What’s more, the next game was scheduled for 13 October, which was both a Friday and Rube Waddell’s 29th birthday. If anyone was destined for bad luck on that day, surely it was the Giants.

But the fans’ hopes were shattered, as Waddell once again sat out and the Athletics lost 1-0. In contrast to the heartbroken crowds, the players seemed to face their all-but-inevitable defeat with equanimity. Cross, in particular, went out of his way to tell reporters that the situation wasn’t Waddell’s fault after all. “I thought for a while he was playing possum,” he explained, “but know different now. He is the hardest worker in camp, despite the fact that he is helpless, and he has cried at least a dozen times every day for the past month because of his failure to don spangles and face the Giants.”

The fifth and final game ended with the Giants up 2-0, and taking home the Series championship. Though much was made of the phenomenal pitching by Christy Mathewson for the Giants, many felt that the Athletics were weaker than they should have been across all parameters. The Washington Post noted, “A team that led the American League with a team average of .254 [in batting] dropped to a mark of .155 for the five games. Had the Athletics done no better than that in the American League, they would have finished last.” American League president Ban Johnson admitted that “there was a noticeable diminution in the rapidity of play this week,” while one of the World Series’ umpires, Jack Sheridan, wrote:

“There is no use in denying that the best team won, but they won a great deal easier than they should have. The Athletics played dopey ball, far below their standard… Instead of pestering Bresnahan by stealing bases and bunting, they let the New York catcher have everything his own way… [They] did not take the aggressive, merely coming up to the bat with the thought, ‘Well, I’ll make one more out.’ [The Athletics] failed entirely to let themselves out and turn the tricks I have seen them do right along during the American League season.”

In fact, when taken in more detail, the fourth game⁠⁠—which could have tied the Series, and kept momentum going⁠⁠—had been lost on a single critical error by Athletics shortstop Monte Cross (of no relation to third baseman Lave Cross, who was born Vratislav Kriz before legally changing his name to Lafayette Napoleon Cross as a teenager.) Yet even with headlines as direct as “Monte Cross’ Error Cost Athletics the Game” and “Athletics are Hoodooed,” the overarching narrative remained, both then and to this day, that Rube Waddell was the sole suspect in the case of bribery to throw the 1905 World Series.

•     •     •

After their final Series loss, Mack organized a barnstorming tour of exhibition games, and three days later Waddell was happily pitching for his team again in Reading, Pennsylvania. Fans who had previously believed his tale of woe were appalled at the blatant turnabout. But the New England winters were long, and while Mack made several threats to fire Waddell for his Series shenanigans⁠⁠—the implication now being that he’d milked a genuine injury for longer than necessary⁠⁠—the fans grew eager for their jester’s return.

Waddell remained with the Athletics for the 1906 and 1907 seasons, again pitching more strikeouts than any other player in both years. But the numbers soon revealed an undeniable trend: Waddell was past his prime. The change was still subtle enough that only statistics nerds could see it, but Mack knew that comebacks were the stuff of fiction. Some athletes managed to make their fall a long and graceful one, but this was Rube Waddell. In short, Mack had a valuable asset that might become worthless at any moment, and he needed to sell it off while he still could.

Yet for all the headaches Waddell had caused him over the years, Mack cared deeply for his so-called “sousepaw”. The pragmatics of team management meant that Waddell couldn’t be allowed to wither on Mack’s roster, but in the hypermasculine world of baseball, the cruelest move of all would be for Mack to acknowledge his inevitable decline. Better to angrily fire Waddell for misbehavior once and for all, which no one would question, and allow him to leave the Athletics with his ego intact. Thus, in 1908, Mack sold Waddell to the St. Louis Browns. Attendance numbers for the Athletics dropped 30 percent that year, while the Browns’ increased by 48 percent.

“Some people insist that I have been gold-bricked by Connie Mack,” said Browns manager Jimmy McAleer. “But Rube will make good my judgment this summer… He’s just a great big boy and has to be humored.”

Waddell with the Browns team masot [sic]
Waddell with the Browns team masot [sic]

Waddell put him to the test almost immediately. He gave an interview to The Scranton Republican in which he effectively laid out a personal ad for a new wife, despite still being married to the second one. “Unkissed Girl Sought By Rube Waddell,” read the headline. “Qualifications⁠⁠—Peroxide blondes preferred. Women with children need not apply… Will turn over to wife $1,000 yearly for clothes… No woman who wears a half or whole set of false teeth will be accepted… Maids with wooden legs will be frozen out.”

Understandably, the current Mrs. Waddell did not appreciate the interview, but she was also unwilling to sign his petition for divorce. She had, after all, been enjoying Waddell’s money from a distance for many years, though she often had to employ the courts to get it. Around this same time, Waddell was charged with assault for allegedly throwing a flat-iron at his wife and attacking her stepfather with an axe. Precisely when Waddell could have committed these crimes is unclear, nor is it certain whether the assault charges led to the matrimonial advertisement, or the other way around. Regardless, a warrant was issued for Waddell’s arrest in Massachusetts, which rendered him unable to cross state lines to pitch games in Boston for all of 1908 and 1909.

In 1910, as his stats marched steadily downward due to age, stress, and drinking, Waddell was finally granted a divorce from his second wife. His case was helped substantially by Connie Mack, who declared under oath that he had never seen Waddell intoxicated in the eight years he had known him. He also testified that he’d cut Waddell’s pay after the infamous shoulder injury, which now supposedly occurred when Waddell leaped from a moving train to join a group of other men who were cutting up straw hats. Privately, however, Mack continued to insist upon the original tale of luggage assault, and ultimately included this version in his personal memoir some 40 years later.

A close examination of the evidence, meanwhile, presents a third, entirely different story. At the time of the purported train incident, two reporters⁠⁠—Horace Fogel of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and Charles Dryden of the Philadelphia North American⁠⁠—were traveling with the team, and both asserted that they did not witness any commotion on the ride back from Boston. Not a single player from the Athletics, nor any other train passenger that day, would confirm having seen either a group of men, or two men, scrabbling over a straw hat. Most shockingly, this included suitcase-wielder Andy Coakley, who wouldn’t comment on the incident until shortly after Mack’s memoir was published, at which point his statement was a nearly verbatim rendition of his former employer’s. In fact, aside from a few sporadic details from Waddell, Mack was the only person to ever offer an explanation for the injury (or more accurately, a series of shifting explanations).

Fogel, in particular, claimed to have sources within the gambling community that heard whispers of plans to keep Waddell out of the Series long before the supposed shoulder incident. He wrote several articles that autumn questioning the specifics of Waddell’s injury and floating the notion of possible bribery, but never offered any evidence. Then, in 1919, the baseball world was rocked by the “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of conspiring to throw the World Series that year, leading to a widespread public reckoning with baseball’s bone-packed closet. Soon after, Fogel went public with his own shocking accusation. Immediately before the fateful train ride home in 1905, he said, Waddell had met with “Little Tim” Sullivan, a notoriously corrupt politician and gambler, plus two other unnamed New Yorkers. Fogel claimed that the men had offered Waddell $17,000 to sit out the Series (around $500,000 in 2022), and that Waddell had been given $500 up front, though he had been cheated out of the rest of the money he was promised. All of this, Fogel said, had been a direct confession from Waddell himself.

No one at the time questioned why Fogel had kept this secret for 15 years, as it must have seemed obvious. To begin with, Tim Sullivan was a powerful man with dangerous friends. He had died in 1913, but the two New Yorkers were likely still alive, given that Fogel wouldn’t name them. Secondly, Fogel was a baseball writer for a reason: he loved the sport and had played professionally in his youth for the Indianapolis Hoosiers, then served as manager for the New York Giants until 1902 and later became president of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1909. He was as emotionally invested as anyone in preserving the dignity of the game. What’s more, Fogel was no longer concerned about professional consequences⁠⁠—in 1912, he had been banned from Major League Baseball for publicly questioning the integrity of certain umpires. They couldn’t kick him out a second time.

Others were not so safe. In response to the Black Sox scandal, the team owners agreed to appoint a courtroom judge named Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball, with the understanding that he would be ruthless in cleaning up the organization. (The plan had been to appoint three judges, but Landis refused to accept unless he was given sole, unrestricted power.) After banning the eight members of the White Sox who had been involved in the scandal, Landis wrote,

No player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers… and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

He meant what he said: at least one of the banned White Sox players, Buck Weaver, had by all accounts refused the money, but his mere knowledge of the bribe was sufficient to end his career. The eight men⁠⁠—and many others who came after them⁠⁠—were also banned from the minor leagues, the Hall of Fame, commemorative photos, merchandise, memorabilia, and any other business in any way associated with baseball. It would be as if they never existed.

In light of this zero-tolerance policy, it’s not surprising that Connie Mack and Andy Coakley maintained to their deathbeds the story about Rube Waddell and the straw boater. To admit they had known it was a lie, even half a century later, would put their entire legacy in jeopardy.

Waddell, meanwhile, was in no position to confirm or deny Fogel’s accusation. In 1910, two months after his divorce was final, Waddell had married 19-year-old Madge Maguire, but not even the thrill of new love could bring him out of his professional spiral. Waddell played only ten games for the Browns before being unceremoniously released to fend for himself in the minor leagues. By the winter of 1911, he was apparently separated from his most recent wife and living with the manager of his most recent team on a farm in Kentucky.

Rube Waddell's grave
Rube Waddell's grave

As the snow began to thaw that spring, floods rose all along the Mississippi River, and Rube Waddell waded in to help. With the frigid water rising as high as his waist, Waddell labored alongside other emergency workers through the night, shoring up the Hickman levee with sandbags. He contracted pneumonia, and spent the next year fighting to recover. When the floods returned in the spring of 1913, he didn’t hesitate to rush into the icy water once more. This time, the pneumonia proved intractable, and in his weakened state, Waddell developed tuberculosis.

In November of 1913, Waddell was admitted to a sanitarium in San Antonio. His medical care was paid for up front by Connie Mack and Athletics’ president Ben Shibe, with instructions that no expense should be spared to ease his suffering. He died on April Fools’ Day, 1914, at the age of 37. His tombstone, also purchased by Mack and several teammates, features a baseball-sized sphere surrounded by jagged edges, as if Waddell himself had embedded it by force. The nickname “Rube” does not appear, nor does any epitaph, but to those who knew him, his legacy was more than enough. As Waddell’s longtime catching partner put it, “Rube Waddell had only one priority, to have a good time.”

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