The Last Straw ... Hat

Written by: Tom Shieber

Rube Waddell was a character. Stories of his antics have been told for well over a century, and while some may have been exaggerated, the sheer number of such tales suggests there’s a certain amount of truth to Rube’s on- and off-field eccentricities. Yet, despite his reputation as an odd character, it should not be forgotten that the southpaw was one of the greatest pitchers to have ever toed the rubber.

Rube’s pinnacle season came in 1905, when he posted league-best marks of 27 wins, 287 strikeouts and a 1.48 earned run average. All this despite missing most of September due to ... well, the exact reason is still not clear.

As one story goes, the Athletics had finished a brief road trip in Boston and were returning via train to Philadelphia. The date was September 8, a full week after Labor Day. This fact is important, as September 1st was the traditional day that men swapped their summertime straw boaters for more formal felt hats. Those who failed to abide by the practice were scorned and their hats deemed fair game for destruction. As the Athletics road the rails homeward, they made a stop in Providence, picking up pitcher Andy Coakley, who had taken a brief hiatus from the club to visit family in the Rhode Island capital. Alas, Coakley entered the train wearing the wrong hat and, without hesitation, Rube gleefully charged his teammate in an attempt to smash the offending headwear. In the melee that ensued, bags were thrown, men toppled over one another, and Rube managed to somehow injure his shoulder.

This Turkey Red tobacco card from 1911 shows Rube Waddell with his final big league club, the St. Louis Browns, though the image is clearly based on the Conlon photo taken years earlier. - B-140.37 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Another story suggests a more sinister explanation. In late September of 1905, Philadelphia sportswriter Francis Richter reported that “Manager [Connie] Mack and most of the Athletic players came to the conclusion that Waddell was shamming, for some reason best known to himself, and did not hesitate to so declare themselves to the Rube, who has lost much of his popularity with his team mates for his action in this and other matters at this critical time. To make matters worse, rumors as to the honesty of Waddell's purposes began to circulate and one impetuous critic boldly stated his belief that Waddell had been tampered with by New York gamblers for the purpose of keeping him out of the world's series.”

Whatever the case, Waddell missed most of September and indeed did not play in the World Series. Had he not missed so much time, it seems likely that Rube would have ended the ’05 campaign with 30 or more wins, surpassed 300 strikeouts, and had an opportunity to showcase his talents in the post-season against the National League pennant-winning New York Giants. But it was not to be.

Though he managed to win another 67 ball games over the next five seasons, Waddell never did recapture the astonishing dominance he showed in 1905. Less than a decade later, at the age of 37, Rube passed away. The date of his death? April 1st, 1914: April Fools’ Day.

Tom Shieber is the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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