Sunday, August 10, 2008

Immaculate Inning: Rube Waddell

Thirteen years passed between the first recorded Immaculate Inning and July 1, 1902. Baseball had grown immensely in between, and the formation of the American League would forever change the dynamics of the sport. League president Bancroft Johnson had the audacity to place major league teams in traditionally National League cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore, and the National League powers finally began to recognize the threat to their monopoly. The league that would eventually be known as the "Junior Circuit" challenged the National League even in the rulebooks, including this 1902 season.

Until 1901, a ball hit out of play was considered dead; foul balls were not counted as strikes. Beginning in 1902, the National League took up this rule in earnest, giving the umpires discretion to call strikes on foul balls, except for the third strike. The American League refused to accept the rule, leading to increased offense in the AL in 1901 and 1902, but tried it on an experimental basis in 1903. After just one season, the American League leaders rejected the foul-strike rule on December 17, 1903. Two months later, at the famous "peace settlement" meetings that established the World Series, Ban Johnson relented on the foul-strike as part of the compromise.

Rube Waddell may have been one of the first beneficiaries of the foul-strike rule. His final two years in the NL, he finished second and fifth in strikeouts, respectively. Neither year did he throw more than 175 strikeouts, but surpassed that mark in each of the next six seasons, and led the league in strikeouts each time. His 349 strikeouts in 1904 was the record for a left-handed pitcher until Koufax eclipsed it in 1965. Waddel had earned his strikeout reputation well by the time he joined the American League; some credit Waddell almost singlehandedly for increasing ticket sales and proving that the AL was legitimate. The first game Waddell pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics was July 1, 1902.

That day, the A's were facing the Baltimore Orioles, who were led by player-manager John McGraw. The famous NY Giants manager had become fed up with the American League, particularly the decisions of the umpires-- McGraw liked to lean into the strike zone and get hit intentionally, and the AL umpires would not grant him first base. The conflict would eventually get McGraw suspended, and McGraw defected for the Giants, leaving the American League behind. Several of the Orioles players left soon after, and part of their final frustration may be the sense of pride lost at the left hand of Rube Waddell.

Connie Mack's new ace was brilliant on July 2, he struck out thirteen Orioles and allowed just two hits, both of whom were erased soon later. Yes, Waddell faced the minimum 27 batters, though his game was not techinically perfect. In the sixth inning, though, Waddel was Immaculate. Facing him were Billy Gilbert, Harry Howell, and Jack Cronin, who had all struck out in the third inning against Waddell. This time, they all struck out again, but on nine straight pitches. Three innings later, as Gilbert would lead off the ninth inning, and Waddell is said to have doffed his cap towards the crowd and annouced "You can all go home now, this game is over." So it was; Waddell struck out Gilbert, Howell, and Cronin for the third time that day, and the fans flooded the field and carried Waddell off on their shoulders. A few weeks later, the Philadelphia Inquirer had the following poem in tribute to that immaculate day:

Up to the bat the Orioles rose, his face was filled with glee
There're various brands of glee you've never seen before.

"Strike one," the umpire cried, "strike two" --

the umpire said "strike three."

But you've seldom seen those kinds of strikes before.

For when Reuben twirls the sphere

The Planets shrink in fear.

And the sinuous sea serpent

Its sorrow tries to drown.

Then the cyclone hides its head,

And the birds go right to bed

For there's doings on the Diamond when Reuben comes to town.
Waddell's immaculate inning, and the rest of his superb shutout, were the talk of baseball for many years. This was not new for the man that thousands of baseball fans flocked to see in the early days of the Deadball Era-- the A's led the American League (and all of baseball) with an attendance of 420,000 in 1902. During exhibitions, sometimes Waddell would direct his fielders to leave the playing area while he struck out each hitter with ease. But Waddel had a bit of a temper, once being suspended after attacking a fan who baited him, and later fighting a teammate over a straw hat. The A's eventually sold Waddell to the Browns, where he continued to draw tremendous crowds.

The long and successful career of Rube Waddell came to a close when he contrated tuberculosis in 1913 after standing in a flooding icy river, stacking sandbags. The man who was born on Friday the 13th (October 1876) would die on April 1st, 1914. At his funeral, Connie Mack said "He was the greatest pitcher in the game... he may have failed us at times but to him, I and the other owners of the Athletics ball club, owe much."

Baseball does owe much of its popularity in the early 20th century to Waddell, and once again the history of baseball and the Immaculate Inning are twined together.

1 comment:

Dan O'Brien said...

Rube Waddell's first game for the Philadelphia Athletics was June 26, 1902. The July 1st game was his second game for the A's but his first victory. Connie Mack made those comments upon Rube's death but Mr. Mack did not attend his funeral. While it's true that Waddell benefited from the implementation of the foul-strike rule in 1903, it is somewhat misleading to simply mention his total strikeouts in his final two National League seasons. He led the NL in strikeouts per nine innings in 1900 and finished second in the lead in K/9 in 1901. He missed significant time both years due to suspensions. In 1902 in the American League (without the foul-strike rule in effect) he led the league with 210 strikeouts in 276 innings even though he didn't join the A's until late June. The following season his total strikeouts increased to 302 and Innings Pitched to 324 (even though he missed the final month of the 1903). And, with the help of the foul-strike rule his K/9 rate improved from 6.8 to 8.4.