Rube

So, a few thoughts about the BR Hall of Fame voting so far … and some more thoughts about a pitcher named Rube.

1. The voting is hard on old-time players: The vast majority of players I’ve put on the ballot so far are in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- of the 90 everyday players on the ballot so far, 81 are in the Hall of Fame. Of the 44 pitchers not he ballot so far, 36 are in the Hall of Fame.

So, that means there have been 134 players on the ballot, and 117 are currently in the Hall of Fame. You have only voted in 76 of them.

And to be honest, I have not yet gotten to the REALLY borderline Hall of Famers like High Pockets Kelly and Freddie Lindstrom and Ray Schalk and George Kell and Bill Mazeroski and Rube Marquard and Jesse Haines and a bunch of others you may never have heard of. Pretty much every player I’ve put on the ballot so far is at least a mid-level Hall of Famer. But it’s clear -- the BR Hall of Fame has a significantly tougher standard.

What is that standard? That’s still working itself out, but some things are clear. One is that old-time players, unless they have somehow stayed somewhat current in people’s minds, are really struggling. Frankie Frisch, for instance, was certainly a core Hall of Famer. They called him the Fordham Flash, he was a tremendous leader, one of the most popular players of his day. Michael Humphries in his excellent book of defense called “Wizardry” ranked him just below the Top 10 defensive second baseman ever. He hit .316 for his career. He was a featured player in eight World Series, both for the Giants and Cardinals. But I think many people, if they heard of him at all, only remember him for clogging up the Hall of Fame with his own non-immortal teammates when he was chairman of the Hall of Fame Veteran’s committee … he did not even get 50% of your vote.

Neither did Big Ed Delahanty, who might have been the best hitter of the 19th Century. Old Hoss Radbourn failed to get the 75% despite his 48 and 59 win seasons back-to-back and an active Twitter account. Lou Boudreau, like Frisch, was a genius of the game, a player-manager who usually gets credit for inventing the infield shift (often known as the Boudrreau Shift), who played excellent shortstop and had a 120 OPS+ for his career. He did not come close to 50% of the vote. And poor Arky Vaughan, ranked as the second-best shortstop in baseball history by Bill James in the Baseball Abstract, did not come even close to election.

2. The voting is especially hard on pitchers. Of the 44 pitchers listed (I listed one pitcher twice for reasons I’ll try explain in another post) only 16 have been voted in. That’s a staggeringly low total, and so far you have left out such pitching legends as Robin Roberts, Gaylord Perry, Three Finger Brown, Eddie Plank, Ed Walsh -- poor Ed Walsh, he had a career ERA of 1.82, lowest in baseball history, and he couldn’t even get 50% of the vote.

3. The voting is super-double hard on RELIEF pitchers. Look so far:

-- Hoyt Wilhelm -- Hall of famer, 143 wins, 227 saves, 2.52 ERA, and did not even get started until he was 29 because of World War II: 68.5%

-- Dennis Eckersley -- First ballot Hall of Famer, 197 wins, 390 saves, MVP season wasn’t even his best as closer: 46.7%

-- Rollie Fingers -- Second ballot Hall of Famer, 341 saves, essentially invented modern day closer: 36.5%

-- Goose Gossage -- Hall of Famer, dominant closer for dominant Yankees team, 310 saves, one of baseball’s great characters: 35.1%

So … yeah, it’s tough out there for relievers. Though you might notice there’s a pretty good relief pitcher on the ballot right now.

* * *

As many have pointed out, Rube Waddell was born on Friday the 13th, and he died on April Fool’s Day. It is rare that a man’s living and dying days can sum up a life. But there was something star-crossed and something goofy about Waddell.

He was so infatuated with fighting fires that his manager Connie Mack would say he always wore a red shirt so that if the fire bell rang he could run off to fight the fire. He is known to have saved lived. They say he was so strong, he would rip off his shirt, let people stand on his chest, and lift himself up (according to Pittsburgh’s fine columnist Gene Collier, he had ambitions of being a circus strong man). He once carried a teammate named Danny Hoffman to the hospital after he was hit by a pitch. He also wrestled alligators.

They say he was the first man to strike out the side on nine pitches.

They say he was the inspiration for the phrase “two-cent head” -- something Connie Mack once said of him (“The Rube has a two-million dollar arm and two-cent head.”).

They say he would sometimes skip games and go fishing.

They say a lot of things about Waddell because he was one of the great characters of baseball history. Truth is that many of the things that other players are known for, Waddell did first. Before Satchel Paige, Waddell would send his fielders off the field and face a batter man-to-man. Before Babe Ruth, Waddell would show up at games after long and blurry nights. Before Walter Johnson or Bob Feller, long before Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson, Waddell struck out 300 batters in a season.

He tried out for the National League’s Louisville Colonels of the old National League when he was 20 years old and was impressive enough that he pitched two games. The next few years were a bewildering blur of brilliant pitching, arguments with management, marriages and cheers. He pitched for teams in Louisville, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Punxsutawney, a few smaller teams and the bizarrely named Chicago Orphans*. In time, he would be credited for saving the American League with his popularity, and while that (like most such claims) is certainly overstated, he was wildly popular.

*They were named Orphans for five years before they were called the Cubs because, get this, they had released their quintessential manager and player Cap Anson. This is one of the great tidbits in baseball history. Could you imagine the Cardinals, after losing Albert Pujols, being called the St. Louis Orphans? Instead we call them: Fortunate.

Waddell was a full-fledged character, with all of the hard edges that go with it. In 1903, he was suspended for jumping into the stands and attacking a spectator, which sounds pretty unforgivable until you hear that the spectator was a known gambler who apparently was trying to bait Waddell. In 1905, he got into a a fight with teammate Andy Coakley that I’ve seen several times described as a “friendly struggle” or “playful scuffle” over a straw hat.” Apparently Coakley was wearing a straw hat after Labor Day -- the tradition of the time was to punch a hole through the hat, something Waddell very much wanted to do. Coakley did not want this. One thing led to another, there was a misunderstanding, Waddell lost his mind, everyone piled on to him, and somewhere in the pile-up he hurt his shoulder. Waddell missed the 1905 World Series, which led to some rumors -- unsubstantiated and almost certainly false -- that gamblers got to him.

There were a lot of other incidents -- there was the time his teammates goaded him into wrestling the extraordinarily strong Candy LaChance, and Waddell lifted him up and body slammed him -- but all the while Waddell became the best pitcher in baseball. He led the league in strikeouts six straight years. In 1904, he set the modern baseball record with 349 strikeouts -- a record that would not be broken for 61 years, until Sandy Koufax did it. To this day, no American League left-hander, not even Randy Johnson, has topped his 349 strikeouts. In 1905 he won the American League Triple Crown for pitching (Christy Mathewson won it in the National League) with 27 wins, a 1.48 ERA and 287 strikeouts.

He burned out at 33, was released by the St. Louis Browns, played some semi-pro baseball for a while. His death is as contested as his life. Some say he died from complications arising from his heroic efforts of standing in ice water and stacking sand bags outside the town of Hickman, Kentucky when the Mississippi was flooding. Others say it was the lingering effects of a lifetime of alcoholism. We know he died at age 37 in San Antonio and was buried there.

In all, he won 193 games, was married three times, struck out 2,316 batters, saved as many as a dozen people from fires, got into countless fights with teammates, strangers and animals, was jailed on many occasions for non-support, was suspended from baseball twice and from his team countless other times and was the most popular pitcher of his day. “(Rube) was more sinned against than sinner,” Connie Mack would say of him after he died.

For more on the fascinating Rube Wadell, click here and here.