The Story of Rube Waddell: Chatham’s Other Baseball Hall of Famer
When people discuss Chatham, Ontario and the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fergie Jenkins is the name that usually comes up.
Born and raised in Chatham, Jenkins was the first Canadian inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But that doesn’t mean he’s the only athlete in the Baseball Hall of Fame to play for Chatham.
Sam Crawford played for Chatham in 1899.
A year prior however in 1898, Rube Waddell became the first player to wear a Chatham uniform, who would later join Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Waddell was the major league leader in strikeouts for six straight seasons and was a two time ERA leader before being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. He played in the Major League’s with the Louisville Colonels, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Orphans, Philadelphia Athletics, and St. Louis Browns.
Rube Waddell however, was also considered one of baseball’s most interesting and eccentric personalities.
Waddell’s career was fraught with suspensions, on- and off-field antics, and fines, including the one that brought him to Chatham.
After refusing to pay a fine imposed upon him by the Detroit Tigers for playing with a scrub baseball team without permission, Waddell crossed the border to join Chatham’s independent team.
Because Chatham’s team, which supposedly paid Waddell $60 a month, was not an official minor league team, Waddell was free to join the team, and make a living moonlighting for other teams in Southwestern Ontario at the same time.
Waddell made several notable appearances while representing Chatham, including against the Page Fence Giants on June 2, 1898. The game was played in front of a reported 1200 fans in Chatham, and featured the Page Fence Giants, widely considered the best all-Black team in the world at the time, against Chatham’s independent team.
With Waddell on the mound, Chatham’s catcher suffered an injury, forcing him to leave the game. The significance of this moment however, was that it forced the Giants’ catcher to step behind the plate for Chatham, momentarily integrating Black and white baseball players in competition in 1898. The Giants would end up crushing Waddell and Chatham 9-1, with Waddell collecting two of the only three hits Chatham managed in the game.
Waddell also threw a perfect game against Dunnville, striking out 17, and shutout the same Dunville team the very next night striking out 20 while in a Chatham uniform.
When Waddell arrived in Chatham, he didn’t leave his on-field hijinks behind. His quirks and eccentricity, along with a willingness to engage with fans in a playful manner made the confident pitcher a favourite wherever he went.
In one famous incident while in Chatham, Waddell, up 3-1 in the seventh inning against another local squad from Ridgetown, sent his fielders to the dugout, challenging the next batter alone on the field.
Waddell then proceeded to intentionally walk the next two batters to put the winning run at the plate. His confidence in his ability to strike out batters at will nearly backfired on this occasion, as the following Ridgetown batter made contact, sending a high fly ball into centre field.
The runners Waddell had walked rounded the bases, but the Ridgetown player was in such shock he’d hit Waddell’s pitch, that he forgot to run, causing the umpire to call him out, and order the runners who had crossed home plate back to their bases.
Refusing to relent in his game, Waddell proceeded to strike out the next two batters with an empty field behind him to end the inning.
Unfortunately for local fans, the Hall of Famers career in Chatham would soon come to an end after his Chatham team decided to end their run as independents, and join the Canadian League, a minor professional league that would cause Waddell to be in breach of his contract with the Detroit Tigers if he continued playing with the squad.
At that, Waddell reluctantly returned to the United States, and took up playing for another independent team, and following that Pittsburgh of the Western League until 1897 when he embarked on a historic 13-year Major League Baseball career.
Sadly, only four years after the end of his Major League career, Waddell passed away at the age of 37 due to complications from tuberculosis.
Waddell’s unique personality, and his penchant for strikeout pitching will live forever in the record books, and history books, including those written in Chatham, Ontario.
By Ian Kennedy