Holding On To History: Eccentric MLB legend ended career with Iron Range team

Published: May. 8, 2023 at 10:21 PM CDT
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VIRGINIA, MN. (Northern News Now) - Virginia’s Olcott Park kept bears in a mini-zoo through the early 70s. In 1913, they were named after baseball legends Connie Mack, Johnny McGraw, Tillie Schaefer, and Ty Cobb. The bears were pets of Rube Waddell, the most powerful pitcher of the era.

“Cy Young and Walter Johnson, two well-known pitchers of the time, called him one of the best talents they’ve ever seen take the mound,” said Bob Gustafson who was once part of the Northern League in Duluth.

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Waddell had an arm like a cannon and an earned run average not much over two for several seasons. He also had the mind of a child which led to his nickname of the Eccentric One.

“He was known to be very distractible on the field so when a firetruck would pass the stadium he would leave the game and go follow the fire truck to wherever it was off to and sometimes he would help out in the rescue,” said Ben Lewer, a baseball fans who learned of Waddell by watching Ken Burns’ baseball documentary.

Rube was also known to leave in the middle of a game to go fishing and opposing fans found out that puppies brought to a game would pull him off the mound.

“Folks would bring in shiny objects to try and distract him and dogs, he was a big fan of dogs and left a game once to pet one he was really fond of,” said Lewer.

Unpredictable behavior like that had Waddell down to playing in the Northern League by 1913.

He chose to play for the Virginia Ore Diggers so he could go fishing on nearby Lake Vermilion.

Signing Rube was big news on the Iron Range and he was a big hit, especially with kids.

The Ore Diggers were the Bad News Bears of the league so Waddell’s talent didn’t do much to help them. He left the team after two months.

Just a year later, Rube Waddell caught pneumonia while saving people from a flood in Hickman, Kentucky.

He passed away in Texas in 1914. The last of his baseball bears died in Virginia on the same day, victims of too many treats.

Bob Gustafson, former general manager of the Northern League’s Duluth Dukes, says the league was known for taking chances with special ball players.

Ila Borders and Ozzie Canseco are examples of that. But, someone like Rube Waddell probably wouldn’t be given that chance in this day and age.

Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell ended his career in Virginia, MN
Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell ended his career in Virginia, MN(kbr)

“It would be awfully tough to have that kind of background and that kind of daily routine to be able to survive,” said Gustafson.

Virginia native Rich Arpi wrote a history of Rube and the Ore Diggers that was published in a book titled “The National Pastime - Baseball in the Northstar State” in 2012.

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