That time Baseball Hall of Famer Rube Waddell got bitten by a lion

Rube Waddell circa 1909 — as he appeared in the famed T206 set

Rube Waddell was in the Tyson Zone.

What is the Tyson Zone, you ask?

Well, sportswriter Bill Simmons coined the the concept of the Tyson Zone to describe the point at which a celebrity’s life had become so insane that no story was too outlandish to be plausible. The basic premise was that Mike Tyson’s life became so insane that nothing you could hear about Tyson would shock you anymore. For example, if I told you that Mike Tyson now lives in a treehouse in Nepal, where he is trying to use advanced genetic coding to recreate the passenger pigeon, you might be skeptical, but you wouldn’t completely rule it out, right?

That’s the Tyson Zone.

Not many baseball player qualify for the Tyson Zone. Of recent vintage, Alex Rodriguez might be the closest, but he’s lacking the unpredictability of Tyson. Jose Canseco probably fits the bill, but there’s just too much self-awareness there, he knows exactly what he’s doing when he says and does crazy things.

I think to truly qualify for the Tyson Zone, there needs to be a complete lack of pretension on the part of the individual. Rube Waddell was many, many things, but pretentious was not one of them.

Therefore Rube Waddell was in the Tyson Zone. Rube Waddell was so outlandish that the Tyson Zone should actually be the Waddell Zone.

At one point or another, Waddell ran off the pitcher’s mound to chase a fire truck, acted in a touring melodrama, wrestled alligators, saved the lives of as many as 13 people from drowning and fires, pitched a 20-inning victory against Cy Young, then traded the winning game ball for drinks at a saloon, lived at a firehouse, led the major leagues in strikeouts six years in a row, got married so many times that he lost track, shot his friend in the hand by accident, and got bitten by a lion.

Too many things. So let’s just focus on the time Rube Waddell got bitten by a lion.

On Saturday, October 31, 1903 The Cincinnati Enquirer reported the following:

October 31, 1903 Cincinnati Enquirer account of Rube in the lion’s den

After the 1903 season, in which Rube Waddell won 21 games and struck out 302 batters for the Philadelphia Athletics, he was offered a starring role in a touring melodrama called “The Stain of Guilt.” Waddell made instant headlines and drew large crowds, less for his acting ability and more for pure spectacle. According to various accounts, Waddell couldn’t memorize his lines and would improvise each night. Waddell was easily distracted, an alcoholic and frequently restless. All these factors that contributed to his unpredictability.

On the night of Tuesday, October 26, 1903, Rube ducked out of his performance in Chicago to go see some lions on display at another theatre. For some reason, Rube decided he would punch one of the lions and surprisingly the lion did not take kindly to this. The lion bit Waddell on his left hand (also his pitching hand).

Can you imagine Clayton Kershaw punching a lion in the face and getting his pitching hand nearly bitten off? That would have gotten a lot of attention, right? Because Rube Waddell was the 1903 version of Clayton Kershaw…if Clayton Kershaw was also an insane, insatiable, child-like, unpredictable alcoholic. Waddell was the best left-hander in baseball and his antics were like catnip to reporters. He was easy copy.

Yet this account only appears five days later in an out of town paper.

If Clayton Kershaw got bitten by a lion that he punched, you would think more than one paper would have reported on it.

So it’s a little bit fishy, that this story only appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer and not in his hometown Philadelphia papers or in the Chicago papers where the event supposedly occurred.

I examined the Chicago and Philadelphia papers for October 1903 for mentions of the lion biting incident and there was nothing.

I did find something of interest in the October 30, 1903 issue of the Chicago paper The Inter Ocean:

Rube robbed as per the October 30, 1903 The Inter Ocean

According to the report Waddell was beaten up by thugs early Wednesday morning (just hours after the lion attack supposedly happened). The injuries Rube sustained the beating were bad enough that he was forced to miss his Wednesday night performance in “The Stain of Guilt.”

So what gives? Was Rube bitten by a lion, or was he beaten by thugs? As per The Inter Ocean piece, the beating was not reported to the police. Could it have been a hoax? A fanciful story designed by Rube to get out of a performance? Knowing Rube, it would not be out of the question.

But then there is the possibility that the robbery story was a cover up to hide the fact that the best left-handed pitcher in baseball was bitten by a lion. A retrospective of Rube’s life that appeared in the January 1914 issue of Baseball Magazine posited this theory, that Rube’s story of being robbed was intended to mask the fact that he tried to fight a lion.

The version provides some interesting details, but also raises even more questions. Baseball Magazine places the incident in 1901 when Rube pitched for the Chicago Orphans (now Cubs) and owner Jim Hart. In this version, Rube is bitten by one of actor Howard Hall’s lions backstage. The lion bit Waddell’s right arm, leaving a gash that stretched from his elbow to his wrist. Rube used the robbery story to avoid a fine from Hart.

As a prelude to the Baseball Magazine version, Rube is described as attending a play titled “The James Boys of Missouri” and after discovering an arsenal of weapons backstage, fired off forty cartridges, and after being escorted out of the building, goes off to punch a lion.

See, Rube is the Tyson Zone…in a story where he gets bit by a lion, the fact that he disrupted a live play by firing a gun forty times is just a sidenote.

Waddell and the Lion as told in Baseball Magazine January 1914

So what we have is two variations on the same story, one set in 1901 and one in 1903. The setting, a lion exhibition at a theatre in Chicago, is the same. But in one story, Rube is bitten on his left hand, and in the other, he is bitten on his right arm. The incident is strangely omitted in the Chicago and Philadelphia papers.

So that leaves us with two possible conclusions:

  1. Rube Waddell was bitten by a lion and no one reported on it when it happened. This is plausible if you believe that the Rube robbery story was meant to cover it up.
  2. Rube Waddell did not get bitten by a lion.

I am leaning towards camp number two, but would be happy to hear of any convincing arguments that Rube did in fact get bitten by a lion.

The original Cincinnati Enquirer story that recounts the lion incident, closes by listing a series of recent “accomplishments” by Rube.

These included striking out 24 batters in an exhibition game, scoring five touchdowns in a game for the Grand Rapids football club, piloting a steamboat on which he saved his co-star Rachel Acton from drowning, beating the crap out of his manager in Columbus, and shooting one of his co-stars backstage in Dayton.

This is the strange irony of being in the Tyson Zone. No matter how many outlandish things Rube Waddell did, people still felt compelled to invent even crazier things.

This includes that time Rube Waddell got bitten by a lion.

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