Kentucky’s Great Flood of 1912 and the Heroism of Baseball Legend Rube Waddell

Located on the Mississippi River, the town of Hickman, Kentucky was devastated by two floods.

The Great Flood of 1912 occurred near the town of Hickman when a levee collapsed from the rising waters of the Mississippi. The unusual heavy snows from the winter season began to melt and overwhelmed the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The high waters began to crowd the banks and by late March, floodwaters were lapping over the big levee that protected the town of Hickman. Eventually, the levee gave way and fire whistle warnings went off! Within hours, the town was consumed by water that flooded to the roofs of houses.

Major League Baseball player, George Edward “Rube” Waddell happened to be in town for spring training with the Minneapolis Millers. He helped save the town of Hickman during both floods. Waddell stood in the waist-deep icy waters of the Mississippi for hours helping to fight back the floodwaters. He helped other citizens handle sandbags to plug the 60-foot gap that had breached the levee when the river burst its banks.

Waddell also took a boat alone, without a light and spent the remainder of the night rowing through the submerged streets of Hickman helping to rescue residents by taking them to higher ground. Waddell saved many lives by risking his own and worked day and night until the suffering of the flood victims were safe.

This was not the first time he risked his life to save another. According to his manager, Connie Mack, Waddell ran into a burning building in Boston and saved a man from burning to death. While fishing in Minneapolis, he got news of a little boy that had drowned in the lake the previous evening. The body had not been recovered yet, so Waddell took off his coat and shoes and dived into the lake to help search for the body. Waddell made eight dives until he found the body of the little boy and delivered the child to his parents.

Another flood happened the following year in 1913 when a levee near West Hickman broke. Unfortunately, Waddell caught pneumonia from both floods and was diagnosed with tuberculosis when he returned to Minneapolis, Minnesota that same year. He then moved to Texas to live with his sister where his health never recovered. Waddell spent the rest of his life in a sanitarium.

Flood 1912. Still doing business. Sullivan Bros., Hickman, Ky. – Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

During his time in the sanitarium, his teammates came to visit him during his last dying days. They reported that they did not recognize him at first because he had gone from weighing 215 pounds to a mere 70 pounds. One of the players, Otto Williams reported when he arrived to see him, Waddell was lying in bed smoking a pipe. As he saw Williams he whispered, “Hello you Dutchman.” Gasping for air he continued, “I’ll be over there tomorrow and show you bums how to run. And I’m down to weight and got more speed than any of you tramps.” That was his last dying words to his teammates.

Oddly enough, Waddell was born on Friday the 13th and passed away on April Fools Day (October 13, 1876 – April 1, 1914). He was just 37 years old.

While his phenomenal pitching record is in the books for all to see, Rube Waddell is best remembered for his eccentric personality. Waddell liked to fish, drink, tend bar, and wrestle alligators. He was a tall, deep-chested, long-armed country boy with the strength of a bull and a pitching arm that never wore out. He could deliver the fastest speedballs ever seen on a mound. He possessed amazing control and his curve was fantastic. He became an extraordinary strikeout artist.

He often disappeared in the middle of a game to chase fire engines, march in town parades or play marbles with children underneath the stands. He was even bitten while clowning around with a circus lion. He turned cartwheels going from the mound to the bench. Because of his eccentricities, major league managers tired of his childlike behavior and let him drift away. He pitched for six different teams during his 14 years in the big leagues.

George “Rube” Waddell pitcher baseball card issued by the American Tobacco Company – 1909

But nevertheless, Waddell was a tremendous gate attraction. Fans flocked to the ballpark to see his zany assortment of fireballs, bewildering curves, drops and shoots, along with his clownish antics. For six straight seasons, he topped all American League pitchers in fanning batters. In 1904, he had his greatest strikeout year. He fanned 343 batters to set a major league record that stood unequaled for 42 years.

Despite his erratic behavior, he had won 191 major league games and had struck out 2,310 batters by the time he drifted out of the major leagues.

When Waddell passed away he was buried at the Mission Burial Park in Antonio, Texas. In 1923, it was discovered that the only marker for his grave was a wooden headboard. The surface of the wooden marker was extremely worn down from the exposure from weather that his inscription was barely visible. The matter of neglect was brought to the attention of Harry Benson, president of the San Antonio Club Mr. Benson immediately set about trying to locate the relatives of Waddell to secure permission to erect a proper memorial for the baseball legend.

The town of Hickman, Kentucky helped raise funds to contribute to the memorial along with his former manager, Connie Mack.

Taken at the Polo Grounds in New York during the World Series between Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and John McGraw’s New York Giants. Players include: Chief Bender, standing fourth from left (behind Mack); Rube Waddell, kneeling, far left; Jimmy Dygert, kneeling, far right; Eddie Plank, seated far right; Topsy Hartsel, seated, second from right; Lave Cross, seated, third from right in front of Mack; Socks Seybold, seated, far left.

Waddell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946 by the Veterans Committee for helping to contribute to the growth of the game and his unique talents for drawing baseball fans from around the country to ballparks. He was considered one of the greatest southpaw pitchers in the baseball world.

Waddell will always be the town of Hickman’s hero when they re-tell the story of how a great baseball legend helped to save lives in Kentucky’s Great Flood of 1912.

Memorial for Rube Waddell – Photo courtesy of Find A Grave Memorial

By Hope Thompson

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