You may never have heard of Kansas-born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle. But if you ever enjoyed the work of Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello, John Candy, John Belushi, or Chris Farley, you’ve got Fatty Arbuckle to thank. Hell, if you just like to laugh, you should thank Arbuckle, who was probably more responsible than anyone else for proving comedy was profitable and for laying the groundwork for generations of comedians to follow. Arbuckle was the first funny fat man in film, was the highest-paid comedian of his era. He mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered both Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. Paramount gave him total artistic control of his films, a quarter of all the profits, a thousand bucks a day in salary when he was on set. By 1918, they gave him a three year deal at $1 million a year.
Similarly, there was a time when Roy Oswalt was on top of the baseball world. His 2001 debut may be the best first season for any pitcher in the last 20 years, as he won 14 games out of 17 decisions, posted a 170 ERA+, and struck out more than a batter per inning. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was nasty. In his first seven seasons, he won 112 games, had a 143 ERA+, won 20 games twice, led the NL in ERA once and just generally pitched like a boss. He looked to be well on the way to Cooperstown.
Unfortunately, for both Arbuckle and Oswalt, the party didn’t last forever. Fatty developed health problems due to his weight, almost had a leg amputated, and developed an addiction to morphine. He also continued to drink and party heavily, which would become a problem in 1920, when the United States banned the manufacture, sale, and purchase of alcohol. In 1921, Arbuckle planned to take a short break from filming and celebrate with friends for a few days in San Francisco. It must have promised to be a hell of a party, because Arbuckle drove up from Los Angeles with second degree burns on his butt cheeks from an on-screen accident.
The party indeed, raged on for a couple days before anyone noticed that Virginia Rappe was missing. They found her in an adjacent hotel room, seriously ill with her clothes torn. The hotel doctor assumed she was drunk and gave her morphine. Two days later, she was taken to a hospital where she died of a ruptured bladder. Before she died, she reportedly claimed that “Arbuckle did it,” without elaborating on what “it” was. One of her friends, a madam, accused him of raping Rappe. Given her condition, it wasn’t totally out of the question, although there was no evidence of rape. So headlines across the country, thanks to human excrement William Randolph Hearst, screamed that Arbuckle had raped the woman and, in the process, ruptured her bladder because he was too heavy. Hearst continued to publish wildly embellished tales of Arbuckle’s debauchery and essentially accused him of being a serial rapist. The prosecutor, Matthew Brady, tried to get witnesses to lie on the stand and used the press to taint the jury pool.
Still, the prosecution was unable to prove its case. The jury deadlocked in the first trial with 10 members voting to acquit. The same thing happened in the second trial, as 9 jurors voted to acquit. Finally, in the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted. Details about Rappe’s medical history and drinking habits were introduced into evidence. She suffered from cystitis, which could make drinking to excess incredibly painful. At times, she was known to tear her own clothes as a response to her pain. There was also a great deal of speculation that she had undergone a recent illegal abortion, as she had several times in previous years, and that she had internal injuries from substandard care. The jury took less than six minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. In those six minutes, they wrote an apology to Arbuckle, saying,
“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him… there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”
The American public did not. Arbuckle’s films were banned around the country and he was blacklisted from Hollywood. His career was ruined. While he was able to direct films under a pseudonym, he wouldn’t return to the screen until 1932, for a series of shorts. These proved popular, but before he could expand on his success, he died of a massive heart attack at just 46 years old.
OK, so Roy Oswalt’s tale is nowhere near as compelling as that. But last year, he was on top of the world. We were so excited about Oswalt being one of the four aces in Philadelphia, and how the Phillies would steamroll their way to the World Series. This year, he’s in the discard pile, searching for a job after failing to top thirty starts for just the second time in ten years.
He hasn’t been blackballed like Arbuckle, but he might as well be because no one is willing to pay one of the best pitchers of the last decade what one of the best pitchers of the last decade will probably be worth. The market for veteran pitchers has changed, especially when there’s risk involved. Oswalt has slipped from baseball’s upper class to its middle class, and is finding that the jobs for a guy with his somewhat diminished talents and injury history are scarce. What an incredible development for a guy who’s still just 34 years old and should still be in the prime of his career, to be the last free agent standing.