Fifty-Nine in ’84

Old Hoss Radbourn,

Barehanded Baseball,

and the Greatest Season

a Pitcher Ever Had

by Edward Achorn

Smithsonian, 384 pp., $25.99

Remember Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn? Or was it Radbourne? We’re not likely to know, since one of the greatest pitchers of the dead ball era (before it was officially known as such) preferred to live his life shrouded in mystery and silence before dying at 42 in 1897.

Remember Charles O. Finley? Now we’re talking baseball, as in modern baseball. When it comes to this Charles of baseball fame, there never has been much mystery: Fans either loved or hated Charlie O during the stormy and spectacular seasons that he owned the A’s of Kansas City and Oakland. And the players? They uniformly hated him—and no doubt Charles Radbourn would have joined their ranks had he and Finley ever crossed paths.

So what, if anything, do these two baseball Charlies have in common? For starters, each had an Illinois connection: The son of an English butcher, Radbourn found a home and retreat from the baseball wars in and around Bloomington and its prairies. The Alabama-born and Indiana-bred Finley eventually made his way to Chicago and a fortune in the insurance business. The ballplayer Charlie sported a handlebar mustache while the front office Charlie sported Rollie Fingers, reviving this ancient facial accoutrement in the 1970s.

Not that there was any place for a Rollie Fingers-style fireman in late 19th-century baseball. As Edward Achorn makes clear in this compelling read, the professional game of the 1880s was a grueling affair for pitchers. What had been essentially a fielder’s game in its infancy was no longer anything close to that, and what would become a chess match for managers was not yet that, either. Initially, the pitcher simply put the ball in play so that the fielders could do their barehanded work. Today, the manager hopes to coax a “quality start” (six innings and no more than three runs) out of the first of what will soon become a parade of pitchers. Then, team rosters topped out at a dozen; today, major league pitching staffs are often that large.

Achorn, a Weekly Standard contributor, does not lament the loss of a bygone era, nor is he out to heap praise on the modern game. Instead, he simply and deftly takes us back to the Providence of the 1880s and a single season in the life of the old Providence Grays of the National League. Blending baseball and urban history, he re-creates a violent time and a sometimes-violent New England city—a city which, in turn, was home to a highly violent game and the (often) violence-prone (mostly) Irishmen who played it.

Among the Gilligans, Gaffneys, and Galvins was an enigmatic Englishman named Radbourn (or perhaps Radbourne) who could match his teammates drink for drink, even while turning in a year that no hurler has ever matched, or ever will. A pitcher by trade and a tough customer by nature, Radbourn began the season as the staff’s ace, thus assuring him of one day of rest between starts (unless the manager had him patrol the outfield on his off-day). Teams of that era routinely featured a two-man pitching rotation and expected that each of the two would finish what he had started.

Here are a few numbers. During the 1884 season Radbourn started 73 of his team’s 112 games. The Grays finished 84-28 and won the National League pennant going away. Radbourn’s record was 59-12. And one more statistic might be of interest: Remember those 73 starts? Radbourn matched that with 73 complete games. Which brings us back to Charles O. Finley. On July 16, 1884, Radbourn lost to the Boston Beaneaters, 5-2. His record at that point in the season was 24-8. A modern major league pitcher would kill for numbers like that at a season’s end; Radbourn’s 1884 campaign was barely half over. And yet it might have ended then and there, since following that eighth loss, the ace, squabbling with management over money, threatened to bolt the team. When he returned on July 23, new contract in hand, he went 35-4 the rest of the season, including a remarkable stretch of 18 victories in a row.

What happened? It seems that the Providence management decided to take a premature page from the Finley owner’s manual. At the dawn of free agency, Finley concocted what he hoped would be the ultimate solution for taming what he feared would be spiraling salaries for these newly liberated ballplayers: Make every player a free agent every year; no multiyear contracts; no handful of free agents driving up the price; play each year for a new contract. Of course, Finley could not unilaterally impose his solution, but Radbourn’s owner could—and did, albeit very selectively.

As Achorn sets the stage, the circumstances were these. Prior to July 16, Radbourn had started and finished 12 of his team’s previous 19 games. The two-man rotation had devolved into a virtual one-man show, thanks to an injury to the other starter, one Charlie Sweeney who, a few weeks earlier, had tossed the third no-hitter of his major league career. (That record, by the way, would not be broken until 1965, and if you’re curious as to who broke it, Achorn has the answer.) The rising star of the Grays, Sweeney was nastier than the nastiest of the players of his time, whether on the mound or in a saloon. Radbourn despised him for any number of reasons. But he also envied his young rival and feared his own eclipse. Now he was shouldering Sweeney’s load, and expected to be paid accordingly. Management disagreed.

The result was a standoff that lasted a week. The team with “arguably the two best pitchers in baseball now had neither.” Rumors abounded that the Grays would be shut down and disbanded. Then came the Finley-style deal: The club would give Radbourn what he wanted, and then some. He would be paid Sweeney’s salary in addition to his own, and he would be given his freedom at season’s end, if he made an “all-out effort to win the pennant.” Radbourn agreed, and the rest is history.

A free man at season’s end, Radbourn decided to remain with the Grays—thanks to the wiles of an equally mysterious woman, of somewhat questionable repute. Achorn weaves the story of Carrie Stanhope—her uncertain marital status, her boarding house and its multiple uses—in and out of his larger account, just as she wove her way in and out and finally into the balance of Charles Radbourn’s brief life.

Would Old Hoss have won those 59 games without the promise of his freedom? Would he have had his incredible year without the aid and sustenance of Carrie Stanhope? We’ll never know. But Edward Achorn has done a marvelous job of bringing together not just a ballplayer and his lover, but a time and a game, a city and its people, and the stories of all the Providence Grays, one of whom wound up recording the “greatest season a pitcher ever had.”

John C. Chalberg is a writer in Minnesota.

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