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Pitch Perfect

The good old days of baseball were not always great.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
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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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