Baseball Books Reviewed: Fifty-nine in 84

Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn (Smithsonian Books, 352 pg., $25.99). HB, 2010.

A couple of years ago a small painting of Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, done in the style of an old cigarette card, showed up on ebay in an auction, and I watched it to see how much interest, if any, it would generate. When it became clear that probably no one else was going to bid on it, I did so and wound up winning the painting for the minimum asked. I bid on it not because I was a Radbourn fan as I really didn't know much about the guy; but because I sensed that he deserved better than to be totally ignored ... even if the arena in which he was being evaluated was nothing more than an ebay auction. After reading Fifty-nine in '84 by Edward Achorn, I'm more delighted than ever before that I have such an evocative image of the crusty, tenacious, rubber-armed pitcher hanging on the wall of my office. As Achron makes clear, Radbourn is definitely a player who earned his place in any baseball fan's pantheon of all-time greats. Given the title, it's not surprising that Achorn's book is a seasonal account of Radbourn's best season on the hill (actually there was no mound back then for pitchers to throw from, an example of the type of detail about the way the game was played in Radbourn's era that Achorn expertly delineates for the reader), which is also the best season any pitcher ever had (from a strictly won-loss record point of view)! But it is also a start-to-finish biography and one which, though seemingly condensed compared to the space given the one year of 1884, is perhaps as complete a biography of the man as we are ever likely to get. As for the before-and-after biographical parts, Achorn skillfully traces Radbourn's English heritage and the gory family profession of butcher that Charles was initiated into and destined for had baseball not provided him an escape; as well as his surprisingly abbreviated post-baseball life and endeavors, particularly his marriage to an old flame, Carrie Stanhope, whom he rescued from a life as a madam of a high-toned whore house and his death (most likely) from syphylis. While relatively brief, these parts of the story are well-told and sufficient, given the probable dearth of additional information available and the emphasis on the great season. The short shrift given to the other seasons of Radbourn's baseball career is what may disappoint some readers and provide an opportunity for biographers who would follow in Achorn's footsteps.

Achorn's biggest challenge was in keeping the 1884 season interesting for the reader, since Old Hoss trod out to the pitcher's box to start a game 73 times, a staggering number of trips that threatened to run together into some indistinguishable mass of dates, plays, names, and outcomes. Four subplots allow Achorn to save the reader from game-reporting fatigue: Radbourn's early-season rivalry with teammate Charlie Sweeney, as much a stud pitcher as Radbourn but younger; his courtship (such as it was) of Stanhope; the 1884 National League pennant race between Radbourn's Providence Grays and the Boston Beaneaters; and the machinations of Providence's cagey manager Frank Bancroft. Actually, since Providence won the pennant by 10 1/2 games, the season was hardly a cliff hanger; yet Achorn's characterization of the Providence-Boston feud as analogous to the one between the Yankees and Red Sox today is convincing and engaging. On the other hand, much of Radbourn's relationship with Stanhope is sketchily drawn, and Achorn at times is reduced to conjecture (setting the stage for a big game against Chicago, he writes of the Providence fans that she "might well have been among them"). Thus, the most compelling of these subplots by far is Sweeney's threat to Radbourn's ascendancy and the surprising results it produced. In short, it was the Sweeney challenge which made Radbourn dissatisfied with Providence and determined to lead the Grays to the pennant, even if he had to pitch every day; not so he could revel in glory as the toast of all Rhode Island, but so he could leave the team the following season for a bigger payday elsewhere.

If Radbourn sounds like a contemporary player, it's a fair comparison. He was selfish, crass, conceited, and cantankerous -that rude gesture he is making with his index finger in the photo on the cover of the book was not accidental- yet almost universally acknowledged as the smartest, most competitive, and greatest hurler of his day. Radboun was also reticent. Direct quotes attributed to him in the book are few and far between, and it is a tribute to Achorn that we come away feeling that we know his subject as well as we do, with the great pitcher having left so much unsaid for posterity. On the other hand, it may be argued that Radbourn let his performances do his talking, and in this regard his work in 1884 is enough to leave the reader nigh speechless: a 59-12 record, 73 complete games, 678 innings pitched, 528 hits/216 runs allowed. Some readers may want to reserve admiration for Radbourn's achievement, anchored as they are in the knowledge that no contemporary pitcher would be allowed to pitch or even be capable of pitching as frequently as Old Hoss did, but this would be missing the point. The game was played differently in Radbourn's time, sure, but it may not have been easier to play then. Certainly, there is no doubt that Radbourn and his contemporaries were as tough as anybody playing today ... especially the catchers like Charles' batterymate Barney Gilligan whose ungloved receiving constantly broke fingers and pounded hands into swollen pulps of tender flesh. And, yes, all that pitching did take its toll on Radbourn. He had some more merely excellent seasons (mostly for the Boston club, his former arch-rival), and it would be unsporting indeed to criticize him for never approaching again what he did in that epic season of 1884. As far as I'm concerned, Radbourn had nothing left to prove after 1884. I only wish my little painting of him depicted him in a Providence, not a Boston, uniform.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (Jan. 1, 2010)