Remembering 'Old Hoss' Radbourn

Remembering 'Old Hoss' Radbourn
April 18, 2012, 7:00 pm
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I've been in the journalism profession for more than 50 years so I wasn't surprised when a couple of readerscritics called me to task for presumably overlooking Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn in my survey of the greatest high school baseball players ever produced in Illinois.I didn't overlook Radbourn. Neither did I overlook players such as Rickey Henderson, Fred Lynn, Lonnie Smith and Bret Saberhagen, who were born in Illinois but left before they enrolled in high school.In hindsight, I should have listed Radbourn, a Hall of Famer, with Joe McGinnity, another Hall of Famer, as my second-tier pitching choices behind two other Hall of Famers of more modern vintage who established bigger reputations, Red Ruffing and Robin Roberts.But Radbourn was a product of the underhand pitching era. It is reported that he threw overhand only occasionally. The 5-foot-9, 168-pounder threw a fastball, screwball, sinker, slow curve and dry spitter. His career was over in 1891. He died in 1897 at age 42 of paresis or perhaps brain damage caused by syphilis.He was a fascinating and tragic story. Born in New York, his family moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where he played semipro and minor league baseball before making his major league debut with the Buffalo Bisons in 1880. A butcher by trade, there is no evidence that he ever played high school baseball.In his 12-year career with Buffalo, the Providence Grays, Boston Beaneaters, Boston Reds and Cincinnati Reds, he posted a 309-194 record with a 2.68 earned run average and 1,830 strikeouts.In 1894, he recorded a season for the ages, an achievement that hasn't been approached since and likely never will. He won 59 games, most ever in a single season, and lost 12, finished all 73 of his starts, had 11 shutouts, pitched 678 23 innings, struck out 441 and had an ERA of 1.38.In 1939, he was among 10 players who were inducted in major league baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Also included in the fourth class of inductees in baseball's shrine were Lou Gehrig, Eddie Collins, Wee Willie Keeler, George Sisler, Cap Anson, Charles Comiskey, Albert Spalding, Buck Ewing and Candy Cummings.That should tell you all you need to know about "Old Hoss" and his credentials for baseball immortality.Edward Achorn wrote an entertaining and no-holds-barred book about Radbourn and, according to Amazon.com, you can still purchase it. "Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had" provides wonderful insights into Radbourn's career and his once-in-a-lifetime season."It is the tale, too, of the woman Radbourn loved, Carrie Stanhope, thealluring proprietress of a boarding house with shady overtones, a marriedlady who was said to have personally known every man in the NationalLeague," relates the book description. It was published in 2010 by Smithsonian BooksHarper Collins.Achorn, the deputy editorial pages editor for the Providence (R.I.) Journal and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for distinguished commentary, is a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan and a life-long fan of 19th century baseball. As a child in Westborough, Mass., he was astonished to learn that the nearby city of Worcester once had a major league baseball team. It led to his research on Radbourn and the 1884 Providence Grays."I was consciously trying to write a baseball 'Seabiscuit,' a story about a special time in America and some compelling characters who caught the public's imagination as much as about the sport I love madly," Achorn told book reviewer James Bailey, a former associate editor of Baseball America, in an interview in 2010. "Some pretty successful screenwriters in Hollywood have already expressed strong interest."It was a different game in those days. Talk about the "dead ball" era. In 1884, Radbourn's 59-victory season, baseball took a big step toward the product we know today by legalizing the overhand pitch. Until then, pitchers were allowed a running start within the pitcher's box and released the ball from no farther than 50 feet from home plate.There still is some discrepancy over Radbourn's victory total in 1884. At least two creditable sources, MacMillan's "Baseball Encyclopedia" and the current "Sporting News Baseball Record Book," claim he won 60 games. So does his Hall of Fame biography. Other sources credit him with 59. Older sources, including the plaque on his tombstone, claim he won 62.Radbourn would make for a very interesting character if portrayed accurately and realistically on the big screen. In 1886, he became the first public figure to be photographed extending his middle finger to the camera. When he retired and returned to Bloomington, he opened up a successful billiard parlor and saloon. He made some investments but lost most of his wealth in an economic panic.He always had a reputation for being a bit vain. He was seriously injured in a hunting accident, lost an eye, and spent most of the remaining years of his life shut in a backroom of the saloon, too ashamed to be seen after the injury. The name on his tombstone is misspelled.In the 1884 World Series, Radbourn pitched three complete-game victories in three successive days, allowing only 11 hits and no earned runs. Once asked if he ever tired of pitching so often, he replied:"Tired out tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From 4 in the morning until 8 at night I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge. Tired from playing two hours a day for 10 times the money I used to get for 16 hours a day?"I wonder if Jack Nicholson is available for the role.