Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of

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Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of

Thursday, May 27, 20101:40 PM

By Chuck GarfienCSNChicago.com

I think I have found my all-time favorite baseball player. Actually, let me rephrase that: My all-time favorite athlete. Period.

I have never seen him play, in person or on tape. In fact, no one currently on the planet has ever seen him either.

He died 113 years ago.

His name was Charles Radbourn. They called him Old Hoss.

And in 1884, he defied the laws of baseball, not to mention anatomy, physics and most areas of science, when he put together the greatest single season this sport or any sport has ever seen.

(Paul Konerko disagrees with me. Well get to that later.)

Old Hoss pitched in the National League for the Providence Grays, a team Babe Ruth would later play for in 1914. Radbourn was a moody, ornery chap. Give him a ball, a pitchers mound and a few swigs of a bourbon, and this 5-foot-9, 168-pounder suddenly became a ferocious wildebeest -- baseballs version of Attila the Hun.

In 1883, the 28-year-old right-hander led the league in victories. Nowadays, its considered a major achievement when a pitcher wins 20 games.

Old Hoss?

He won 48.

He also had 315 strikeouts that season, to go along with 56 walks, a 2.05 ERA and 66 complete games. Thats not a misprint. Sixty-six complete games!

Last year Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum led the National League with four. Lincecum went onto win the Cy Young.

You hear that sound? Thats Old Hoss up in heaven snickering.

Oh, and did I mention that Radbourn pitched 632 innings that year? Mark Buehrle, the White Sox annual innings eater, has thrown 694... since 2007.

Asked one day if he ever got tired from pitching so often, Old Hoss replied (and this is an actual quote), Tired of tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight 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?

Old Hoss clearly didnt have time to be bothered with such absurd questions.

And I dont want to bore you with the details of Radbourns pedestrian season of 1883, because its what happened the following year, in 1884, that created this legend and how fiction became fact.

But first some backstory.

Back in the 1880s, there was no such thing as a five-man rotation. Teams consisted of just two brave, rubbery arm men who didnt care if one day their trusty limb just fell off. For the Grays, these two valiant souls were Radbourn and his teammate Charlie Sweeney.

Tired of tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight at night, I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge.-- "Old Hoss" Radbourne, on whether he got tired of pitching so many innings
But pretty soon this two-man rotation would be whittled down to one. And then zero.

On July 16, 1884, Radbourn and Sweeney had a vicious fight in the clubhouse after Old Hoss lost a game on purpose by lobbing soft pitches over the plate.

Well, nobodys perfect. Radbourn was suspended without pay.

But the next week, Sweeney, the only starting pitcher left on the roster, apparently couldnt take the pressure. He started drinking heavily before a game, and kept the libations going during it as well, tending to his flask in between innings.

By the seventh, Sweeney was officially plastered.

And yet, the Grays somehow led the game, 6-2. When the manager went to the mound to relieve his sauced pitcher, Sweeney erupted, leaving the ballpark in a fit of rage and quit the team.

Left without a starting pitcher on their roster, consensus was that the Grays, who were in first place at the time, should disband immediately.

But out of the darkness came Old Hoss, still suspended, but who had a preposterous idea that could possibly save the Grays season.

In exchange for a small raise and an exemption from the reserve clause the following year, Old Hoss offered to start every single game for the rest of the season.

Hoss might not have been old. But he sure was crazy.

The Grays gladly welcomed him back.

As it turned out, from July 23 until Sept. 24, Radbourn started only 40 of the Grays next 43 games, winning 36 of them. And in the three games he didnt pitch, he played right field and shortstop.

How in the world did he do it?

Well first, according to a relative, he drank a quart of whiskey every day. This was apparently part of the training regiment back then. Booze helped ease the pain. Old Hoss also demanded that a hot stove be installed in the locker room, so he could steam his aching arm for relief. At times, the throbbing would become so great that he could barely lift his arm to comb his hair.

But Radbourn almost didnt survive any of this, and not because of something that happened on the field. One night earlier in that 1884 season, a fire erupted in the hotel where he and many of his teammates lived. The cowardly Sweeney ran for the hills, immediately fleeing for safety. As for Old Hoss, he went door-to-door waking up his teammates, who almost suffocated from the smoke.

Radbourn saved their lives. And a few hours later, he continued to save the Grays' season, throwing a three-hitter against the Detroit Wolverines.

But thats just Old Hoss being Old Hoss.

When the regular season ended, the Grays won the National League by 10 12 games. And Radbourns numbers were simply unfathomable.

Where to begin...

He started 73 games. And completed all 73 of them.

Ill give you a second to digest that.

And it wasnt like the Grays sent Radbourn to the mound with a one-way ticket, keeping him out there even if he was getting thrashed by the opposition. It never happened. Radbourn had a 1.38 ERA.

He pitched 11 shutouts, had 441 strikeouts and just 98 walks.

He also came on in relief and recorded what is now referred to as a save.

Radbourns Gumby-like arm would throw 678 23 innings, four outs shy of the most ever. And his record?

59-12.

Some accounts have him winning 60. No pitcher has topped 30 wins in Major League Baseball since Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Either way, its a record that will never, ever be broken.

And Im not the only one in awe of Radbourns incredible feat.

Years later, John McGraw and Connie Mack, two of baseballs preeminent managers, named Radbourns gritty performance in 1884 as the greatest achievement in the history of the game.

But not everyone is as impressed with Radbourn as McGraw, Mack and me.

Inside the White Sox clubhouse sits Paul Konerko, resident skeptic, who scoffs at Radbourns numbers, calling it pure folly.

I promise you this, this guy right here could not pitch A-ball today, Konerko said, reading over Radbourns stats at his locker.

Noting that he threw 791 innings in his first two years in the majors (1881-1882), Konerko doesnt see how my new favorite athlete could have thrown much more after that.

Lets just assume for a second that the guy was born with a physical gift to throw well," he said. "Im just saying that after the first 800 innings over the first two years, whatever stuff he had was gone!

Maybe it was the whiskey.

When I showed Radbourns statistics to Sox flamethrower Matt Thornton, his jaw dropped.

I get into 75 games in a year, but I throw around 75 innings, Thornton said. He got into 75 games and threw 600 more innings than I do!

As for Jake Peavy, he just uttered one word:

Animal.

Eventually Konerko relented.

I believe that it happened, but Im just saying, lets just call it for what it was," he said. "You cant compare anything else from anybody who throws today, lets just put it that way.

If only we had a time machine...

Radbourn remained with the Grays until 1886, when he joined the Boston Beaneaters. It was there that he made history of a different kind when, according to a new book called "Fifty-Nine in 84," he became the first public figure to be photographed extending his middle finger to a camera.

You gotta love Old Hoss.

But by 1888, Radbourn wasnt the same pitcher anymore. He won only seven games in 24 starts. Maybe his arm was finally breaking down, or as Konerko jokingly suggested, Wasnt there some war in 1888, like the French-Indian War?

Actually that came in the mid-1700s. And no, Radbourn didnt have to go fight in it.

He died in 1897 at the age of 43. Hes actually buried in Bloomington, Ill.

In 1939, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So Paulie, take that.

And while its been over a century since his passing, Old Hoss still exists in the universe. He has magically come back to life, and is communicating to the masses... on Twitter, @OldHossRadbourn.

Hes there rambling on about the soft, multi-million-dollar gents playing the game today, and how things used to be.

Bah! Rain in Minnesota, he said in a recent post. No excuse. In Buffalo in 1884 we were attacked on the field by starving bears. I shot six. And threw a CG shutout.

His thoughts on technology?

I love this inter net. I have now voted for myself as an All-Star. My attempt to do so in 1889 led to a rather unhappy prison stay.

But now, Radbourn is free, carrying with him a baseball resume that pops off the screen and should be remembered forever.

Wherever he is, I do hope that his arm feels better. Not to mention his hands. Thats another thing about Old Hoss.

He never wore a glove. Nobody did.

Muhammad Ali called himself the Greatest. Im not sure how anyone can top this.

You can read more about Old Hoss Radbourn in a new book entitled Fifty-Nine in 84 by Edward Achorn.
Chuck Garfien hosts White Sox Pregame and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet with former Sox slugger Bill Melton. Follow Chuck @ChuckGarfien on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox news and views.

Rule 5 pick Dylan Covey takes advantage of showcase as White Sox down Indians

Rule 5 pick Dylan Covey takes advantage of showcase as White Sox down Indians

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — If Carlos Rodon starts on the disabled list as expected, the White Sox won't turn to any of their vaunted top prospects in the interim.

The news on Rodon has been encouraging so far as no structural damage has been discovered. Still, the White Sox won't clear Rodon until after he receives a second opinion on Monday. While the length of Rodon's absence won't be determined for several days, the White Sox are certain of one route they won't take — they don't want to disrupt the development of their young starting pitchers. Were a DL trip for Rodon necessary, the White Sox would likely select either Saturday's starter, Dylan Covey, or minor leaguer David Holmberg over their top prospects. Covey made a strong impression on Saturday afternoon with 3 2/3 scoreless innings pitched and the White Sox rallied for a 10-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark.

"When you have an opportunity to stabilize action or movement for players it serves them better," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "They get a little more comfortable where they're at. They get comfortable with the staffs they're working with and the information they're gathering, being in a routine. It is a little disruptive going from team to team to team. It happens, but it's not the most conducive (to learning)."

The White Sox are all about development this season. Therefore, they have no plans to call upon Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer or Michael Kopech unless they're A) ready and B) throwing every fifth day in Chicago. Renteria's comments Saturday reiterated Rick Hahn's earlier message, saying the club doesn't want to disrupt the development path.

That puts Covey, a Rule 5 draft pick in December, with a decent opportunity to make the club out of camp. Covey commanded the strike zone on Saturday only hours after Renteria said he hoped to see the young right-hander replicate an Arizona Fall League performance that initially warmed the White Sox up to him.

Aside from a two-out walk in his final inning, Covey was sharp the whole way. He allowed three hits and struck out three.

"My last couple of outings I was definitely feeling the stress," Covey said. "I was kind of pitching a little passive, pitching to not make a mistake instead of just going right after guys. So today and yesterday I just thought I'm just going to throw every pitch with conviction and see what happens. I got a lot of weak contact today and some swings and misses, so I felt good."

Covey threw 44 pitches, 27 for strikes. He potentially could stay in Arizona on Thursday and make an additional minor league start to build arm strength, which would get him to roughly 60 pitches before the regular seasons started.

The White Sox don't officially need a fifth starter until April 9 and they're off the following day. That break could allow the White Sox to start Covey as part of a bullpen day. Covey said he recently changed his mindset after lackluster results in relief this spring. The right-hander has a 6.94 ERA this spring in 11 2/3 innings.

"Obviously my last two outings out of the pen I wasn't getting crushed, but I just wasn't commanding the ball or commanding the count as much as I would like to be," Covey said. "The mistakes get hit a little harder when you're falling behind in the count. Today I wanted to have the mindset of attacking hitters, throwing everything down in the zone and going right after them, and it worked out."

The White Sox blasted six home runs in the contest, including a majestic, go-ahead grand slam by first baseman Danny Hayes in the top of the ninth inning. Hayes is hitting .351/.400/.595 with two homers and is tied for the team lead with 13 RBIs this spring. Jose Abreu, Nick Delmonico, Cody Asche, Everth Cabrera and Jacob May also homered for the White Sox. 

White Sox: Carlos Rodon feels reassured after clean MRI

White Sox: Carlos Rodon feels reassured after clean MRI

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- While he still has a second opinion ahead and is likely to start 2017 on the disabled list, a clean MRI has Carlos Rodon feeling relieved after a bizarre Thursday.

The White Sox pitcher described Saturday the strange experience he’s had the past few days dealing with soreness in his left bicep.

In the span of 48 hours, Rodon -- who will receive a second opinion on Monday -- went from feeling good enough after a midweek bullpen session to request that his first start be moved up to likely landing on the DL. As he prepares to navigate the rehab process, Rodon is more at ease after an MRI on Friday showed no structural damage.

“(Thursday) was a weird day for me,” Rodon said. “I wasn’t very happy with it. I got that checked out, trying to figure it out.

“I feel better. It’s reassuring.”

“(Your arm is) your tool. It’s concerning. But that’s why you go get those things checked out and make sure everything is ok. That’s what we did.”

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Rodon, who went 9-10 with a 4.04 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 165 innings in 2016, has one more checkup before he’s all clear. He travels to Los Angeles on Monday for an appointment with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. General manager Rick Hahn said Friday that a second opinion is “protocol.”

Though he has already been reassured -- the club’s diagnosis was he had no structural issues after a physical exam and then the clean MRI -- Rodon wouldn’t mind more confirmation. The left-hander said he hadn’t experienced the kind of tightness he suddenly felt in his biceps tendon before Thursday. He could lift his arm above his head, but Rodon said his stuff wasn’t the same. After he informed them, the White Sox determined to be cautious.

“It’s pretty tight up there,” Rodon said. “I’ve never really been that tight. I couldn’t really step on some balls I wanted to throw to get that arm going. So, I had to get it checked out. It didn’t feel too good.”

The White Sox already had Rodon on a delayed schedule where he needed to hit every mark to be ready for the regular season. They did so in hopes of helping him avoid the fatigue he experienced last summer and also reaching the 200-inning mark this season. Now it appears Rodon will begin the season on the DL, according to Hahn.

Though he’d like to start the season on schedule, Rodon wants to make sure he’s physically good to go.

“Just trying to be healthy man,” Rodon said. “You don’t want to go the start of the season and be behind the best guys. You are a tick down from the best guys in the world. It’s not fun pitching when you are not feeling too good. I want to be 100 percent when I’m out there. That gives our team the best chance of winning.”