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.

White Sox prospect Luis Basabe adjusts to new organization, playing without his twin

White Sox prospect Luis Basabe adjusts to new organization, playing without his twin

Luis Alexander Basabe’s roommate received a phone call on the road on July 9 in which he learned he had been traded by the Boston Red Sox. What would be a strange experience for most teammates was even more difficult for Basabe and his.

The player traded was his identical twin brother, Luis Alejandro Basabe.

“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t believe that,’ ” Luis Alexander Basabe said.

Nearly five months later, Luis Alexander received a similar call from the Red Sox to inform him he was included in a four-player package headed to the White Sox in exchange for five-time All-Star Chris Sale. Having already experienced the trade of a brother he describes as younger (by five minutes), shorter and weaker, Basabe wasn’t rattled.

While he later found that acclimating to a new organization was "weird" at first, Basabe said he already feels at home with the White Sox. The center fielder currently has a 10-game hitting streak and is slashing .260/.351/.400 with four stolen bases in 58 plate appearances for Single-A Winston-Salem.

“So far everything has been very good,” Basabe said. “When (my trade) first happened it didn’t feel weird or anything because it was in the offseason.

“I felt a little more comfortable because I had been through it with my brother. But I know it’s a business and no matter where I go I’ve got to do my job and play the way I do.

“ ‘Yeah, that’s all right. I don’t care because I’m here with a chance.’ ”

Plentiful opportunity is potentially there with the White Sox.

The No. 8-ranked prospect in the organization, according to MLBPipeline.com and Baseball America, Basabe, 20, has all the tools needed to be a top-notch defensive outfielder. His speed and arm are both graded at 60 on the 20-80 scout scale and his fielding rates at 55. Basabe’s manager thinks he has everything necessary to play a critical spot.

“He’s a true center fielder to me,” Winston-Salem manager Willie Harris said. “Speed, arm. It’s still a little early to tell if he’s going to hit. Who knows? But from the defensive side of the game, he knows what’s going on. He’s going to learn as he goes on and he’s going to be very, very good.”

Everything may come down to whether or not the switch-hitting Basabe performs at the plate. His hit tool grades at 45, according to MLB Pipeline, which is more in line with the bat of a fourth outfielder.

But so far the White Sox are optimistic Basabe can make the proper adjustment.

“He’s got a sweet swing,” White Sox hitting coordinator Mike Gellinger said. “He’s got a timing thing to handle. But he’ll get it and it should be very helpful.”

The biggest help will be repetitions. Basabe spent almost the entire 2016 season at Single-A Greenville in the South Atlantic League. Only at the end of the season was he promoted to Advanced-A Salem in the Carolina League, the same league he’s in now.

“He’s got a little bit of everything,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He can run, he has the ability to hit and he’s aggressive on the bases.

“He’s still only 20 and he’s had some success. But we feel the more at-bats he gets he’s going to be successful.”

Despite that young age, Basabe, whom his parents call “Chande”, and his twin, “Jandro”, have already learned about the harsh realities of baseball. They had just arrived at the ballpark to play the Lexington Legends that night when Greenville manager Darren Fenster summoned Luis Alejandro to his office with the news of his trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He would be assigned to Single-A Kane County.

“It was at 2 p.m. and the manager called my brother outside to come talk to him,” Luis Alexander said. “And then he told me ‘They traded me.’ ‘Really?’

“But then, (you learn) it really was a business and he got more chance over there.”

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

He absorbed a ton of information in spring camp, but perhaps it’s what Michael Kopech observed watching Jose Quintana that could help most.

For five weeks in big league camp, the extremely motivated White Sox pitching prospect gleaned every piece of information he could from more experienced teammates.

Kopech and veteran starting pitcher James Shields discussed pitch sequencing and the importance of the changeup. Infielder Tyler Saladino talked with the No. 14-ranked prospect in baseball about visualizing success. Catcher Geo Soto told Kopech pretty much everything about life in the majors.

But even though he didn’t say much, Quintana’s practice sessions may have provided the most valuable lesson of all. The key takeaway, Kopech said, is how Quintana performs every action with a purpose. The young pitcher knows how critical the example Quintana provided is to his development and wants to implement a similar approach.

“(Pitching coach Don Cooper) likes to call it focused practice,” Kopech said. “For me that’s one thing I haven’t done well, is get locked in. You have to be locked in all the time. That’s something that came from Coop and all the big leaguers I was around. Quintana is a great guy to watch when it comes to stuff like that.

“That’s a guy that is a definition of a silent leader. He doesn’t talk about much. He goes and gets his work in and you can just watch him and know that’s the way the game should be played.”

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Kopech took a nice step forward in his development on Tuesday night when he pitched a season-high six scoreless innings for Double-A Birmingham. He struck out eight and allowed a hit while walking four and lowered his ERA to 2.50. The Texas native had only compiled 12 innings in his previous three outings because of “hit-and-miss” fastball command that led to 10 walks.

Along with perfecting his fastball command, one of the keys to Kopech reaching the majors is an increase in workload. Kopech — the 33rd overall pick of the 2014 draft — has never pitched more than 78 2/3 combined innings he produced last season. The White Sox would love for Kopech to reach the 180-inning mark by 2019.

“He doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He hasn’t been able to have that build up so that’s something we’re going to make sure he can focus on. We’re going to make sure he’s in the right spot so we can do that properly.”

In order for Kopech to eventually hit that mark, he’d need to pitch between 110-130 innings this season and then throw around 160 innings in 2018. But to reach those figures, Kopech must first pitch deeper into games.

Through his first three starts, Kopech worked on a strict pitch count that varied based on performance. If he was on, he could throw as many as 85 pitches. But if he ran into command issues, Kopech might only throw 75.

On Tuesday, Kopech pitched well enough to throw 95 pitches (65 strikes) against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. He thinks the key to consistency in games is directly tied to his effort in between. It’s yet another area where Kopech — who reads self-help books, is into Cryotherapy and salt baths and eats meals on the road pre-prepared by his nutritionist — strives to improve.

“From Day 1 to Day 4, you need to be just as focused as Day 5,” Kopech said. “I can’t stress that enough. If my bullpen tomorrow I lose a little focus, then I know I need to get right back into it to prepare for my next start. That’s something that’s going to have to kick in sooner than later.”

Birmingham manager Julio Vinas likes how Kopech has handled himself early in the season. Vinas thinks Kopech has the proper mindset and tools to be a special pitcher.

‘He’s got the right mentality and now it’s executing and it’s going to be there,” Vinas said.

He may have been there this spring, but Kopech preferred to not be seen or heard by his veteran teammates. Kopech couldn’t do anything about the onslaught of attention the media paid to him after he came over with Yoan Moncada in the Chris Sale trade. But he could control the rest of his time around teammates. Little by little, he’d engage the veterans without drawing too much attention.

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“I just didn’t want to make it about me,” Kopech said. “It was my first big league camp and a lot of those guys are getting ready for a big league season and I’m competing for a job that’s not necessarily on a big league roster right away. I was just trying to take care of my business. All ears, not really any talk and take away as much as I could without pissing anybody off, really.

“I got the chance to face some good hitters and take away a lot of knowledge from older guys and I think that’s the best I could do to prepare for the season.”

But Kopech agrees the best preparation came from watching Quintana, who Cooper always lauds for his practice effort. Kopech hopes to be able to emulate how the 2016 All-Star pitcher handles himself soon enough.

Kopech thought he focused well from the second through the fourth inning in an April 20 start at Tennessee. But he wasn’t as pleased with his effort in the first and fifth innings.

“That’s the way I want to lock in when I’m on the mound,” Kopech said of Quintana. “I haven’t been doing that, but it’s something I’m going to work on going forward.

“I have to remind myself to stay locked in even though I’m doing what I always do because I need to have the same focus (in practice) I do when I’m pitching on the mound.”