Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of

Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of
May 27, 2010, 7:02 pm
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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.