Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had
384 pp., $25.99
Michael R. Stevens
Fifty-Nine in '84
The numbers, as so often in baseball history, tell their own poetic story. In 39 games from late July to late September, the pennant-stretch then as now, Radbourne pitched all but three games (22 straight from August 21 on), and his record during that two-month span was 30-4, with one save (a recent emendation of the Sabremetricians) and one game ending in a darkness-induced tie (which led the New York crowd to rush the umpire, a Providence reserve player, in a mob assault!). Radbourn pitched and won every game for a month, which Achorn well asserts is "perhaps the greatest feat in baseball history." No physical freak, Radbourn could barely lift his arm on the morning of the pennant-clinching game at Chicago's Lake Front Park: a late September day, whipped by chilling winds (the cold, blustery weather all summer, caused by the ash cloud aftermath of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, is another quirky subplot). Fortified by a few shots of proto-Cortisone whiskey, and working in the (almost literal) shadow of the high canvas right field fence only 196 feet (!) down the right-field line, Hoss junk-balled the intimidating Whitestockings and won his fifty-fifth game of the year, securing the pennant for Providence. Achorn offers this culmination in a gripping inning-by-inning account, and any Chicagoan reading along might be stunned by déjà vu when seeing the quote from the Tribune the next morning: "'The Chicago ball team is made up largely of cripples, bums and bigheads."
Radbourn had achieved all his aims, financial and professional and otherwise, the moment the pennant was clinched. Yet Achorn again shows the quirkiness of the man behind the fierce mustache: Radbourn went on to take his turn in the rotation time and again, winning four more games to finish the season at 59-12, then pitching and dominating in the first World Series, when Providence crushed the New York club of the rival American Association. The New York Times offered this consummate judgment: "Radbourne was an insurmountable obstacle for the Metropolitans."
And then the grim finale, in which Achorn's two protagonists meet for a last reckoning: Radbourn the stoic, worn down by rough-and-tumble forces of the burgeoning republic. His body aged and ravaged by the demands of his harsh trade, the syphilis so rife in urban settings destroying his sight and mind, and the startling financial reverses of the 1890s economic downturn (well, some things don't change, perhaps) all conspired to take the proud man from the height of fame and craftsmanship to his grave in little more than a decade. And though America has smoothed over many rough edges in the century and a quarter since, with the American pastime following suit, the sense of struggle and desperation endure, and grit still captures the imagination, if not always the pennant. Edward Achorn has opened a chapter of the past that reveals an almost accidental hopefulness in a vastly fallen world. Take and read, but beware: shooting pains in your pitching shoulder may result!
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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