Michael R. Stevens

Fifty-Nine in '84

Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn and his most amazing season.

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The pampered lives of modern baseball players, evinced by octuple-digit salaries, private jet travel, and clubhouses seemingly designed by Sardanapalus, appear otherworldly to us mortal fans today—how much more so the hard-scrabble players and rough-tongued fans of 125 years ago! Indeed, the portrait that Edward Achorn offers in Fifty-Nine in '84 depicts not only the realm of professional baseball but also the sociological vistas of the urbanizing East and Middle West of America in the "Gilded Age" as places of grim, deterministic, and cruel forces at work.

Providence, Rhode Island, the hometown of the 1884 NL pennant-winning Grays and their yeoman pitcher and protagonist Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn, features here as Deadwood on the Atlantic—criminals, prostitutes, corruption, desecration of land and water in the pursuit of wealth. The players themselves are a variety of ill-educated, hard-drinking, womanizing warriors, out for blood both on and off the field, with the occasional oddly placed Ivy Leaguer toiling for tuition money. (One of the best incidentals in the book is the story of Lee Richmond, who—in 1881, pitching for the Worcester NL club—sandwiched his Friday afternoon commencement from Brown University with a four-hit shutout of Cleveland on Thursday and the first perfect game in major league history on Saturday!)

But the best part about this travelogue of the 1884 Grays is that Radbourn himself doesn't fit the easy categories of either his time or his profession. It's not that he was a gentleman (though his parents had recently arrived from Bath, England, where his father had worked as a gardener at a manor) or educated (near the book's end, Achorn points out that Radbourn's contract dealings were hampered insofar as he was "a poor reader at best" and "could not write"), nor was he particularly scrupulous (he seems to have put his own interests ahead of the team's when disgruntled over the rivalry with the Gray's 1884 rookie pitching phenom Charlie Sweeney). But he was downright progressive in financial and labor matters against overwhelming management oppression, so much so that a reporter called him "sort of an anarchist" (think Curt Flood). Unlike the typically spendthrift players of the day, he invested his money back in his off-season hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, and actually married his boardinghouse-keeper companion, Carrie Stanhope, near the end of his short life to assure her of financial security (he appears to have died at age 42 from syphilis contracted from Carrie, whose scratch-and-claw story is related as a somewhat forced subplot of Achorn's narrative). In an 1880s America living explicitly by Darwin's dictates, not only in baseball (where the Chicago Whitestockings' notorious cheater Mike Kelly pointed out that "self-preservation is the law of the land") but also in politics and business, Radbourn cut an off-kilter figure, his self-interests strangely shading toward altruism.

And the outlandish 1884 season! Old Hoss wasn't even the Grays' best pitcher for the first half of the season: that was Charlie Sweeney, already an alcoholic at the tender age of 21 (and later to be imprisoned for murdering his mob employer in his hometown, San Francisco). Sweeney betrayed the team at mid-season to jump to the outlaw Union Association for more money—he was one of many National Leaguers to do so, despite the NL's policy of lifelong banishment. (My own hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan, makes a dubious entry in the narrative as the site, during an exhibition game in August of '84, where three Cleveland players openly defected to the Union Association Cincinnati squad, then had the gumption to force their revenue-minded Cleveland manager to pay them an extra $10 each to play their final game!) Radbourn himself had been suspected of already cutting a deal with the Union Association (he was one of the few superstar pitchers of the NL, having won a then-record 48 games in 1883), but after Sweeney's defection, Old Hoss agreed to an improbable bargain: he would get Sweeney's salary alongside his own, and receive his free-agency at the end of the season, IF he would pitch virtually every day until the Grays clinched their first pennant.

The heart of the narrative is that aching, relentless, money-and-pride-and-grit- driven task. Certainly the rules were different (the pitcher could take a couple of steps forward before releasing the ball, and he was throwing from a box only 50 feet from home plate), but the circumstances were in some ways more demanding for the hurler. (The virtually barehanded status of both catcher and fielders—catchers wore a thin, close-fitting glove that covered the palm only, catching the ball with their unprotected fingers—made passed balls and errors the bane of good pitchers, especially the hardest throwers.) Radbourn threw sidearm, shunning the new rule of 1884 allowing for overhand tosses, which Sweeney and other young guns had mastered—to the detriment of their arm health—and the descriptions of his "skillful strategic pitching," with multiple delivery angles, an arsenal of junk pitches, and a willingness to let his fielders handle chances (he has the lowest career strikeout total of any pitcher with more than 300 wins), make Radbourne sound like an ancestral Greg Maddux or Spaceman Bill Lee (though with a demeanor closer to Steve Carlton or maybe Oil Can Boyd).

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