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Michael R. Stevens

Fifty-Nine in '84

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

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).

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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