Old Hoss Radbourn: “59 in 84!”

In 1884, Old Hoss started and finished 73 games.

There’s a new book out on 19th century pitching phenom Old Hoss Radbourn called “Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.” It’s by Edward Achorn, a writer who once discovered Radbourn, as did the rest of us, by running across his incredible pitching record back in the 1880s. I haven’t read Achorn’s work, but I ordered it today. I’ve read everything that’s ever been written on Old Hoss so the news of a new work reached me as simply irresistible.

In 1884, McMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia once listed Radbourn as the winner of 60 games in 1884.. That figure has since been adjusted down to 59, but that’s still an incredible total by today’s standards. The man started and completed 73 games, achieving a record of 59 wins, 12 losses, and 2 ties over 678.2 innings of work for the Providence Grays. Incidentally, Radbourn also registered 441 strikeouts in ’84.

How’s that for some immortally graced rubber armed hard ball chunking? Contemporaries say that Old Hoss pitched with all the steel will and intensity of a win-possessed madman on the mound. He must have had a lot going for him that special year. No one needed nor dared remove him from a single game.

It was rough era. Few players used any kind of gloving in 1884 and Old Hoss wasn’t one of them. Most players drank too much, cheated relentlessly, caroused and drank to excess with loose women, and beat the crap out of each other when disagreements arose over such major issues as who owned the last biscuit on the plate at the boardinghouse. The code of misconduct and egregiously self-serving sub-culture that was major league baseball in 1884 was hardly anything to uphold all of our more fanciful images of baseball as a pastoral paradise in the 19th century. It was a good place to work and get killed. And the club owners and fans cared nothing at all about the players who suddenly failed to produce. “What have you done for me lately?” is a mentality that has been with us forever in America and it didn’t begin with baseball. Just ask George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

Old Hoss made it to the Hall of Fame in 1939.

The 1884 game of ball was a little different, a little rougher, and a little tougher. Most pitchers were expected to finish the games they started. A pitcher began his motions in the proverbial “pitcher’s box” on flat ground and not from a mound. The edge of the pitcher’s box measured only 50 feet from the front of home plate, and not the 60’6″ it is today. Batters had to be tough too. There was no penalty for pitchers who hit batters with  a hard throw back in 1884. Batters were not awarded first as a result of getting hit. They just had to shake it off and hang in there – and maybe scheme privately on how they would go after the pitcher after the game as a course of revenge. I doubt that “reconciliation” was even passable as a real word in 1884. It certainly wasn’t one you would find in the baseball dictionary.

They say Old Hoss Radbourn was as tough as nails, but tightly strung on an intense wire about winning. A teammate once described Radbourn as bearing the raging glare of a madman after a crucial loss. It was a look that soon melted into tears of accepted condolence and self-forgiveness when another teammate came by his dressing stool and patted him on the back. Radbourn’s will to win only steeled from moments of despair. The cure for disappointment in Radbourn’s heart was to go back out there and reel off another ten wins in a row. How simple a remedy is that?

Old Hoss Radbourn’s 11-season career (1881-1891) with Providence, both Boston clubs, and one year with Cincinnati produced a career mark of 309 wins, 195 losses, and an ERA of 2.67. 1984 just happened to be the most victorious yer in the history of pitching, thanks to Old Hoss Radbourn.

Radbourn became a saloonkeeper following his retirement from baseball, but he died in 1897 at the early age of 43, very possibly from syphilis. Old Hoss Radbourn was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

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One Response to “Old Hoss Radbourn: “59 in 84!””

  1. David Munger Says:

    I love this guy. I don’t care what all the self proclaimed
    know it alls say. You can only play at the time you are living
    and by the rules that are set forth. It looks like “OLD HOSS”
    did them both well.

    Bill, you and Larry Dierker need to get together and bring This
    Day in Baseball History back to life.

    Thanks for the stories.

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