SABR

Review: Charlie Radbourn’s Record-Setting Season

By David Quentin Voigt

This article was published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal.

59 in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had
by Edward Achorn
Smithsonian Books (2010)
$25.99, hardcover. 384 pages 

 

Big-league baseball was entering its stormy adolescence in 1884, a year when three major leagues battled for predominance. Of the three, only the National League endures, but that year the NL was sorely tested. Having recently buried the second man to hold the office of league president, the new NL leader, A. G. Mills, welcomed new franchises in New York and Philadelphia—two major markets that had been disenfranchised by Mills’s stubborn predecessor. 

It was a wise move and none too soon, as the rival American Association and the Union Association posed serious threats. Most menacing, with its cheaper admission rates, was the AA, which already had staged two profitable campaigns. To meet that challenge, Mills signed the National Agreement, which effectively allied the two circuits against the UA threat. 

Against this backdrop the 1884 season was played out, and author Edward Achorn, a Providence Journal newsman, makes the campaign the centerpiece of his book, 59 in ’84. The number refers to pitcher Charlie Radbourn’s unsurpassed seasonal total of pitching victories, which he amassed while carrying the Providence Grays to the first official world championship. And his feat restored the NL to baseball preeminence—at least for the nonce. 

Over the course of 19 chapters, Achorn tries hard to vivify Radbourn—no easy task, as the pitcher was the semiliterate son of a butcher who eyed pro baseball as an alternative to meat cutting. Taciturn and moody, with a drinking problem, Radbourn was a gifted pitcher from the pitching box, as it was called, which at the time was 50 feet from home base. And in 1884 he benefited from the new rule allowing overhand pitching—not that he needed it, as over the past three seasons Radbourn’s underhand and sidearm deliveries had accounted for more than a hundred victories. 

Achorn is at his best covering the Grays’ 114-game season in an exciting, suspenseful, though at times awkward “sportuguese” style. He gives full coverage to the games and to Radbourn’s rivalry with teammate Charlie Sweeney, a promising young pitcher. Their rivalry, marked by Radbourn’s envy, posed a serious morale problem for the team, ending only when Sweeney jumped to the UA. At that point Radbourn volunteered to pitch all the remaining games from late July to September. And he very nearly did. For that feat Radbourn received as additional compensation the money that otherwise would have gone to Sweeney had he stayed with the team. 

In focusing on Radbourn, a man of few words oral or written, Achorn fleshes him out by fictionalizing the pitcher’s moods, physical complaints, and romantic interests. For added detail Achorn launches forays into such topics as the 1884 brand of baseball, the geography and industrial growth of Providence, and the town’s boarding house, where bachelor Radbourn lived and presumably loved.

Run by Mrs. Carrie Stanhope, a woman of questionable virtue, the boarding house became the hub of a budding romance between her and Radbourn. Truth to tell, there is little factual detail to be had, but Achorn struggles imaginatively to make a romantic fire out of cold tinder. 

The author’s labor leads to trouble, as the possibility of Stanhope’s prostitution prompted Achorn to tread into the subject of the ubiquity of that activity in America. In speculating that the two lovers also caught cases of syphilis, Achorn discusses the widespread prevalence of that malady and is led to claim that even Abraham Lincoln was a victim. The author’s uncritical acceptance of the wild surmise of recent Lincoln biographer Daniel Epstein as his source is sure to alienate readers. Far better would it have been had Achorn ended his discussion when he wrote how Radbourn and Stanhope, each suffering from syphilis in 1895, “snuck off” to Milwaukee to get married. And two years later Radbourn was dead. 

Another criticism I would offer concerns the book’s title. In choosing, or perhaps accepting from his publisher, the phrase “59 Wins,” Achorn admits to having to decide between two statistical claimants—one calling for 59 wins and the other for 60. Ironically, both claims are spurious, inasmuch as each tampers with the record of 62 victories that appears in Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide for 1885. Such retrofitting of past performance to contemporary statistical definitions is rife among modern statisticians, who take the purblind view that past records can be changed in light of present-day standards. An example of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, that view flies in the face of a basic rule of historiography, a rule that holds that past records must stand on the terms that were agreed on at the time the record was set. 

At least in their time Radbourn and his teammates knew that the number of Old Hoss Radbourn’s pitching victories in 1884 was 62. Caveats aside, Achorn delivers a well-researched and spritely written book that is well worth the reading. 

DAVID QUENTIN VOIGT, author of more than a hundred articles and reviews and of several books, including the three-volume "American Baseball" (1966–83), was recently awarded an honorary degree by Albright College, where he taught for more than thirty years.

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