Baseball's first king of the mound

Edward Achorn rediscovers the amazing story of one of early baseball's dominant pitchers and the season that made him great.

'Fifty-nine in '84' by Edward Achorn

In a sport as stat-crazy as baseball, why is Charlie Radbourn forgotten?

The guy won 59 games in one season, pitched 73 complete games, logged 441 strikeouts, then went on to pitch all three games of the first "world series."

Thanks to Edward Achorn, maybe he will be remembered again. In "Fifty-nine in '84," Achorn retells the story of "Old Hoss" Radbourn, an irascible cuss who ruled the game in the days when the National Pastime was a blood sport.

That's '84 as in 1884. This was a time when pitchers threw from a "box" instead of a mound, catchers wore fingerless gloves, and everybody else played barehanded. There were few rules, but one rule that stuck was the hated reserve clause, which bound a player to a team for life.

Achorn's work is reminiscent of "Seabiscuit," the story of the championship horse of the 1930s. Like that great tale, this one is a story not just of the central character, but of the America of the time. The focal point here is Providence, R.I., a city proud of the choking coal smoke that meant prosperity in the Gilded Age. Baseball owners were moneyed men. Baseball players were usually escapees from farms, factories or mines, willing to endure overwork and underpay rather than go home. Gamblers and umpires interfered at will.

In this world of tough men, Charlie Radbourn of the Providence Grays was an intimidator. A jealous competitor, he pushed teammates aside and pushed himself to the point of disability. In the 1884 National League pennant race, with the team's only other pitcher ailing, Radbourn made a fateful bargain with the Grays' owners: He would pitch the whole season, virtually every day, and if he brought home the pennant, the owners would set him free.

Achorn's account of this grueling quest is richly detailed with census data, immigration records and the sniping sports pages of the time. Readers are further rewarded with Radbourn's game-by-game stats, reprints of famous Old Judge baseball cards, and infamous team photos that capture the ornery Old Hoss from his glaring eyes down to that flashing middle finger.

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.

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  • Hoss Radbourn 1887 baseball card

  • FIFTY-NINE IN '84

    By: Edward Achorn.

    Publisher: Smithsonian Books, 366 pages, $25.99.

    Review: An account of the baseball player who pitched every game one season also describes a colorful time in U.S. history.

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