Book Will Tell Old Hoss Radbourn Story

Fifty-nine in '84 cover showing Radbourn A new book slated for release next spring leans on 19th century baseball memorabilia to tell the tale of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s 59-win season.

And…Billy Ripken, eat your heart out. Ol’ Hoss was first aboard the obscene baseball card train.

It was a big deal when Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968. In fact, no one’s hit the 30-win milestone since. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn would scoff. 125 years ago, he won 59 games in a single season.

Radbourn’s total in 1884 is unmatched and so is the story of 19th century baseball as a whole, woven together in a book scheduled for release next March. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Edward Achorn of the Providence Journal, Fifty-nine in ’84 also includes images of period baseball memorabilia including numerous Old Judge tobacco cards and scorecards of the day.

Fifty-nine in '84

Radbourn was among the game’s first superstars, a tough but unassuming pitcher who played in the era of bare-handed fielders. Baseball was still a couple of decades from being considered respectable to the masses, its games plagued at times by cheating and violence.

Radbourn died of syphilis at an age when some pitchers today are still getting paid millions. His life, controversial marriage and place in baseball’s raw beginning as a profession are chronicled in the book.

Achorn was given access to several baseball cards, programs and other items to illustrate the tale, but says there was one piece of memorabilia that eluded him.

“Early in the book, I describe a post-season ‘benefit’ game featuring the Providence Grays, which was halted for the presentation of a gold watch to Radbourn. It had “C.R.” in raised letters on the cover. Snapped open, it bore an inscription: ‘Presented to Charles Radbourn by his many friends in Providence, October 1, 1883.’ It’s hard to believe someone threw out an artifact like that. If anyone has that in his personal collection, I’d love to see it!”

Achorn, always fascinated with the 19th century game, went one-on-one with Sports Collectors Daily about the forthcoming book, Radbourn’s incredible season and the role old baseball memorabilia and some avid collectors played in helping tell the story.

What made you decide to write the book about Radbourn?

EA: It’s an amazing and exciting story, and it’s never really been told before. When I was a kid, I spent half my time hunched over the Baseball Encyclopedia, reading the statistics, imagining what the players were like. Of course, I came across this oddly named character, Old Hoss Radbourn, a man who won 60 major-league games in one season, later adjusted to 59, still more than anybody in history. And after winning 59 games, this man pitched his team to victory in the first World Series, winning all three games. How could anyone be strong or courageous enough to do such a thing? How did his arm not fall off, for one thing, pitching day after day? I wanted to find out how. And when my journalism career took me to Providence, home of his team in 1884, I decided to give it a hard look.

And the more I looked into Radbourn, the more interesting a character he seemed – jealous, moody, obsessed with being the best, a heavy drinker. Yet he was loyal to a fault, and fell in love with a woman he stayed with the rest of his life. I think it’s a great American story of grit, courage and endurance.

The book goes well beyond baseball. What should readers take away from it?

EA: It is remarkable how baseball in every era opens a window into the culture of the times. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” the philosopher Jacques Barzun said. That’s true of the 1880s as much as any time.

Radbourn’s grit says a lot about America 20 years after the Civil War – about its bitterly competitive culture, and what a struggle it was for a man to raise himself above the herd. Charlie was the son of a butcher, and before going into professional baseball he worked 14 hours a day clubbing steers with a 25-pound sledgehammer. It was not an easy thing for him to make it as a top professional, but he was driven to escape his father’s brutal, bloody business, and distinguish himself as a great man.

Many men and women in Radbourn’s time simply lived out lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau put it. Most Americans, in fact, had terribly hard lives and died young. Yet this was an incredibly vibrant America that was creating the modern world, led by brilliant individuals who introduced corporations and business efficiencies, electricity, steam, and stunning innovations in transportation and communication. And this was the era that shaped baseball into the highly competitive game we know and love. Fifty-nine in ’84 is very much set in that culture.

What types of original Radbourn memorabilia did you run across while doing the research? Anything especially interesting or unexpected?

EA: Radbourn was evidently the first man ever photographed flashing his middle finger. I think that says something about his ornery personality and his devilish sense of humor. Hoss Radbourn giving the finger in team photo He did it in a photograph taken at the Polo Grounds in New York on April 29, 1886 – a splendid portrait of the two teams gathered on opening day. But there is Rad, with one hand on the shoulder of his teammate and the other defiantly flipping the bird. Incidentally, the photographer that day captured some amazing action shots, including one of Radbourn actually pitching, now in the collection of the New York Historical Society. Old Hoss also may be in the second photograph ever taken of a man flipping the bird. One of his Old Judge cards shows him with his hands on his hips, a very bland expression on his face, and the middle finger of his left hand extended. All these pictures are in the book – the Old Judge card on the cover. I obtained that image through the folks at Robert Edward Auctions, who were incredibly helpful.

The very innovative manager of Radbourn’s team, the Providence Grays, Frank Bancroft, was a big guy for memorabilia. As part of his deal for coming over to Old Judge Charles Providence from Cleveland in 1884, he obtained the scorecard concession, and he hired the Strobridge Lithograph Co. of Cincinnati to design very beautiful, brightly colored scorecards, each adorned with the sketch of a Providence player, rotated throughout the season. A Providence reporter who wrote many decades later about the old Grays recalled how much collectors loved those scorecards, and that many local people (including the reporter) collected the whole set.

Midway into the 1884 season, it was reported that Bancroft was selling an “elegant” portrait of the team, which could be obtained by sending 50 cents to him at his hotel. I suspect that is the surviving portrait of the team in very handsome business suits, though seem to be seated on chairs at the ballpark. That picture was used decades later in an advertisement for Hanley’s Extra Pale Ale, made by a Providence brewer, that I came across in a private collection.

The vintage Providence Grays team, which wears 1884 replica uniforms and plays by 1884 rules, obtained one of the bats actually used by the Grays. It’s a big, heavy 35-inch-long monster with a sawed-off end, painted black at the end, stamped with the name of its manufacturer, Burlingame, who had a wood shop on Harrison Avenue in Providence, not far from the ballpark. I had a replica of that bat in my office while I was writing the book, and I would pick it up and give it a swing from time to time. That thing was a club, necessary to punch that dead baseball into the outfield.

My friends at SABR also came across two fascinating photos in the files of the National Museum of Health and Medicine of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. They are very detailed pictures of the front and back of the hands of Doug Allison, an early professional catcher – and they are horrifying, mangled, broken. I used those in the book to help illustrate how brutal it was to catch at the professional level in early baseball, before the technology of protective equipment had been developed very highly.

The only memorabilia I bought myself for the project was an 1883 issue of Leslie’s Magazine, featuring a full-page depiction of some of the more comical aspects of professional baseball in Radbourn’s day. This was helpful to me because it conveyed action and what the crowd looked like – particularly the involvement of women, one of the themes of the book. That’s reprinted, too.

How helpful was the memorabilia to telling the Radbourn story?

EA: Oh, it was invaluable in helping me better understand Radbourn and the times. There’s nothing like seeing a scorecard or a team photo or baseball cards or a bat to give you a feel for a particular era of major-league baseball. You look at those tired, grizzled faces in the pictures, and you realize this was not a game for sissies in the 1880s. That’s why I use cards from the Library of Congress collection throughout the book, as well as scorecards, cartoons, and vintage photographs.

The gorgeous book by Joe Gonsowski, Richard Masson and Jay Miller featuring all of the photographic cards by Goodwin & Company came out while I was writing Fifty-Nine in ’84. It was very helpful to have all those cards, all those faces, in one place.

How much help did you get from private collectors in telling the story, who was particularly helpful?

I had the great good fortune to have the advice and help of Frederick Ivor-Campbell, one of the most generous and gentle scholars you could ever find, and a giant at SABR, recognized for his deep knowledge of early baseball, especially Radbourn and the Providence Grays. Fred read the manuscript through and made many helpful suggestions. He was tragically killed in a car accident just after I finished the manuscript.

But Fred had some wonderful stuff he graciously shared with me, including a scorecard from the very first World Series game, in October 1884. It was interesting, in that, to save money, the manufacturer simply took an old scorecard and pasted the lineups of the Providence Grays and New York Metropolitans over the names that were there. Waste not, want not. That certainly gives you a feel that the first World Series was kind of a last-minute, makeshift idea, not the very formal, highly commercialized event we have today. Fred also had an original scorecard of the 19-strikeout game pitched by Radbourn’s teammate Charlie Sweeney, which features heavily in the book, since it made Radbourn insanely jealous. The scorer only counted 18 strikeouts, incidentally, but he still knew enough to save the card for posterity. Those cards are reprinted in the book.

Fred put me in touch with Don O’Hanley, who has a wonderful collection of 1883 and 1884 scorecards, including the colorful ones Bancroft commissioned, and he very graciously permitted my sister Nancy Engberg to photograph them. They’re scattered through the book, too.

I should also mention some memorabilia handed down from my grandfather. As a young man (born in the fateful year of 1884), he attended a 1904 doubleheader at Boston’s Huntington Avenue grounds. Boston’s Cy Young pitched in one game, and New York’s Jack Chesbro in the other – not too shabby! And I have the scorecard. I looked up the coverage in The Boston Globe and discovered that also in attendance that day – sitting in the front row – were John Morrill and George Wright, both of whom were teammates at one time or another of Old Hoss Radbourn. That got me to thinking. As long ago as it was when Radbourn won 59 games in a single season, it really wasn’t all that long ago.

Were you surprised at the 19th century memorabilia that survives in private collections?

EA: Very much so. For example, I was stunned to see some of the actual scorecards that Frank Bancroft commissioned, after reading and writing about them. They’re {mosimage}still beautiful, their colors bright and vivid 125 years later. Don told me he obtained them in a second-hand bookstore in Providence. The owner pulled them from a box containing all sorts of treasured scorecards from early baseball. Don tried to buy the whole shebang, but the owner, who was a quirky fellow, demurred, telling him to come back and buy pieces one at a time. Soon thereafter, the store burned down, taking all those priceless scorecards with it. Ouch.

I think all of us who love baseball are very deeply indebted to the collectors who treasure and preserve the past. Our understanding of the game would be infinitely poorer without them and their passion.

Were there any real endorsement/marketing opportunities available to stars of the era like Radbourn? Did they receive anything for appearances on tobacco cards, etc?

I suspect they got something for posing, though the real reward was the glory. Most of the players loved showing off. Radbourn was little different, as evident from his middle finger. He made a point of warming up to the side, generally out of sight, instead of in front of the grandstand. He made fun of players who posed and preened for the crowd. Radbourn sort of shuffled on the field and seemed to pitch nonchalantly. But he was the most dogged competitor imaginable; all he cared about was winning. After he retired and went back home to Bloomington, Ill., and opened a pool hall, he was notorious for putting off people who asked him about his playing career. He was something of a loner, a man of few words. He preferred to be out in the woods, hunting with his dogs.

There were some product endorsements by players for bats and baseball equipment, but the real era of using players for promotion (Coca-Cola, automobiles, etc.) started a little later, around the turn of the century.


  1. […] Seems like the feisty Mr. Radbourn just preferred not to be photographed or liked to give them a hard time.  When you pitch as often as he did, I guess you’re entitled to be a little snarly.  By the way, his arm—and his very interesting life—were the subject of a great book by Ed Achorn. […]