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fifty-nine in '84

1 september 2010

Among the many piquant factlets I learned from Ed Achorn's Fifty-nine in '84 was this: in 1884, when he won a record 59 games for the Providence Grays, Charlie Radbourn wasn't their opening-day starting pitcher. That's akin to learning that Secretariat went off as a 15-1 shot in the Belmont Stakes, or that UCLA wasn't in the preseason top 20 when Lew Alcindor was a senior. How could you figure that Old Hoss Radbourn, in 1884, wasn't your #1 starter?

Yet, as Achorn shows, he wasn't. Providence manager Frank Bancroft had the luxury of alternating Radbourn with one of the greatest young phenoms ever to hit the major leagues, Charlie Sweeney. In the year when Radbourn set the record for victories, Sweeney set a single-game mark for strikeouts (19) that would stand for over a century.

The Radbourn-Sweeney rivalry (and it was just that, never a partnership) provides Achorn with the framework for a great story. The events of the 1884 baseball season cooperate at every turn. If 1884 wasn't the year all hell broke loose in baseball, it was at least a year when the press covered the sport with a maximum of histrionics. And the players played along. The accounts that Achorn relays are full of preening, braggadoccio, mock and real combat, team-jumping, holding out, consorting with unsavories, and general men-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown behavior.

For the first three months of the 1884 season, Sweeney and Radbourn played can-you-top-this baseball – and the Grays still trailed the Boston club, with its equally fine pitching duo of Charlie Buffinton and Jim Whitney, by a game or two in each morning's National League standings. Sweeney chose that juncture to jump to the St. Louis club in the Union Association. Radbourn had thought of jumping himself, but saw that he had Providence over the proverbial barrel. He offered to start every game for the Grays down the stretch – if manager Bancroft would pay him both men's salaries and declare him a free agent at season's end.

Won over by Radbourn's near-pathological lack of self-doubts, Bancroft agreed. The Grays proceeded to have one of the greatest second-half runs in baseball history, winning the pennant by ten games. Radbourn won his 59, of course, and then as an afterthought won all three games of the nascent world's-championship series against the New York American Association club, completing all three of his starts (as he had done 73 times in the regular season) and allowing just three runs, none of them earned.

Several factors converged to make 1884 like no baseball season before or since. The National League expanded its schedule to 112 games. Pitchers were allowed to throw overhand. (Radbourn, like several veterans, stayed with the sidearm delivery that had gotten him to the majors; the younger Sweeney came up chucking straight over the top.) And the presence of the Union Association for that one season meant that talent was diluted among three major leagues, while the fluidity of baseball labor in the 1880s led to kaleidoscopic shifts in rosters.

Before 1884, shorter seasons and less-stressful pitching deliveries meant that a team could get by with a single pitcher with a part-time backup. Most teams were moving toward two-man rotations even before 1884, though, and certainly with 112 games to play, a two-man system like the one that Providence started the season with was strongly indicated. It was a move of great gutsiness – and potential foolishness – to let the already-exhausted Radbourn go it alone down the stretch.

Achorn spices this already-peppery narrative with anecdotes of old-timey baseball, America of the Gilded Age, and Radbourn's eventual wife Carrie Stanhope. This attempt to add a love interest to the story is the only slightly distracting note. But it's lurid enough to hold interest in its own right. Carrie had been rather unselective about sex partners in her youth, and it may well be that she, Radbourn, and another ex-husband of hers would die from a shared strain of syphilis.

Nothing about these people's lives was ordinary, and Achorn brings them to life like they were yesterday. I had more sheer fun reading Fifty-nine in '84 than any other baseball book in recent memory.

Achorn, Edward. Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, barehanded baseball, and the greatest season a pitcher ever had. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.