Book Review: Fifty-Nine In '84

Book puts readers into a 'Wild West' era of baseball





Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had
By Edward Achorn
Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins, 2010
List Price: $25.99

Old-time ballplayers are often critical of today's pitchers, who are protected by pitch counts, bullpens, and the five-man rotation. Starters of prior generations worked on only three days rest and were expected to finish what they began. It wasn't uncommon in the 1960s for pitchers to log 20 or more complete games and upwards of 300 innings a season.

What a bunch of wimps.

Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn started 73 games in 1884—and he finished them all. Radbourn established the big league record for wins that year with 59—in a 112-game season—while logging 678.2 innings. For most of the second half of the year, he was a one-man rotation. At one stretch Radbourn made 22 consecutive starts for the Providence Grays, winning 19 of them. This incredible campaign, in which he led his club to its second, and last, National League pennant, is chronicled in Edward Achorn's "Fifty-nine in '84."

The workload took its toll. Radbourn battled such intense pain late in the year he needed help from his manager just to get dressed. He was never the same pitcher in subsequent years, going 144-127 the rest of his career after winning 140 games and losing 56 from 1882-84. Jealous, stubborn, and driven by a rare offer of free agency, Radbourn fought through the pain on whiskey and guts until Providence clinched the pennant on Sept. 26 with nearly three weeks to play.

It was a finish that seemed implausible in mid-July, when the club suspended Radbourn for throwing a game, suspecting he was on the verge of jumping to the upstart Union League. The temperamental star was in a snit because Charlie Sweeney, his fellow pitcher and rival, wasn't carrying his share of the workload. With the new league dangling big dollars in an attempt to lure him away, Radbourn considered leaving, a move that would have earned him a permanent blacklisting from the NL. Sweeney made the jump instead, clearing the way for Radbourn's run at immortality.

As a reward, Bancroft offered his star his freedom at the end of the year. But Radbourn re-upped with the Grays, staying in Providence where he frequented a shady boarding house run by the lovely Carrie Stanhope. Achorn details the couple's relationship, from Stanhope's checkered past to their eventual marriage and premature deaths, both perhaps owing to syphilis.

A native New Englander who has lived in Providence for 10 years, Achorn paints a vivid picture of life there in the 1880s. Crawling with prostitutes, and crooked cops who would allow them to operate, the city was a rough place, where one risked one's safety and wallet by walking around after dark. That Wild West flavor carried over into the ballpark, where Grays fans were renowned for their belligerence toward opponents and umpires.

Not that some of the visiting players and arbiters didn't deserve the rude reception. Rival clubs from Boston and Chicago brought men who weren't above any dirty trick that would help them win a game. The umpires, who worked alone, were often cowed enough—or crooked enough—to let them get away with it.

The game took a big step toward the product we know today with the legalization that year of overhand pitching, something many hurlers were illegally doing for several seasons already. Moundsmen were allowed a running start within the pitcher's box and released the ball from as little as 50 feet away from home plate.

A longtime fan of 19th-century baseball, Achorn expertly captures the game's nuances, as well as the travails of its weary pitchers. The deputy editorial pages editor for The Providence Journal made extensive use of the archives of the Providence, Boston, and New York papers, but he didn't stop there, researching the genealogies of Radbourn and Stanhope and even digging into Sweeney's sordid family. He also spent quite a bit of time at the Rhode Island Historical Society, wanting to properly place Radbourn's accomplishments into the context of his era.

"I was consciously trying to write a baseball 'Seabiscuit,' a story about a special time in America and some compelling characters who caught the public's imagination as much as about the sport I love madly," Achorn says.

Mission accomplished. And perhaps like "Seabiscuit," Radbourn's story will make its way to the big screen.

"Some pretty successful screenwriters in Hollywood have already expressed strong interest," says Achorn, who has a couple of actors in mind for the lead roles. (Megan Fox, give him a call.)

It seems like a natural fit. There's certainly enough conflict, drama, and romance to make a great movie. They won't even need a Hollywood ending. Radbourn provided it himself.

James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.