Bookshelf review: Fifrty-Nine in ’84

Ron KaplanContributor IAugust 21, 2010

Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had, by Edward Achorn (Smithsonian, 2010).

If contemporary fans can’t relate when their baseball-loving parents tell them about Mickey Mantle orWillie Mays or, going back farther, when the grandfolks talk about DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson, how do you think they’d react when someone starts talking about a pitcher from the before the turn of the last century? Yet Edward Achorn, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for distinguished commentary and the deputy editorial pages editor of The Providence Journal, manages to tell such a story with a combination of dash and drama in this entertaining bio.

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that if Charles “Hoss” Radbourn could see starting pitchers today getting pats on the back for going six innings, he scratch his head and wonder what kind of foolery this is? Back in the day — the very long-ago day — pitchers were expected to finish what they started, even if the game went into extra innings. Long gone are the days when Robin Roberts (or even a Wilbur Wood) would put up more than 20 complete games in a season. Now that might the combined total for a league.

But Radbourn, who worked his magic primarily for the Providence Grays and Boston Beaneaters, went even beyond the norm of his contemporaries: in 1884 he completed each of the 73 games he started (plus two relief appearances), for a total of 678.2 innings and an unapproachable 59 wins, (Amazingly, he ranks second in single-season innings pitched; in 1879, Will White of the Cincinnati Reds tossed an even 680.)

Achorn does an excellent job of making history accessible as he meshes old-tyme baseball with the American culture of the era as he dissects all of Radbourn’s game both from a team standpoint and that of the pitcher. In the midst of the personal glory, the Grays were, after all, battling for a pennant.

The author also discusses at length Radbourn’s loving relationship with Carrie Stanhope, a woman Achorn seems to take pleasure in reminding his audience may have been of questionable repute (i.e., a prostitute). Was she the source of the syphilis that led to his death at the age of 42? Ain’t it fun to speculate? The reader may also grow a little impatient with the numerous reminders of how much such an iron-man performance took out of the Hall of Fame pitcher, how much pain he was in at a time when sports medicine consisted of a bottle of snake oil and how he soldiered on to prove his manhood.

As his Facebook friends know, Achorn is a constant on-line presence, whether it’s sharing the latest review (maybe they’ll see this one there at some point), or dropping some new nugget about his favorite old ballplayer, or imagining what the movie version might be like (Megan Fox as Carrie? Great choice). One wishes, though, he would spend less time on the social networks and more time working on his next project, which, if Fifty-Nine in ’84 is any indication, should be a doozie. Undoubtedly, this one will receive a good deal of consideration for the select group of baseball book awards by SABR and other organizations.

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