Before he became an irascible Tweeter, Charles Radbourn was an irascible and overwhelming 19th century pitcher who won more than 300 games in his career and, most famously, 59 in one year. In doing this list, I find it is even harder to judge 19th Century players than it is to judge Negro Leaguers or players in the the Japanese League or Mexican League and so on. There are all the usual challenges of trying to imagine a player you’ve only read about, translate his game to a modern setting, make any kind of viable comparison between that player and the players we know so well.
But then, with the old guys, there are unexpected bumps. Here, I’ll give you an example.
In 1886, Old Hoss pitched 509 innings with a 3.00 ERA, slightly better than league average. He struck out 212.
In 1887, Radbourn pitched 425 innings with a disastrous 4.55 ERA. But the truly remarkable part was that his strikeouts were cut by more than half, all the way down to 86. What happened? Was he injured? Was he all used up? Did hitters suddenly figure him out?
Well, maybe not. See in 1887, for one year and one year only in the National League, they changed the rules so that it took FOUR strikes to get a strikeout. Could you imagine, say, Justin Verlander having to deal with that? Hey Justin, we changed the rules. It’s four strikes for a strikeout now. Yeah. But it’s also five balls for a walk. Go on, have some fun out there.
As a consequence of the new rule, strikeouts went down 55 percent, and ERAs across the league went up almost a full run. When they went back to three strikes, Radbourn proved an effective (though perhaps unreliable) pitcher for the next three years.
Charlie Radbourn grew up on a farm in Bloomington, Illinois during the Civil War. Apparently, there would be rumors throughout his playing days that he actually fought in that war, but he was just 6 when it started, 10 when it ended, and even Old Hoss wasn’t quite army ready in those years. He. like Bob Feller and race car driver Junior Johnson and The Natural Roy Hobbs and countless others grew up throwing baseballs against the wall of the family barn. In those days, pitchers would throw the ball underhand — thus the verb “pitching” like in horseshoes — and Radbourn developed a variety of curves and change-ups and rising fastballs. If there was a trait that marked his career (besides his irascibility) it was the way he constantly experimented with new ways to get people out. He was, as you will see, a little bit Greg Maddux, a little bit Gaylord Perry, a little bit Satchel Paige and a little bit Luis Tiant.
When he was 22 — according to this excellent SABR article about his life — Radbourn was playing for a professional team in Bloomington that was charged with throwing a game to the Springfield team. Radbourn played left field and committed five errors in that game, a high number even for that error-filled time. But he would say he had played the game fair and was not part of the fix. His explanation was so priceless and counterintuitive that apparently everyone believed him.
See: Radbourn admitted that he did talk to the gamblers who arranged the fix. He said that he might have told them he was going to take their money. Might? Well, he didn’t really remember because he was stinking drunk. And, being drunk, he was not responsible for anything that he might or might not have said. The next morning, after he sobered up, one of the gamblers came to him with an offer, and he says that he turned the money down and promptly told his cousin Henry, who was also on the team.
The incident was so weird and uncertain that Radbourn was cleared (though two of his teammates were kicked off the team). It would hardly be the last time that Old Hoss Radbourn was involved in controversies revolving around money.
Radbourn, like most players of his time, bounced around various start-up leagues until 1881, when he signed with the Providence Grays of the relatively new National League. Again, there’s a story that goes with it: He had signed with the Buffalo Bisons in 1880, but he hurt his arm and couldn’t pitch. He played in the field briefly, going three-for-21 and was released. He pronounced his baseball career over and went to work in a slaughterhouse in Bloomington. Apparently, some teams — in particular those Providence Grays — wanted to sign him but he would not respond. He was done with the game at 26.
Here is where a friend of his — a guy named Bill Hunter — plays a major role. Hunter believed that Radbourn should play baseball. He then acted, I would argue, as the first sports agent in baseball history. Without Radbourn’s consent, he accepted the Grays offer. He then convinced Radbourn to play. He served as an intermediary between the two parties. He used his own money to send Radbourn to Arkansas to get in shape. Articles suggest Radbourn wasn’t too keen on any of it. But in 1881, he went to pitch for the Providence Grays.
If there is no Bill Hunter, this is no Old Hoss Radbourn.
The numbers of 1880s pitchers are astounding to look at through our modern prism. It was a different game. Radbourn started 36 games his rookie season. He finished 34 of them. He threw 325 innings — he and future Hall of Famer Monte Ward started all but 14 games — and gave up 162 runs, of which only 88 were called earned runs. In just those few numbers (the complete games, the innings pitched, the ridiculous number of unearned runs) you can see that 1881 baseball bore only a passing resemblance to the game we know now.
The next year, Radbourn and Ward threw every single game for the Grays. Old Hoss — though the nickname would not become prominent for almost a decade — started 51 games, completed 50 of them, threw a league-leading six shutouts, struck out a league-leading 201 and won 33 games. He was about to have two of the craziest years in baseball history.
Radbourn apparently threw pretty hard, but it was the variety of his pitches that mesmerized hitters. He had what people called “a dry spitter,” which would drop like a spitball though he didn’t spit on it. He threw curveballs that broke left, curveballs that broke right, jump-balls that seemed to hop over bats and change-ups that seemed to cough and wheeze in mid-air before reaching the plate. Apparently he threw some kind of almost indescribable slow-ball that might have resembled Dave LaRoche’s La Lob. Radbourn was also not above cutting the ball, he moved around in the pitcher’s box (as Brilliant Reader Scott points out, there was no pitchers mound yet) so that he rarely threw from the same place two times in a row, he had a twisting windup that sometimes had him facing second base, and he pitched from a bewildering variety of arm angles (including overhand now and again). He also became known for pitching around the best hitters — he was probably the first pitcher who received notice for this. They called him the “Prince of Pitchers.” There was nobody like him.
In 1883, he threw 632 innings and in 1884 he threw 678. In those two years, he threw more innings than Mariano Rivera threw in his entire career. In 1883, he won 48 games, completed 66 of 68 starts, struck out 315, and had a league-leading .979 WHIP. Baseball Reference credits him with 13.4 WAR in 1883. It was barely an opening act for what would happen the next year.
Radbourn began 1884 griping about money. That was a constant battle not only for Old Hoss but for all players of the time — but particularly for Old Hoss. He was always more than a little bit ambivalent about his pitching career. He seemed to know it was not meant to last. He planned to open up a bar in Bloomington (or “cafe” as it was called in the papers) and spend his life doing the stuff he liked to do, like hunt, and he wanted to get paid enough money to set him up. But owners, having already invented the reserve clause, could pay whatever they liked. It never seemed enough to Radbourn.
That is, until the middle of 1884. Radbourn was pitching more or less like had the year before when the team’s other starter, Charlie Sweeney jumped to a team in St. Louis in the Union Association. Radbourn, it seems, despised Sweeney, and vice versa, so there was a lot of bad blood going already. When Sweeney left, Radbourn was basically Providence’s only pitcher. And so they told him to pitch more or less every day, which did not sit well with Rad (as the papers called him). It seems that it wasn’t the pitching everyday part that outraged him; the issue was that he wasn’t getting paid extra to do it. In July, Radbourn showed his frustration on the mound. This from a Providence-Boston game, as reported in the Boston Journal (under the headline: “Boston Wins and Radbourn Gives Silly Exhibition of Tampers:”
“Radbourn was in no condition physically to pitch. His nerves were unstrung and he was irritable, losing control of himself in a critical moment of the game.”
He was possibly drunk — this was not an uncommon state for Radbourn — but he was also just ticked off. Providence suspended him for poor play. It looked like the end of the season for all of them (Providence always seemed on the brink of bankruptcy), only then — somewhat in desperation, they had no other pitchers — Providence decided to negotiate a deal with Radbourn. They offered him a huge raise and the right to negotiate a deal with any team after the season (making Radbourn one of the first negotiated free agents ). And Radbourn agreed to pitch more or less every single game the rest of the season.
“Shouldn’t wonder if Radbourn’s arm would be good for everyday in the week, hereafter,” The Cleveland Leader wrote. “A promise of $2,500 will make his arm last longer than any other remedy.”
The paper got it exactly right. Radbourn, content with his pay for perhaps the first time in his life, went on the greatest pitching stretch in the history of baseball. According to the SABR article, he pitched 41 of the team’s final 51 games, and he won 35 of them. This included a stretch where he pitched every game but one between August 9 and Sept. 24. He went 24-4 during that stretch. The Grays, who had been trailing Boston in the standings when Radbourn was suspended, ran away with the pennant. “Even if Radbourn should not hold out through the remaining games,” the Springfield (Mass.) Republican wrote on Sept. 14, not without a hint of bitterness, “his club would hardly be able to drop enough games to lose their grasp on the championship.”
Every day, in small sports recaps in newspapers across America, there were signs of his dominance. “Radbourn again proved too much for the home team today,” they wrote in Cleveland. “Providence won its 18th consecutive victory today … the home nine batted lightly,” they wrote in Canton. “Radbourn is too much for the Buffalo Man,” they wrote in Boston. “If Providence wins the league championship, the pitcher, Radbourn, is to receive $2,500 in addition to his salary. At least such is the gossip in Providence,” wrote the paper in Evansville.
In all, Radbourn made 73 starts in 1884 and he completed every one of them. He won 59 games, struck out 441 batters, his 1.38 ERA was the best in baseball, he threw 11 shutouts, and he also led the league in saves (long before that was an official category) with two. His 19.3 WAR that year is the highest ever recorded in the National or American League, five wins ahead of Babe Ruth’s extraordinary 1923 season.
Radbourn pitched through so much pain in 1884 that his teammates were left somewhat in awe. He apparently had trouble each morning just lifting his arm to brush his teeth or comb his hair. But he would keep on pitching. The money was good.
Radbourn had the freedom to sign with whatever team he wanted in 1885, but he went back to Providence — they apparently made him too good an offer. It was a mistake for both sides. Radbourn dealt with various injuries, including what the paper called rheumatism, and his performance declined. It’s hard to call a 28-21, 2.20 ERA, 49 complete game season a failure … but it seems people in Providence viewed it that way. The Grays offense collapsed in 1885, Radbourn’s pitching partner Dupee Shaw struggled, the team finished with a losing record one year after winning the National League. Nobody was happy.
In September, shortly after New York beat Radbourn and the Grays 9-1 — “The home players batted Radbourn’s pitching all over the field and again won with ridiculous easy,” the Springfield paper reported — the Grays suspended Radbourn. They said it was because Radbourn had pitched so poorly, but it was probably a financial move. The Grays would disband after the season.
There were soon a bunch of rumors who would sign Radbourn — Philadelphia seemed to have him, the Washington Nationals (about to enter the National League) wanted him, Boston was in the mix — but the truth is that Old Hoss was pretty well spent. He did sign with Boston and h would pitch another six years, going 116-106 with a 101 ERA+ and occasional brilliance, but the pitcher who dominated the game in 1883 and 1884 was more or less used up. Throwing 1,300 innings in two years can do that to a person.
Hoss would continue to fight with management types over money, jumping from team to team, getting suspended and threatening to quit periodically. In 1888 he bought that saloon back in Springfield he had been planning for a long time. He retired at 36 with 309 wins and more than 4,500 innings pitched. He apparently tried to get back into baseball every now and again, but it was not to be. In 1894, he was shot in the face in a hunting accident and, as was reported in his obituary, “lost an eye while gunning.” The last three years of his life were filled with overwhelming pain, a haze of drinking and countless illnesses, including syphilis and perhaps tuberculosis. He died in 1897 when he was 42 years old.
I have no idea how Old Hoss Radbourn would pitch in the modern game. He was only 5-foot-9, and his fastball was not celebrated the way Cy Young’s was, and he had his greatest success before pitchers were even ALLOWED to throw overhand (though, of course, many did anyway). But he had a remarkable knack for finding ways to get batters out. That’s a skill that never goes out of style.