This is a weekly blog that will take a look at figures in sports that deserves a deeper dive.
We think of ace pitchers in the modern MLB mowing down teams at an unfathomable pace, racking up stats and outdoing their predecessors. We lose sight of those who are truly giants of the sport. Among those, the best single-season campaign put together by a pitcher, the immortal Old Hoss Radbourn.
Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn in 1884 had a season that will never be matched. He started and completed a staggering 73 games that season and finished with an unimaginable total of 678.2 innings pitched and 2,672 batters faced. For those 678.2 innings pitched he finished with a 1.38 ERA, which would have him finished first in the 2018 season. Think about that statement, in a total of almost 680 innings pitched, he had a better ERA than a pitcher who threw in 41 fewer games and 461 fewer innings in 2018.
All these stats need to be put into context for the time period to make any kind of argument, right?
Radbourn pitched in the early days of the MLB, just 15 years after its formation he was dominating batters with ease. Now, does it reflect the rest of the league that Radbourn had a 41-year-old First Baseman on his team? Maybe, but that just shows Radbourn’s dominance, being able to overcome the obstacle of a 41-year-old first baseman trying to stretch for an out. Tom Brady can barely run 3 yards before falling to the ground in a crumpled heap, and 41-year-old Joe Start hit .276 before penicillin was invented. And, if the Yankees count their 47 rings from the 1920s, we can count Old Hoss tossing an ungodly amount of innings in 1884.
Radbourn started as a boy throwing rocks against a barn door to strengthen his arm, before graduating to semi-pro ball in Bloomington, Illinois. After a series of stints in Peoria, Buffalo, and the Northwest League (The first minor league outside of the east coast) his friend Bill Hunter impersonated Radbourn and agreed to a contract with the Providence Grays.
This is where the 5’8, 168 lb giant of a man that was Old Hoss Radbourn completed his Mona Lisa. His first 3 years in Providence were a buildup to something great. He slowly increased his pitching starts, starting at 36 starts in his first year to 68 just 2 years later. Radbourn was able to throw a spitball without the spit, the mythical rising fastball, and a changeup that many considered blasphemy. All before people knew that bread could be sold pre-sliced.
Now, for the storied 1884 season. It started with Radbourn being suspended for fighting fellow pitcher Charlie Sweeney after he accused Radbourn of throwing a game. It then turned itself around when just a week later Sweeney was pitching a 6-2 gem while hammered drunk, and he was ejected from the park for being as belligerent as a frat brother on dollar Vodka Red Bull night. Because of this, Radbourn volunteered himself to start every game that season so that the team would never have to forfeit. This guy put the team on his back long before Greg Jennings caught that game winning 99-yard touchdown with a broken leg.
That is how Radbourn got to the point where he was starting every single game for the Grays, and how he got to the point where he pitched 3 complete games in the world series, allowing only 3 runs and winning the pennant for Providence. This is also how he became a member of the first MLB Hall of Fame Class of 1939.
After he retired, Radbourn lived a simple life. He opened a saloon and billiards room like every man did in the 1800s. He was also a hunter, who got Dick Cheney’d by his friend on a hunting trip, losing vision in his left eye and suffering from partial paralysis. This caused Radbourn to live much like myself, a recluse who tended to sit in the back room of his apartment and drink away his sorrows because he did not like the way he looked.
The man how was once the talk of the town now was dying of both tuberculosis and syphilis at the same time and would succumb to those illnesses, among others, in 1897. The man who could throw a curveball before cars could turn would forever be remembered as the owner of the best pitching season and nickname in MLB history.
And a final note, how did he get the name “Old Hoss”? Well, he got it because he loved the game so much and was as dedicated to it as an old man is to receiving letters from Publisher’s Clearing House.
RIP, Sweet Prince