FIFTY-NINE IN ’84 by Edward Achorn


Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had
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A loving reanimation of the 1884 baseball season, during which Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn won 59 games and hurled his team into the first World Series.

As Providence Journal deputy editorial page editor Achorn dutifully notes, 1880s baseball, flourishing before motion pictures and audio recordings, is a game both familiar and surpassingly alien. Preserved in sometimes skimpy, and always biased, newspaper accounts, the achievement of Radbourn, the Providence Grays’ ace pitcher, is indeed astonishing. Well before the introduction of relief pitchers, the starters were expected to play the entire game and to pitch often, sometimes on consecutive days—and sometimes even both ends of a doubleheader, as Radbourn did on Memorial Day, winning both. He won the next day, too. Achorn digs into Radbourn’s Illinois background and follows his ancestors back to England. Little Charles learned to love hunting, purebred dogs, baseball and later on, Carrie Stanhope, the legendary woman who ran a Providence boarding house and eventually married Radbourn. The author charts Radbourn’s swift rise in an era when pitchers flamed out quickly because of arm injuries; Radbourn and his colleagues lived with continuous pain. Achorn pauses occasionally to portray the pitcher’s rivals and teammates and to identify the differences in yesteryear’s game. The fielders used only their bare hands—even catchers had but minimal protection; foul balls were not strikes; a single umpire, often corrupt, called each game. The author also supplies needed cultural history—e.g., the train ride from the East Coast to Chicago took three days; Buffalo Bill arrived in Providence that same season. An unabashed fan, Achorn occasionally drifts into excess and cliché (catchers needed “dauntless courage”; the Chicago team “ate weaker clubs for breakfast”), but he capably delivers an entertaining story.

A thoroughly researched panegyric to a man and an era.

Pub Date: March 16th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-182586-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Melville House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2010