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Baseball’s Greatest Pitcher
It was a hundred years ago, and the game has changed a good deal since then. But there are plenty of people who still hold that cranky old Hoss Radbourn was the finest that ever lived.
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
Radbourn was suspended for insubordination; then Sweeney got drunk and quit in the middle of a game. It looked as though the team would be disbanded.
A meeting will probably be held tomorrow to consider whether the club shall be disbanded. There are no pitchers to be had, and with the present feeling in the team, the pennant cannot possibly be won. If the association stops short to-day there will be a surplus of $17,000 on hand. The St. Louis Union Association are suspected of having approached the malcontents. There is still further trouble, based on Catholicism and Protestantism.
Other sources confirmed that a representative of the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association had indeed been in Providence for a week, offering fabulous sums to certain players if they would break their contracts—reportedly Sweeney had been offered twelve hundred dollars and Radbourn two thousand dollars for the balance of the season. Since the arrival of the St. Louis agent, Sweeney had taken to sneaking a shot of whiskey in the dressing room between innings. On his last day with Providence, Sweeney had arrived late at the ballpark, declaring to Frank Bancroft, the Providence manager, “I was drunk and was sleeping it off.” He was “drunk and acting stupid” when he quit the field, and after the game he “staggered out of the park with two women holding him up.”
Evidently he then staggered off to collect his money from the man from St. Louis. Sweeney pitched the last half of the season for the Maroons, winning 24 and losing 7 in only three months, giving him a handsome record of 41 and 15 for the season overall. Eighteen eighty-four was the acme of his career as well as Radbourn’s, and those heady weeks in which he could set a strikeout record, flout the rules, and then quit his job for another that paid better were all that he would know of glory. Sweeney never again achieved a winning record, and three years later, at the age of twenty-four, he vanished from the major leagues.
Sweeney’s sudden departure from the team gave Radbourn his opportunity. According to Bancroft, who never tired of relating the story in later years, the Providence owners were indeed at the point of disbanding the team when Bancroft persuaded them to let him try to make a deal with the suspended Radbourn. The two men came to terms that very evening. The agreement provided that Radbourn would undertake to pitch both his games and those that would have been Sweeney’s until the pennant was won. Radbourn was to be paid the rest of Sweeney’s salary as well as his own: even so, his total salary for the 1884 season was only twenty-eight hundred dollars. Finally, Radbourn received a promise that he would be released from the reserve clause of his contract at the end of the season, so that he could go elsewhere if he wished.
From July 23 until September 26, when the team clinched the pennant, Providence played 41 championship games: Radbourn pitched 37 of these and lost only four. After the pennant was clinched in Chicago, he spent a week resting at home in Bloomington, then rejoined the team to win four more games in the regular season plus the three Series games against the Mets. If there was a high point in this marathon performance it was a particularly stunning four-game series against the Boston Red Stockings, who were the defending champions and the main competition for the pennant as well as the natural rivals of Providence. Radbourn pitched four consecutive games between August 9 and 14, two at home and two away: he gave up one run in the second game and shut out the Bostons in the others. The Grays won the pennant going away.
Old scores were forgotten as the season came to its glorious close. “The ill-tempered and capricious Lord Radbourn” was now the “king pitcher” whose “thorough mastery of the sphere and intimate knowledge of the weaknesses of the opposing batsmen” made his work “unparalleled in the history of the national game.” In early September there took place what would now be called a “day” in Radbourn’s honor: before the game the pitcher was presented with a “handsomely framed crayon portrait of himself,” a large bouquet, and a “bulky envelope containing lawful U.S. currency.”
The Providence papers, which had been so scathing about the team’s disgusting exhibitions earlier in the season, now carried baseball headlines larger than those devoted to the Blaine/Cleveland campaign or to Gordon’s defense of Khartoum. When the Grays returned to Providence after the close of the season, they were met at Union Depot by a tumultuous crowd that bore them off in a torchlight procession, past fireworks displays, illuminated memorials to the season’s victories, and an elevengun salute—because runner-up Boston had finished eleven games behind. The progress ended at the Hotel Narragansett with “an elegant supper,” enlivened by the recounting of “interesting and entertaining experiences during the latter part of the season, with an occasional joke at the expense of some member of the team, which provoked hearty laughter.” Each player got a gold medal and an order for a suit of clothes. Radbourn, now officially a free agent, was offered a blank Providence contract for 1885 and urged to name his own price. The club directors, according to Bancroft, “knew there was a girl in Providence who was ‘pretty sweet on’ the pitcher and they did not forget to tell him.” Radbourn filled in the blank for four thousand dollars and signed.