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
Old scores were forgotten as the season came to its glorious close. The “ill-tempered” Radbourn was now hailed in the press as the “king pitcher.”
Radbourn’s performance in 1884 is so obviously inconceivable under presentday conditions that modern critics have a tendency to try to explain it away. Unquestionably, significant changes in playing rules since the 1880s limit the value of direct statistical comparisons. The Baseball Encyclopedia divides pitching records into those achieved before and after 1893 (the year in which the pitching distance was fixed at sixty feet six inches), and in this, as in all matters, it is hard to quarrel with The Baseball Encyclopedia . On the other hand, the question of how Radbourn compared with men pitching under modern conditions was a familiar topic of the hot-stove league during the first two decades of this century, and while the inherent difficulty of the comparison was acknowledged, the question of the pitching distance was rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Pitchers in 1884 were required to deliver the ball from within the pitcher’s box, a four- by six-foot rectangle oriented lengthwise along the line from home to second. The near edge of the box was fifty feet from home plate. Allowing room for the forward stride without which it is impossible to throw anything very hard, the result is an effective pitching distance of around fifty-three feet. But while the pitcher could take a brief running jump as he delivered the ball, like the short run-up of a slow bowler in cricket, it is important to bear in mind that he had no pitcher’s plate (or “rubber”) and no mound. The force obtained by pushing the rear foot off a fixed and raised pitcher’s plate is critical to modern pitching, arguably more than enough to compensate the strain of throwing the ball an additional seven or eight feet. And while in 1884 it took six called balls to walk a batter (the present number of four was fixed in 1889), the batter had the right to call for a high or a low ball. The strike zone was thus divided into halves, above and below the batter’s waist, and a pitch that was not delivered as requested was called a ball.
Writing thirty years and more after Radbourn’s great season, men who had been active in baseball during the 1880s were adamant that Radbourn outclassed all modern pitchers with the possible exception of Christy Mathewson. “I have seen them both pitch when they were at their best,” wrote Sam Crane, Radbourn’s first major-league manager, “and have followed them both from their first rise to fame, and I must acknowledge that I am in a quandary as to which of them to give the palm.” Frank Bancroft, who remained in baseball as business manager of the Cincinnati Reds until 1920, declared to his dying day that Radbourn was the greatest pitcher baseball had ever known. The comparison takes in such undisputed giants of the modern era as Cy Young, Three Finger Brown, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Walter Johnson. Bancroft lived to an age at which, perhaps, no star could ever shine as brightly as those of his younger days, but his testimony is reason to hesitate before assuming that Radbourn’s performance was simply too good to be true.
The old-timers favored the comparison with the great Mathewson because Radbourn’s bestknown pitch had been identical to Mathewson’s famous “fade-away.” The right-handed Mathewson’s pitch is commonly identified as a kind of screwball, breaking in toward a righthanded batter, though there is reason to doubt that the modern delivery is an exact equivalent. In Radbourn’s hands it was a “slow ball which, to the amazement of batters who faced him, revolved rapidly until it reached the plate and then simply seemed to die away and fall to the ground.” But the common theme of every description of Radbourn’s pitching was his mastery of every kind of breaking ball and his ability to vary these pitches, together with “terrific speed when he thought he was called on to use it,” in a bewildering array. “First, it was a very slow ball, then a terrible swift one; then one curve and then the other, then a bad drop followed by an upshoot. …” Radbourn’s control was evidently exceptional as well. Bancroft recounted that Radbourn “became so good with constant practice that he could throw the ball through a goodsized knothole in the fence.”
No modern pitcher, however talented, will ever win sixty games in a year, because no modern pitcher would be asked (or allowed) to work often enough. The physical cost of Radbourn’s ordeal was evident at the time. The morning after each game his pitching arm would be so sore that he could not lift his hand to comb his hair; an agonizing warm-up exercise would prepare him for the next game, more often than not that very afternoon. Radbourn kept on pitching, partly out of innocence—“sports medicine” was not yet a recognized specialty—and partly, one supposes, because he had said he would. While his career after 1884 did not suddenly fall to pieces, as was the terrible fate of Sweeney, Radbourn was never again the same pitcher. For the next few years he suffered a succession of mediocre and even losing seasons, punctuated by a prolonged holdout that caused him to miss most of 1888. Radbourn no longer wanted to play very much, and Boston (for whom he pitched after the Providence team folded) no longer needed him enough to bother persuading him.