Baseball’s Greatest Pitcher

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Radbourn was a winning pitcher again in 1889, but the fine Indian summer of his career came in 1890, when he won 27 and lost 12 pitching for the Boston team in the Players’League. It was the year of a remarkable experiment, in which the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, not content with a mere strike as in 1972 or 1981, obtained financial backing and actually set up a major league of its own. The great majority of first-rank players joined the Players’ League, and the established teams were left to make do with second-stringers and minor leaguers. The audacious venture foundered after one season, for want of business acumen rather than playing talent. Radbourn had been outspoken in support of the Brotherhood, and amid the financial and legal skirmishing of 1890 he enjoyed his last real success. Once again he was hailed as the “king pitcher,” and it was reported that “every time he has stepped out in front of the Congress Street crowds he has been cheered to the echo.” Radbourn started the 1891 season with Cincinnati in the back-to-normal National League. He pitched in 26 games, won 11 and lost 13, and, complaining of ill health, retired.

Neither Radbourn nor Sweeney, hero and foil of that great season a hundred years ago, can be said to have made a happy end. After years of oblivion, Charlie Sweeney suddenly reappeared in the sporting papers in July 1894 when readers learned that he had shot and killed Con McManus, a local ruffian, in the Grand Central Wine Rooms at 16 Third Street, San Francisco. After a violent quarrel, during which McManus reportedly threatened him with a gun, Sweeney had shot him twice. McManus, known as “Gossoon” among the tough element south of Market Street, had a thoroughly bad reputation. “We have always been good friends,” said the hapless Sweeney, “and he is a good fellow when he is sober.” Sweeney was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary, where he contracted consumption and died in 1902.

Friends who visited Radbourn in Bloomington after his retirement usually found him sitting in a corner at Radbourn’s Place, “All the Best in Wet Goods and Cigars,” a saloon and pool hall he had purchased during his holdout of 1888. For a year or two the town’s most famous citizen had taken an interest in local ball, even pitching an occasional Saturday game; but with the years his taciturnity grew increasingly into sullenness, and the old pitcher was unwilling to talk about his former exploits. In February 1894 The Sporting News carried a brief item to the effect that Old Hoss Radbourn was trying to get in shape for the crowning season, in hopes of playing for Boston: he had retired because of ill health, the report went on—such vague maladies were often a newspaper euphemism for venereal disease—but was now “fully recovered and in training.” A few weeks later, Boston having failed to rise to the bait, the same paper printed the text of a letter that makes a pathetic contrast to the independent spirit of earlier years:

Bloomington, March 31 Manager Von Der Ahe St. Louis Browns BBC St. Louis, Mo.

Sir,—I am in good condition and would like to play ball with you this season. Have been in training, and feel as if I could play “out of sight.” Please let me know if there is an opening for me.

Yours resp., Chas. Radbourn, 214 West Washington St.

The St. Louis Browns were at this point a minor-league team. Radbourn was thirty-nine years old. Two weeks later he lost an eye from a shotgun blast in a hunting accident. A year after the accident a local paper reported that “Old Hoss Charlie Radboum still takes a great interest in baseball and says if it wasn’t for his injured eye he would be back on the diamond and show the boys he still has some of his old-time curving and speed.” But intervals of depression and withdrawal seem to have been more frequent. Radbourn suffered increasing paralysis before he died February 5, 1897.

Radbourn’s death brought a chorus of testimony reaffirming his position as the “king pitcher of the age.” The warmest eulogy was written by Ted Sullivan, who had managed Radbourn in his first professional season at Dubuque in 1879. “To picture ‘Rad’ to the readers at that time, in physique, he was like the mighty oak with a will power that would accomplish anything he would undertake. He had the endurance of an ox as he showed by the many consecutive games he pitched in Providence. He could deliver the ball with the speed of a catapult and used the subtle strategy of a master mind in pitching to a batter. There was not a curve that he was not a master of and to invent new deliveries was the constant occupation of his mind.”