Baseball’s Greatest Pitcher

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Greatest Season Performance by Major League Pitcher? One hundred years ago last summer, Charles Radbourn won 60 and lost 12 for the Providence Grays of the National League. He won so many games not only because he was very good, but also because for the second half of the season Radbourn pitched —and won—almost every game that Providence played. During thirty-five days in August and September, Radbourn pitched 22 consecutive games for Providence, and he won 18 straight within the space of a month. Providence won the National League pennant in a walk and was challenged by the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association, to a best-of-five play-off that was in effect the first World Series. Radbourn finished his work for 1884 by beating the original Mets in three straight games on three consecutive days. You could look it up.

In 1939 “Old Hoss”—as the sportswriters had long ago named him—was elected to the Hall of Fame. The men who made this move did so on the strength of some statistics, which perhaps they only half-believed; for the remarkable circumstances of that far-off season, and the sensational events that had left Providence with a one-man pitching staff, were indeed fantastic.

What would be an incredible feat today was, a century ago, merely phenomenal. In 1884 some teams still employed only two starting pitchers, particularly if they had two really good ones. Substitution of players was forbidden, except in the case of serious injury, though a “change pitcher” was usually stationed in right field: what is now called going to the bullpen involved having pitcher and right fielder exchange positions. What happened to Providence is that half their starting rotation, by the name of Charlie Sweeney, got drunk one July afternoon, walked off the field in the middle of a game, and quit the team then and there. Only a week earlier Radbourn himself had been suspended indefinitely for insubordination. With one star pitcher already in disgrace and the other now gone for good, the Providence club was nearly disbanded. Instead, at the moment of crisis, Radbourn was persuaded to return to the fold and to pitch all the team’s remaining games until the pennant was won. At the crucial meeting with the team’s manager, Radbourn said “I’ll pitch every day and win the pennant for Providence even if it costs me my right arm.” The wonder of this remark lies in the fact that he meant it.

The Providence Grays began the 1884 season with two ace starting pitchers. The senior member of the staff was Charles Radbourn, twenty-nine years old, a veteran of three highly successful seasons with the team. His alternate was the brilliant and unreliable Charles J. Sweeney, barely twenty-one, beginning his first full season in the major leagues.

Radbourn and Sweeney make a fine and fateful contrast. Radbourn, from Bloomingdale, Illinois, was already a “Westerner” to the sports pages of the major-league cities; Sweeney, born in San Francisco, almost might have come from another planet. Radbourn was “stoic” and “taciturn,” while Sweeney had a “quick temper and bitter tongue.” And while Radbourn’s great strengths as a pitcher were flawless control and a masterful assortment of breaking pitches— he could “fairly make the ball talk,” as they said—Sweeney had one novel weapon, a blazing overhand fastball. The “three-quarters delivery” had just been made legal in 1884—pitchers had previously been limited to a sidearm or underhand motion—and hard-throwing young pitchers, often nicknamed “Cyclone,” enjoyed a sudden prominence until the batters got the hang of it.

Another notable innovation of the 1884 season was taking place off the field. The National League (in existence since 1876) and the American Association (formed only in 1882) had no obvious monopoly on major-league baseball, though they did their best to assert one: the famous “reserve clause” of player contracts had already been devised, and agreements among the owners kept salaries substantially below what they might have been in a free market. That year, however, a group of millionaires led by Henry V. Lucas, the St. Louis “traction king,” decided to form their own major league from scratch. As the best players were already under contract to someone else, the immediate result was economic warfare. For much of the 1884 season, any star player was aware that he could receive a handsome cash bonus for “jumping” to the newly formed Union Association, although at the cost of being blacklisted by the Nationals and the Americans. Representatives of the “Wreckers’ Union,” as it was referred to by the press, were rumored to lie in wait outside every major-league clubhouse.

In this volatile atmosphere, Providence got off to an erratic start. The big story of the early part of the season was the brilliant performance of Sweeney, which tended to put Radbourn in the shade. On June 7 the “long-limbed Californian” struck out nineteen batters in a game at Boston—evidence of what a good fastball could do that year and a record unsurpassed to this day. But while the Grays managed to remain in or near first place, they were plagued with ups and downs of morale. On June 13, after four straight losses to their Boston archrivals, the Providence Bulletin complained of the team’s “disheartening and even disgusting exhibition of fruitless wind agitation, in which they have of late become so expert.”