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Baseball’s Greatest Pitcher

July 2024
16min read

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.

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.”

Real trouble, however, began in mid-July. On the twelfth, after another loss to Boston, it was reported that the Grays “didn’t seem to care much” and that “Radbourn acted careless and indifferent.” On the sixteenth of July Radbourn was actually suspended from the team. The account in the Bulletin the next day was highly colored. “To say that the 1254 patrons of the Boston-Providence game at Messer Park, yesterday afternoon, retired with feelings of utter disgust at the exhibition of puerile peevishness by Charles Radbourn, the heavily salaried pitcher of the Providence nine, in the eighth inning, would but faintly describe the bitter feeling that prevailed.” The report went on to describe the game in detail, leading up to a dispute over alleged balks committed by Buffinton, the Boston pitcher. After “considerable expostulation,” Radbourn had begun to imitate Buffinton’s alleged offense.

When the eighth inning opened Radbourn was cautioned, and finally a baulk was called by Decker, whose umpiring had given little satisfaction to either side. What followed this warning of Decker is apparent from the fact that Radbourn promptly began to throw the ball with reckless haste and wildness, giving Gilligan false signs and seemingly striving to ‘break up’ the little fellow. The result was that called balls and a wicked, wild pitch, with a wild throw and passed ball by Gilligan, Denny’s fumble and Manning’s single, gave three tallies and the victory, and hence the disgust alluded to. The Board of Directors held a consultation after the game, and the result has been a unanimous decision laying off Radbourn for the present, and he has been served with a summons to appear before them to-day and answer certain pungent conundrums touching his ‘peculiar’ conduct for the past three weeks. While there may be some dark insinuations afloat, the management do not intend to act with injudicious haste, but when every inducement, financial and otherwise, has been offered him to play ball to his best ability, and he has been coaxed and petted beyond all reason to seek to carry the nine to victory, it is high time that more compulsory measures were undertaken. … Miller will pitch at Boston today and Sweeney play at right field in case of emergency.”

The Miller referred to was Joe “Cyclone” Miller, another young fastballer recently acquired by Providence as a change pitcher. The “dark insinuations” almost certainly involved the outlaw Union Association’s trying to acquire first-rate players any way it could.

In the midst of the furor over Radbourn, attention once again spectacularly shifted to Sweeney. The New York Times of July 23 carried an account that deserves a place in some anthology:


Reasons which may lead to the disbandment of the Providence club

Providence, R.I., July 22.—The truth has at last come out, and the mysterious trouble which seemed to be undermining the Providence Baseball Club and bringing it to ruin has been unveiled. Some time ago crookedness was suspected, and to-day the cold fact stares the management in the face that they have been “played for sailors.” When this season opened Radbourn and Sweeney become jealous of each other. Sweeney had been kept in the background and Radbourn billed as the star pitcher. Sweeney asked leave to [try] … and proved such a success that he even pitched on days when Radbourn was to toss the sphere, and was paid extra for these games. When Sweeney become lame Radbourn had to do double duty, and “kicked” because he was not also paid extra for Sweeney’s dates. About this time Radbourn began to show an ugly disposition, and finally, in games last week, he is charged with throwing a game because everything did not go to suit him. Since then Sweeney has been owlish, and to-day his disaffection, like Radbourn’s, took a tangible shape. … He began to pitch a “stuffy” game; he was surly and owlish and pitched without speed or any great effort to win. At the close of the seventh inning Providence has 6 to 2 runs and had the game won, and the Philadelphia Club was batting weakly and fielding badly. To ease up on Sweeney’s lame arm, Manager Bancroft told the Californian to go into the field and let Miller pitch out the game. He became very angry and left the field, evincing jealousy of young Miller who is a promising ball-tosser. Philadelphia went to bat in the inning, and it was found that Providence had but eight men in the field. Sweeney was missing. Bancroft went in search of him, and found him in the dressing room with his store clothes on. He requested him to go out and play, but was most villainously abused. Director Allen then threatened to lay Sweeney off without pay, but to this threat Sweeney sarcastically replied that he did not care, as he could make more money if he did not play here. Providence went on and finished the game with eight men. The eighth inning was handsomely played, but in the ninth, fly balls were hit between the regular outfield positions, and the men being unable to cover so much ground, the hits become safe. Then Miller was pounded for five hits, Providence giving him bad support, as bad as could be looked for, and the Philadelphia Club won the game. Convinced from what Sweeney had said, and from his conduct and Radbourn’s peculiar actions that the “Wreckers’ Union” had been at work, the management to-night expelled Sweeney from the league and will cause his name to be put on the black list.

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.

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.

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.”

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