While Springsteen's can't-let-go friend "could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool boy", 19th-century Major League baseball's best pitcher set his amazing record with a mixture of speed, guile, and strategy. That record--winning 59 games in 1884--is so far beyond today's numbers that fans today can barely relate.
But baseball, as Edward Achorn does a good job documenting for us, was a different game, starting with the barely--bare-handed fielders, mound-less pitchers, helmet-less hitters, and sometimes fence-less outfields made for a very different game. The softer ball kept in play for a full game made long drives and home runs rare. Pitchers started almost every game they finished. Substitution was only allowed for injuries, so replacing a pitcher meant bringing a position player to the mound and banishing the disgraced pitcher to that player's vacated spot.
Even the travel and weather conditions were different then--the great volcanic explosion on Krakatoa on the far side of the world resulted in the coldest and wettest summer in memory, keeping crowds down and resulting in games played under cold, wet (further reducing the ball to mush as the game progressed), and windy conditions all summer. And road trips meant long train rides sitting up in coach--owners wouldn't cut into profits to pay for sleeper berths; trips to Chicago and Detroit (the distant "Western" division teams then) took three days.
Achorn documents all these differences from today's game, not to diminish Radbourn's accomplishments, but to distinguish them. After a brief biography of the Old Hoss, the rest of the book is a game by game journey through Radbourn's glory days--which started with his arm in agony and some question whether he would even be able to pitch in '84 after "throwing out" his arm in the previous year. In between game accounts, Achorn weaves accounts of the players, the teams, the towns, and the fanatics of the 19th Century Major Leagues. It becomes clear that baseball was "America's game" then and for decades to come not just because of its popularity but because of its perfect mirror of the best and just as frequently the worst of America.
Perhaps the weakest part of Achorn's story is the outside-the-lines account of Radbourn's relationship with the widow Carrie Stanhope. This isn't due to his writing abilty, which is fine, but to the lack of historical documentation, a problem that lurks in the background through the entire account. While Achorn has done a superb job of researching the official documentation of the era (newpapers, government and business records, and formal letters), the lack of extensive personal anecdotes and documentation is reflective of both the absence of celebrity reporting in the time, and of the fact most athletes would hardly have been considered celebrities in those days anyway. So Achorn does what he can with the thin documentation of Radbourn's relationship, but it is mostly speculation. Knowing the players of the era, what they thought and felt and how they lived outside the lines, remains the realm of fiction.
Between the lines, Radbourn and Achorn shine. The game-by-game pitching lines of Radbourn's season in the appendix, couched in the universal and timeless baseball language of statistics we can understand and relate to today's game (as much as the game has cuanged in the 125 years between, the numbers never change), document the amazing season in powerful specificity. The game has changed, but Radbourn remains one of its greatest pitchers, of any era. Thanks to Achorn for bringing him back to life for a few more Glory Days.
Being a avid baseball fan I jumped at the chance to read Edward Achorn's new book "Fifty Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season A Pitcher Ever Had". For one thing Edward Achorn is the deputy editorial page editor for my hometown newspaper The Providence Journal. As such I have some familiarity with his work. But of even more interest to me was the fact that a good many of the events depicted in "Fifty Nine in '84" took … more
I am fascinated by professional sports in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the players may not have been as big, fast, or strong and modern athletes, they seem a thousand times more rugged and tough. This book focuses on a pitcher who played in the barehanded era who holds the professional baseball record for most wins in a season at an unbelievable 59. Charles Radbourn, or “Old Hoss,” played from 1880 to 1991, mostly with the Providence Grays. … more
Fifty Nine in 84 takes you back to before the "modern" era of baseball, where teams consisted of maybe 13 players. Players didn't use gloves and hard drinking, hard fighting and short careers were the norm in baseball. Edward Achorn brings to life the era that even the most ardent fans know little about, painting a picture of the rough and unforgiving world of the 19th century where crippling injury, disease and sudden death were norms to be dealt with rather than unexpected … more
These days, when overpaid pitchers are pampered like prima donnas, only pitching with several days rest, and hardly ever pitching a complete game, this book is a welcome look into a time in baseball when pitchers were real "workhorses". Most teams only carried two pitchers on their rosters, and these two were supposed to alternate in pitching games. Of course, when one was injured, or couldn't pitch for one reason or another, all of the pitching duties fell on the other fellow, … more
Some people tend to discount the baseball records that were set before the twentieth century, finding one excuse or another to diminish the achievements of the men on the field. While it is true that some of the rules were different, especially concerning the actions of the pitcher, the game still required the same skills to succeed. For decades, two of the records that were considered unattainable were Ty Cobb's record for total hits and Lou Gehrig's string of consecutive games. Both of these records … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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