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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: “Fifty-nine in ’84,” by Edward Achorn

Edward Achorn digs deep into the earliest accounts of the origins of baseball, going all the way back to similar games brought to America by the Puritans in the 17th century. The game of baseball pre-dates the Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright claims, and is a variation of the British game of ‘rounders.’  He covers the evolution of the game through the 19th century. If a player from that era were to be transported to a ball game in this century, he might be overwhelmed by the size of the park, the manicured field grass, and the equipment used, but he would have no problem playing the game. The infield dimensions are the same. The pitcher still throws a ball to the catcher, the umpire calls balls and strikes, the batter attempts to hit the ball, and if he makes contact with the ball, he knows where to run. Fielders make every attempt to catch the ball and return the ball to the infield, whether to put a base runner out, or to get the ball back to the pitcher, and so forth.

Baseball rules in the 19th century were similar to those of the game played today, but what was different was most notably the equipment used by players, or rather the lack of equipment. Players, including catchers, did not use gloves or mitts. There was only one umpire and he was stationed behind the catcher. Neither catcher nor umpire wore helmets, face masks, or chest protectors. Since there was only one umpire, who was paying most of his attention to the balls being pitched in front of him, base runners and fielders took advantage of that situation to engage in deception such as cutting the ball, spitting on the ball, tripping base runners, base runners intentionally colliding with fielders in the hopes of jarring the ball loose or causing the fielder to err in his throw, and hiding the ball, etc., whenever the opportunity arose. Pitchers did not throw from a mound, but from inside a field level box similar to the box in which a batter stands.

When I started reading the book, I was more or less expecting a dry literary equivalent of a TV docu-drama, but I quickly realized that the book was drawing me into a great and true story of one man’s challenge of being the ace of a pitching staff that normally carried only two pitchers. If a pitcher was having an unusually bad day in the box, he did not head to the showers (not that they were made available), he did not take a seat on the bench. More often than not, he would swap positions with a fielder who had some ability to get the ball over the plate. Roster size was typically limited to 14 players in an attempt by club owners to keep payroll expenses as low as possible, (another aspect of the game that hasn’t changed.)

“Fifty-nine in ‘84” tells the story of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn and his remarkable season as a pitcher with the Providence Grays, one of eight teams in the National League. The book closely follows Radbourn’s amazing 1884 season in which he pitched 678.2 innings, and compiled a won-loss record of 59-12, with a 1.38 ERA, while leading the Grays to a regular season won-loss record of 84-28 before winning the 1884 World Series. In a 1916 poll of major league managers, including John McGraw and Connie Mack, the majority of them voted Radbourn’s 1884 season as the greatest feat in the game’s history.

Radbourn was born and raised in Illinois and did not particularly care for living in Providence, but was tied to the team by the reserve clause, as well as his love for the mysterious Carrie Stanhope, who ran a boarding house in Providence. In a subtle display of his displeasure with Providence, the owner, and the rules binding him to one team, he extends the middle digit of one hand during team photos. The Providence Grays folded after the 1884 season and sold Radbourn to the rival Boston Red Stockings.

Achorn relates Radbourn’s amazing campaign and his relationship with Stanhope, while painting a detailed picture of baseball, and of life, in the 19th century of both ball players and fans alike. Any true baseball fan with an interest in the early history of the game should read this book.

As an aside, I recall my father telling me a story of him going to see the Providence Grays play the New York Yankees in Providence in 1927 as a 9 year old boy. By this time, with Providence being a market too small for a major league team, the Grays had become a minor league team. In the early years of professional baseball, it was not uncommon for team owners to schedule exhibition games in as many holes in their schedules as possible in order to generate more revenue. The player/manager of the Grays pulled the pitcher in the 9th inning of that game as Babe Ruth would be coming to bat. With perhaps a wink and a nudge, the manager tossed his pitch right down the middle of the plate allowing the Babe to hit a crowd pleasing home run.

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