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.