Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Back in Radbourn's Day, Backing Down was Out of the Question

Slammin' Sam on Sports Media
Now batting for Slammin’ Sam on Sports Media, “Fifty-Nine in ’84.”

Here’s why you should read Edward Achorn’s book at the dawn of the baseball season:

1. Old Hoss Radbourn stood up favorably to Wee Willie Keeler, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.

In fact, the results of Brown Holmes’ 1916 survey suggest that Radbourn stood peerless. No man endured day after day drudgery like the Rochester native did. No man single-handedly racked up win streaks like the 5-9 “Rad” strung together. Who knew he once stirred up triumph and trouble so close to home in Bloomington, Ill?

As a young man, Radbourn built stamina as a butcher. Nevermind baseball’s unending train trips or the understanding that nothing next to death could stop you from taking the field. In 1884 Radbourn labored through 75 games, winning 59 times. That was nothing, Radbourn would usually say when pressed.

“From four in the morning until eight at night, I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge. Tired of playing two hours a day for 10 times the money I got for 16 hours a day?” (Fifty, 22)

2. This yarn has it all – professional rivalry, love triangle jealousy and a gigantic concoction of legend.

A letter dated Jan. 13, 1883 illustrates the outdoorsman he was and the man’s gumption: Believing that I am the best wing shot in the world, I hereby challenge any man to shoot against me in the field, for $1,000. (60)

With more than 1,400 innings under his belt between 1881 and 1883, you’d expect Radbourn to flame out. On the contrary, he had plenty of reasons to spark in 1884.

You see the right-hander had an upstart teammate on his heels, determined to see who indeed was the better hurler. Radbourn was also vying for the affections of one, Carrie Stanhope, who caught the eye of any number of men, and to top it all off, whatever Radbourn did never seemed enough.

For better or worse, the elder pitcher won Stanhope on the baseball diamond in “one of the fiercest [games] ever played.” (116). Radbourn wasn’t quite so lucky in his rivalry with teammate Charlie Sweeney. Days after Radbourn submitted an unflinching 16-inning performance, Sweeney upstaged him in the popularity contest by striking out 19 batters. This bothered Radbourn “exceedingly.” (135)

3. If you enjoyed Frank Deford’s book, “The Old Ballgame,” this book’s for you.

Like Deford’s work, Achorn’s offering tells openly of days when a tough day on a baseball field was the least of a player’s worries. Similar to “The Old Ball Game,” “Fifty-Nine in ‘84” tells of men who routinely settled matters in saloon brawls and garnered reputations by hearsay.

Would you believe that the Bloomington Pantagraph suggested Radbourn was as well-known as the president? Upon his death, “His name was used as frequently as the president’s,” the news read. But Bloomington was far from the only publication that trumpeted Radbourn. The Sporting News declared the 1939 baseball hall of fame inductee to be “the greatest baseball pitcher the world has ever known.” (300)

Sam Miller/Free Keon

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