Radbourn, Charles Gardner ("Charley"; "Old Hoss")
RADBOURN, Charles Gardner ("Charley"; "Old Hoss")
(b. 11 December 1854 in Rochester, New York; d. 5 February 1897 in Bloomington, Illinois), baseball pitcher who won 309 games over an 11-year career, and whose record 59 wins in 1884 earned him a reputation as one of the most durable pitchers of the nineteenth century.
Radbourn was the second of eight children of Charles Radbourn and Caroline Gardner, English immigrants who arrived in the United States in early 1854. In 1855 the Radbourn family joined the growing number of American immigrants migrating west. They settled in Bloomington, Illinois, where Radbourn's father found work as a meat cutter. Though Radbourn slaughtered livestock in his father's butcher shop for a time, he was soon drawn to baseball. By the time he was a teenager he was already honing his pitching skills by firing fastballs against barn doors. After a stint working as a railroad brakeman, in 1879 Radbourn signed on to pitch for Dubuque, of the Northwest League, for $75 per month.
The five-foot, nine-inch, 168-pound Radbourn quickly proved his skills, leading Dubuque to the pennant. After a shoulder injury cut short his 1880 season, he signed on with the Providence Grays of the National League prior to the 1881 campaign. Although the Grays' pitching already boasted one future Hall of Famer in John Ward, Radbourn soon established himself as the team's best pitcher. Over his first four seasons he improved each year in every major pitching category—wins, strikeouts, earned run average, and innings pitched. Radbourn set a major league record in 1883 with 48 victories while hurling 632 innings, figures that would be unthinkable in modern baseball.
But that year 632 innings did not even lead the league. With the pitcher's box just fifty feet from home plate, and with one ball typically lasting an entire game, home runs were rare and pitchers had the luxury of coasting for long stretches at a time. The rulebook also placed its share of restrictions on pitchers, and until 1884 they were barred from throwing overhand. Though many sought to circumvent this rule, Radbourn thrived under it. One writer singled out the right-hander's delivery for its "easy, frictionless underhand swing" through which the pitcher "would play with weak batters like a cat would with a mouse."
His easy manner in the box belied the personality of a man described as "ill-tempered" and "capricious." In many of the existing photographs of Radbourn he can be seen slyly making an obscene gesture with his middle finger. (Some sources suggest that an 1886 team picture in which Radbourn's middle finger is extended is the first known photographed image of the gesture.) However, his teammates respected him. In his first three seasons with Providence, Radbourn pitched the Grays to two second-place finishes. In 1884 he put them over the top, in a roller-coaster season that saw his integrity attacked in the press, his future in the profession placed in doubt, and then finally, shockingly, the defining accomplishment of his career.
Things started out well enough. During the first three months of the season, Radbourn accumulated twenty-four victories against just eight defeats, helping to bring the Grays to within two games of first-place Boston. But all was not well in the Providence clubhouse. In early July the Grays other pitcher Charlie Sweeney was sidelined with a lame arm, and when Radbourn was forced to pitch nearly every day to compensate, he demanded to be paid more money. The Providence management refused, and the pitcher's mood began to sour. On 16 July, he lost his temper in the late innings of a crucial game against Boston. With the score tied in the eighth inning, Radbourn reacted to an umpire's balk call by throwing several wild pitches, allowing three runs to score. Accused of throwing the game, Radbourn was suspended indefinitely by the club. The press charged him with "ugliness" on the mound, and some Providence fans even threatened to boycott games if Radbourn pitched again.
The suspension lasted only one week. On 22 July Sweeney was also expelled from the team for insubordination. Desperate for a pitcher, the club petitioned Radbourn to return, offering him the extra money he sought. He accepted, promising his manager, "I will win or pitch my right arm off." He would do both. Over the last three months of the season, Radbourn started nearly every game, winning thirty-five and losing only four. At one point he won eighteen consecutive games, transforming a tight pennant race into a blowout. When the season ended, the Grays held a commanding ten-game lead over their rivals. Of his startling performance, the Boston Herald wrote that Radbourn "threw into his work an amount of determination and energy that surprised his admirers and confounded his depreciators. 'His arm will give out,' was said on all sides, but it did not give out." Radbourn's season total of fifty-nine victories smashed the all-time record he had set just the previous year. He also led the league in complete games (73), earned run average (1.38), strikeouts (441), and innings pitched (678.7). In the wake of this overwhelming performance, the press took to calling him "Old Hoss," for his reliability and endurance.
But Radbourn had ruined his arm. Years later, his manager would recall how the pitcher often came to the park unable to lift his right arm high enough to comb his hair and required the assistance of teammates to dress himself. When he resumed pitching in 1885, the once great pitcher had become merely average. The Providence franchise folded following the 1885 season. Radbourn would pitch six more seasons for three teams in two leagues, but never win even half as many games as he had in 1884. When he managed to win a mere eleven games in 1891, he retired. Of his last years on the diamond, one writer commented that "[Radbourn's] uniform only was pitching … the physique of the original was there no more."
After leaving the game Radbourn returned to Bloomington, where he operated a billiard hall with his wife, Carrie Clarke Stanhope, whom he had married in 1887. For a time Radbourn contemplated returning to professional baseball, and in 1894 he contacted the St. Louis Browns about a tryout. However, any possibility of a comeback evaporated on 13 April of that year, when Radbourn lost the vision in his left eye in a hunting accident. Permanently disfigured, he lived the remaining years of his life as a recluse. At some point he had also contracted syphilis, and the resulting muscular weakness quickly eroded his health. He died at the age of forty-two, and is buried at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington.
Radbourn pitched under circumstances vastly different from those we know today, making historical comparison difficult, if not impossible. Among his contemporaries, his 309 career victories rank fourth, and his lifetime 2.68 earned-run average ranks tenth. But it was his remarkable stretch of pitching in 1884 that made, and ultimately cut short, his career, and it was on the basis of that feat that he was included among the first group of players to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when the museum opened in 1939. Radbourn's record of 59 victories in a single season has now stood for more than 117 years. Barring drastic changes in the way the game is played, it is a record unlikely ever to be broken.
No full-length biography of Radbourn exists. The best single source of information on him is the collection of articles on file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. Game accounts and box scores from the 1884 season published in the Boston Herald also provide valuable commentary. Radbourn is also discussed in David Nemec, The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Baseball (1997). The definitive source for all baseball statistics is John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman, eds., Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, 7th ed. (2001).