Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn
Born: December 11, 1854
Died: February 5, 1897

"Old Hoss" Radbourn, Hall of Fame pitcher and pride of the Providence Grays, is perhaps the stereotypical 19th century baseball player: a hard drinking, ill-tempered, womanizer of a man. When he retired, however, many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest pitcher who had ever lived.

After playing a few games with the bottom-feeding Buffalo Bisons in 1880 (not at pitcher; they already had Pud Galvin, who would later become baseball's first 300 game winner). Charley, as he was then known, got his big break with the Providence Grays the next year. The Grays apparently thought enough of him that he split time with John Montgomery Ward, who had won 39 games the year before. Sharing time with Ward and aging former National Association star Bobby Mathews, Radbourn led the second place Grays with 25 wins.

His star continued to rise in 1882. Radbourn, who took on more of a role as Ward spent more time in the outfield, finished second in the lead in wins with 33, and led baseball with 201 strikeouts.

In 1883 it looked like he had hit his peak. He took on even more of the pitching load, finishing first in games started, and won 48 games to lead the National League, all the while posting a 2.01 ERA. It would be 1884, however, that would solidify him as Old Hoss.

In 1884 Providence featured two pitchers, relatively normal for the day. Radbourn was the ace, with a young Californian named Charlie Sweeney sharing duties with him. In an era where teenagers often came out of nowhere to have great success Sweeney was considered a phenom among them. In the middle of the season, however, he jumped ship to the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association, a league which was attempting to strongarm itself into position with the NL and the American Association. To make matters worse for Providence, they had recently suspended Radbourn, the only other pitcher on the roster, for his usual bad behavior.

Radbourn, sensing he had all the bargaining chips, agreed to pitch the rest of the season, for a small fee and the right to become a free agent after the season. Providence was forced to agree.

That began a streak in which "Old Hoss" pitched nearly every game in a pennant race, almost single-handedly leading the Grays in their successful chase of Boston. When the dust cleared, Radbourn had won an all-time record 59 wins (some sources say 60, but they tend to be older and less accurate) while losing only 12, struck out 441 batters, second all time behind Matt "Matches" Kilroy's 513, and pitched 678 innings. In addition, he won all three games in a playoff match with the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association, in what is considered by many to be a precursor of the modern World Series.

Radbourn, now permanently "Old Hoss", pitched underhanded, but 1884 still put a remarkable strain on his arm. By the end of the run, it was said that he could not lift his right arm to comb his hair, and he was only able to pitch after a series of elaborate warmups involving a heavy iron ball.

In 1885, his last year with the Grays, Radbourn was still among the better pitchers in the league. Journeyman Dupee Shaw was brought in to provide him with some time off, and Radbourn responded with a 28-21 record.

Now 31, in a time where most pitchers barely lasted past 30, Radbourn joined the Boston Beaneaters. He still had his successes, but his arm was just never the same, and he battled his tumbling strikeout rates and struggled to stay above .500. It's a possibility that his personal vices were also catching up to him; in a famous team photograph taken while with Boston, Old Hoss decided to flip the photographer off, slyly placing the offending digit next to a teammate.

In 1890 Radbourn jumped, along with most of baseball's stars, to former teammate John Montgomery Ward's Players League. Here, playing for Boston's entry, Hoss enjoyed his final great year. While he wasn't pitching as often as he did in 1884, the 35-year-old was among the league's most effective pitchers, going 27-12.

After a slow start in 1891, though, he had had enough. Old Hoss Radbourn retired in mid-season, passed by in an era of overhand throwing prodigies like Cy Young, but still regarded as the best pitcher of his or any time, up to that point.

This was not, however, the era of huge endorsement deals. Radbourn was content to operate the saloon he had purchased shortly after retiring, and it was there where he spent most of his time, until his death. He was among the first Hall of Famers when the Hall opened, in 1939. It is a testament to his stature among the greats that, 40 years after his death, he was selected with such greats as Lou Gehrig, George Sisler, and Cap Anson.

Major League Baseball Hall of Fame
Kirby Puckett | Pee Wee Reese


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