BLOOMINGTON — We've been Hoss-whipped by the volatile Charlie Radbourn before. Spat at, even, per his chronic tobacco-chewing.

Challenged to duke it out on the spot, in fact.

But we've never been assailed as we will be this weekend courtesy a new play on the life of Bloomington's famously ticked-off Baseball Hall of Fame legend -- who, among other milestones, seems to have been the first man in history photographed flipping off the camera.

“Old Hoss,” which takes its title from Radbourn's nickname, is receiving its world premiere Friday through Sunday in the McLean County Museum of History's Governor Fifer Courtroom.

Fans of the Evergreen Cemetery Discovery Walk first crossed paths with the finger-happy Hoss in the freshman walk 20 years ago -- albeit in a somewhat kinder, gentler rendering that softened the edges of a man who was, by all accounts, all edges.

Befitting the great American pastime he embodied, Radbourn – even somewhat abridged – scored a homer with the walk's participants.

Here was the man, after all, who led the Providence (R.I.) Grays to a World Series win in 1884, fast on the heels of a record season of 59 wins … a formidable stat and one intact 220 seasons later.

So what if it was all downhill after that, into bitterness, jealousy, alcoholism, syphilis and worse.

For the Discovery Walk's 10th anniversary in 2004, Old Hoss rose from his grave for an encore, urged upward by the popular demand that eluded his legend in the century-plus since.

This time around, scenarist Jared Brown and actor Rhys Lovell pulled no punches.

"The first time he was very genial, but Judy wanted a more cantankerous approach,” recalls Brown, referring to his wife, Judy Brown, the walk's longtime producer. “So I wrote the script a second time and turned him into just that, a cantankerous person. And Rhys played the role very colorfully.”

Maybe too colorfully? Lovell recalls a school group given a special weekday walk that didn't take Hoss' challenges lightly.

“For whatever reason, I chose a couple of big, imposing guys, who had to have been football players, to pick on,” remembers Lovell, following the script's directions to challenge anyone in the audience to go a couple rounds with him.

Being an actor fast on his feet, he defused the situation by noting that the grave of Old Hoss' father was next door to his son's. “So, in character, I said 'get your (bleeps) off my daddy's grave!'”

The pugilistic teens backed off … and Old Hoss scored again, even in death.

Such is the case this weekend, as the key collaborators on that walk 10 years ago re-group to celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly of Charles Radbourn.

Their vehicle is a full-blown dramatic work, penned and directed by Jared Brown, produced by Judy Brown and featuring Lovell going full throttle.

Jared, former head of Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre and a published author of numerous books and plays, is also a self-described “baseball nut”; wife Judy and leading man Lovell are not.

But even the non-nuts are riveted by Old Hoss' prickly story: son of a Bloomington meat market owner, grade school dropout, local baseball hero, national hero, post-hero saloon keeper, young (42) corpse and posthumous (1939) Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Ten years ago, biographical information on Radbourn was sketchy, recalls Brown, whose own books have carefully chronicled such famous lives as “All the President's Men” film director Alan J. Pakula and theater royalty Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

“At the time, no biography had been written, so I used what research was available, which was relatively little, and was able to construct a character who was very unhappy and discontent with life, and not too far from dying.”

So, for that 2004 cemetery walk, “we had him spitting on the ground and challenging audience members to a fight,” says Jared.

Luckily for a more inclusive take on Radbourn's life, a full biography, “59 and 84” was published in 2011 by author Ed Achorn, complete with dust jacket photo of Radbourn aiming his middle finger to the camera.

“It's really a pretty good biography, and I used it as the basis for a lot of the writing,” Jared adds, even though the play's structure is entirely out of the playwright's imagination: a meeting between Hoss and the Grim Reaper (along with his second-in-command) in the hour preceding Hoss' early death.

The setting is Radbourn's Place, the saloon-cum-pool hall in the 200 block of West Washington Street that Hoss ran in his forced retirement -- a condition hastened by being blinded on one eye in a hunting mishap and the venereal disease-assisted atrophying of his pitching arm.

“It's not a realistic play,” says Jared, who admits struggling to find the proper framework for the story, starting as a one-man show and ending, after subsequent drafts, in the current form, with three major characters, and a roster of supporting players (the Reaper, played by John Bowen, takes on Hoss' main rival in life, younger, handsomer player Charlie Sweeney; the Reaper's assistant, played by Howard Rodgers, gets 15 additional roles).

Introducing the Reaper was the key that unlocked the dramatic structure, all agree.

“Through it all,” observes Judy Brown, “He comes face-to-face with his past, and that's the energy that drives Hoss forward … a desperate attempt to justify his life so he can have more time. But it never comes.”

Though the Charles Radbourn of “Old Hoss” remains true to his beer-guzzling, tobacco-spitting, finger-giving self, both Jared and Judy Brown, as well as Lovell, think we can still willingly embrace him as one of Bloomington's bona fide home-grown legends, worthy of our respect two centuries later.

As Jared points out, the avid hunter did once rescue a quail with a broken wing and nursed it back to life, and, on another occasion, a runaway buggy carrying a woman and her son was stopped by Hoss, who achieved it by “punching out the horse.”

Yes, the playwright admits, “he was a pretty raw and ornery person, and it was a little difficult to find much good, but he did have his occasional tender moment.”

Even so, expect more of the former as Old Hoss lives again to remind of his well-earned, unfairly forgotten legend. Or else.

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(2) comments


I remember Mr. Lovell in the cemetery walk. Great actor


Let's not forget that this production is a collaboration between the McLean County Museum of History and Illinois Voices Theatre. This museum leads the way in our community by including theatre in its Education Department's interpretive programming.

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