With spring training underway in Arizona and Florida, thoughts of many sports fans have turned toward warmer weather and the 2014 baseball season. In addition, an upcoming stage play on Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, Bloomington’s very own hall of famer, brings to mind one of the game’s greatest pitchers.
Radbourn holds the all-time big league record for wins in a season — an unfathomable (at least by today’s standards) 59 in 1884 for the Providence (Rhode Island) Grays. Born in upstate New York in 1854, Radbourn’s family soon moved to Bloomington, and it was here that his father earned a hard living as a butcher and young Charles, who likely had no more than two or three years of schooling, began playing “base ball” (it was commonly spelled as two words back then).
In the 19th century, the emerging national pastime was an urban, working class game. Crude language, alcohol, violence (real and threatened), and rule breaking were part of baseball’s fabric, and despite our wish for a genteel sporting past, ballplayers at this time could be spoiled prima donnas griping plenty about tight-fisted owners and ungrateful fans — just like today!
To his credit, Radbourn never cared much for the limelight, though, truth be told, he could be mean as a snake. His irascibility was legendary, and in fact he’s the first known person photographed giving the middle finger, a feat he accomplished not once but twice — first in an opening day 1886 team portrait and then the following year in an Old Judge cigarettes baseball card.
The Radbourn men were said to be a rather reticent bunch, preferring hunting and fishing to the social world. (I guess one could say Old Hoss preferred his finger do the talking!) “To play ball in the summertime and to shoot game in the winter are Charley’s greatest desires,” observed The Pantagraph in 1883.
He first made a name for himself playing semi-professional ball for Bloomington’s top team, and an incident from the 1876 season speaks volumes to the rougher edges of organized baseball in the 1800s. On Sept. 1, The “Bloomingtons” (as they were called) found themselves facing accusations that two players conspired with crooked gamblers to throw a game against visiting Springfield.
Radbourn played left field that day and cousin Henry pitched, and although neither were implicated, the future hall of famer came off smelling less than roses. He admitted meeting with two of the fixers at William Schausten’s saloon on the west side of the courthouse square, though as he was a little “off his foot” (slang for intoxicated) he said he could not remember the details. “He does not deny that he may have said that he would take the money,” reported The Pantagraph, “but, being drunk, was not responsible for his words.”
In 1878, Rabourn left home to play for the talented, barnstorming Peoria Reds, and the next season he suited up for the Dubuque Rabbits of the Northwestern League, earning a not-inconsiderable salary of $75 a month. He made it to the big-time National League in 1880, signing with the Buffalo Bisons for $750 (or something like $18,000 today in inflation-adjusted dollars), but had to leave the team — and forgo his salary — due to a lingering shoulder injury. Yet the next spring he was back in the National League for good, though this time with the Providence Grays, winning 25, 33 and 48 games in the three seasons leading up to 1884 and baseball immortality.
Radbourn’s arm was never the same after the 59-win season (or 60 —baseball’s arbiters can’t agree), and when the Providence franchise folded he played several years of solid if not spectacular ball for the Boston Beaneaters. He finished his big league career in 1891 as a 36-year-old with the Cincinnati Reds, going 11-13 in 24 starts.
Once back in Bloomington Radbourn operated a billiards hall and saloon on the 200 block of West Washington Street, though he was in many ways a broken man, suffering from syphilis (if the rumors are to be believed) and having lost an eye in a hunting accident. He passed away in 1897 at the age of 42.
For Old Hoss, the Cooperstown call came posthumously when the Old Timers Committee voted him into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
In two weeks the McLean County Museum of History, in collaboration with Illinois Voices Theatre, will present “Old Hoss: Ornery, Belligerent, and Just Maybe the Best Pitcher Who Ever Lived,” an original play written by Jared Brown. Performances are March 7-9. For tickets and information, contact the museum.
As befitting Radbourn’s life and career, this production is rated PG-13 for coarse language and mild sexual content. We’re sure Old Hoss would’ve preferred it that way.