A lot of things stand out about Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. One thing sticks out in regard to Bloomington's famously ornery Baseball Hall of Famer.
First, what stands out: Radbourn’s nickname reflected his workhorse approach during a career in which he won 309 games in 11 seasons, including two in which he pitched more than 600 innings.
He won a record 59 games in 1884 with 441 strikeouts in 672 innings. Such numbers earned him induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, 42 years after his death.
Now, what sticks out: His finger.
Any discussion of Radbourn must include the fact he is widely considered to be the first person photographed extending the middle finger — in an 1886 opening day team photo and an 1887 Old Judge cigarettes baseball card.
The latter created an interesting dilemma for folks at Bloomington’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, where Radbourn is buried, and Bill Baker, expert wood carver for his Naperville-based business, Top Notch Chainsaw Carving.
An oak tree near Radbourn’s grave was going to have to come down because of disease and bugs, said Evergreen grounds supervisor Terry Hansen. The decision was made to turn the trunk of the 150-year-old tree into a carving of Radbourn.
“We really just went off the pictures we could find on the Internet,” Hansen said.
The photo selected was the 1887 Old Judge card in which Radbourn, in his Boston Beaneaters uniform and hands near his hips, extends the middle finger on his left hand. It was far more subtle than in the 1886 team photo, but likely intentional … especially, as Hansen said, “If you know his story.”
Not a big baseball fan, Baker was unaware of Radbourn’s “story.” His brother, Sean, a baseball diehard, was well aware and filled Baker in. It convinced the carver the photo should be recreated in full.
“They (Evergreen officials) were worried about it offending people,” Baker said. “They were thinking about having it (the finger) be removable. I said, ‘You have to kind of go with it.’ That was kind of his thing that he did.”
So on Monday, Baker set up at the tree, chainsaw in hand. By Wednesday, he had carved out a likeness of Radbourn that is striking in detail … from head to toe to the tip of a certain finger.
“We went as authentic as we could with it,” Hansen said.
Fate added to the authenticity.
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Following his baseball career, Radbourn’s left eye was injured in a hunting accident. He was struck by buckshot that also scarred the left side of his neck.
It so happened the tree at Evergreen was discolored around the area where Radbourn’s left eye/neck would be. Thus, the carving includes darkened areas below the left eye and on the neck.
“It was just something in the wood … I don’t know if it was bugs or something else,” Baker said. “It was one of those freaky things.”
The carving is the second “person” Baker has carved at Evergreen, joining “Dorothy” from the Wizard of Oz in 2018. He points out Radbourn is the first “non-fictional” character he has done.
Character is the right word for “Old Hoss,” who had a reputation for working hard on the field and living hard off it. He died in 1897 at age 42 in Bloomington.
His legend lives, especially now with the carving a short underhand toss from his grave. Baker sought to replicate Radbourn’s 5-foot-9 frame and reports coming within an inch or two on the high side.
The bat leaning against Radbourn’s right leg has “Old Hoss” in the trademark, with a home plate below his feet that includes the years he played and of his Hall of Fame induction.
The carving will be dedicated in an 11 a.m. ceremony Saturday at Evergreen. Hansen said a peanut vendor will be on hand and Rhys Lovell will be in uniform portraying Radbourn. Baker also will be in attendance.
He was able to complete the carving for between $3,000 and $4,000, he said, a total that included trips to and from Naperville each day. He will tell you Radbourn’s famous — or infamous — finger is not the first thing you see.
“I said to about four people who looked at it (initially), ‘Did you notice it?’” Baker said. “They didn’t even notice it.”
Still, it’s there.
“With the photos we found, that’s just who he was,” said Evergreen manager Tina Crow.
And who he shall remain.