This seemed like the perfect time of year to get around to Edward Achorn’s book about Charlie Radbourn and nineteenth century baseball. I was not disappointed. “Old Hoss” Radbourn won 59 (or sixty) games in 1884 for the Providence Grays of the National League, and while the game has changed a lot since then, it’s still an astonishing record. Back in the day, there were no relievers and pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Overhand pitches were a new development, and the mound hadn’t been invented. And there were no baseball gloves.
Achorn does a great job of conveying the grittiness of the young game, and incidentally, of a young America. He must have put in a huge amount of research into everyday circumstances, even down to conversations. It’s hard to believe, but for sheer fascination, simply reading about the lives, words, and antics of the players and their associates a hundred and more years ago vies with the story of the baseball itself. Achorn is primarily following a season of the game; he’s not pushing a thesis or agenda, and so the everday incidents, like a fire in a hotel, a drunken brawl, or a labor dispute, fall into place with remarkable naturalness. The list of sources includes dozens of different newspapers. Some of them are characters in themselves. The book is a testament to the legacy of American journalism and the priceless treasure preserved in our libraries.