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Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had Paperback – February 22, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his first book, Achorn, an editor at the Providence Journal, takes an in-depth look into the game of baseball when it was still in its infancy, especially the hard-nosed players rarely seen in today's incarnation of the national pastime, including one of the greatest pitchers that most of today's fans know nothing about. In the 1884 season, pitching for Providence, R.I., Radbourn—the son of English immigrants—endured one of the most grueling summers imaginable in willing his team to the pennant. The stress on his right arm, which caused such deterioration that he couldn't comb his own hair, also gave him a baseball record of 59 wins that will never be broken, in a year of unparalleled brilliance. Achorn wonderfully captures this era of the sport—when pitchers threw balls at batters' heads, and catchers, playing barehanded, endured such abuse that some would need fingers amputated. It's no wonder that, in some circles, as Achorn writes, baseball was thought to be one degree above grand larceny, arson, and mayhem, and those who engaged in it were beneath the notice of decent society. From the early stars of the game to archaic rules that seem silly by today's standards, there's plenty to devour (and learn) for even the biggest of baseball savants. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Beautifully written and impeccably researched, Pure Grit is the best book out there on 19th-century baseball. Old Hoss Radbourn would be pleased that he is finally getting his due—and angry that it took so long. (Cait Murphy, author of CRAZY '08)

“This is a beautifully written, meticulously researched story about a bygone baseball era that even die-hard fans will find foreign, and about a pitcher who might have been the greatest of all time.” (Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer prize-winning historian and devoted Red Sox fan)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061825875
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061825873
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Edward Achorn, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Distinguished Commentary, is the deputy editorial pages editor of The Providence (R.I.) Journal. (Reach him at and please check out He has won numerous writing awards and his work appears in Best Newspaper Writing, 2007-2008 (CQ Press). Achorn's reviews of books about American history appear frequently in the Weekly Standard.

Achorn's "must read" weekly columns sometimes touch on baseball history, but usually center on the weird and contentious politics of Rhode Island. He inspired revolutionary change in the state's Constitution, championing an amendment that balanced power and put an end to a 340-year legacy of inordinate control by the legislature. Pulitzer judges cited his "clear, tenacious call to action against government corruption in Rhode Island," while Common Cause Rhode Island declared: "Ed Achorn's clear trumpet turned the tide in this historic battle."

A diehard Red Sox fan descended from generations of baseball cranks, Achorn grew up in Westborough, Mass. He attended the 1967 World Series, witnessed Carl Yastrzemski's 3,000th hit and saw all four games of the legdenday 1975 World Series at Fenway Park, including Game Six, when Carlton Fisk "waved" his home run fair. His grandfather and grandmother, both Boston Braves fanatics, attended the 1914 World Series (also at Fenway).

As a child in Westborough, Ed was astonished to discover that the nearby city of Worcester once had a major-league baseball team. Thus began a lifelong quest to learn more about 19th century baseball--to put flesh on the strange names and statistics found in the Baseball Encyclopedia, none more incredible than Radbourn's 59 wins in one season.

He quickly found there was much more to the story than has yet appeared in books. His intensive search took him to the Library of Congress, the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Chicago Historical Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and numerous other institutions where he pored over primary sources and thousands of daily accounts of baseball in period newspapers. He also spent many nights hunched over a microfilm reading machine in the newspaper's library and at the Rhode Island Historical Society. (An original painting of the Hoss hangs in his fourth-floor office.)

He has worked closely with the members of the Providence Grays Vintage Baseball Club, a modern team that plays under 1884 rules and with 1884 equipment (or lack thereof), to better understand the experience of baseball in those times.

He lectures about the major-league Providence Grays and Rhode Island corruption as a featured speaker for the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. He is a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Connie TOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was pleasantly surprised with this book. As a lover of American history I was drawn to this subject. As an aficionada of good literary prose I was kept drawn to this story. Edward Achorn succeeds in both as a researcher and as a writer, and his dedication to this subject pays off well.

1884 was a time when Irish and Englishmen reigned in baseball. Professional sports was a means to vent their cultural and political differences out on the ball field toward each other. Sabotage, corruption and off-field assaults and attempted murders were commonfold, and the paying American public seems to have wanted more of that. These hard-drinking, tobacco-spitting gloveless players were a cacophony of characters, all which make this read all the more entertaining. 1884 was the time when city teams still had names that related to their town: the Buffalo Bisons, the Boston Beaneaters, the Chicago White Stockings, and they played for the National League, the American Association, or the short-lived Union Association.

Achorn weaves the history of corporate Baseball with the life story of Radbourn. Baseball players of the 1880s were non-union players who were owned by the team. They were luckily to earn a few hundred dollars a month. If they were injured they didn't play, and if they didn't play, they either didn't earn their keep or they made a few dollars taking tickets from the entering crowd. All this affected Radbourn's career decisions. "Traveling hooligans," as many baseball players were referred to by non-fans, were not much admired by the general public, but for the team owners and the paying fans, they were the beginning of corporate sports. They were also a part of the growth of American Industry, and with it its corruption.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on February 14, 2010
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Charles Radbourn, known to all as "Old Hoss," was a freak of nature. Pitching in the National League between 1880 and 1891, he compiled a 309-195 career record. During that time he played with several teams, including the Providence Grays (1880-1885), the Boston Beaneaters (1886-1889), Boston Reds (1890), and Cincinnati Reds (1891). He entered the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

This enjoyable, delightfully-written, and well-structured book deals with his career, but concentrates on Radbourn's 1884 campaign when he set a MLB record of 59 wins (although some accounts say he won 60), 441 strikeouts, and a 1.38 ERA. I am reasonably certain that his win and strikeout totals will last indefinitely. Edward Achorn, an editor of the "Providence Journal," has written this account as a labor of love for a hometown hero of the nineteenth century.

This is quite excellent baseball history, comparable to "Crazy `08" by Cait Murphy that was also published by HarperCollins. It does a fine job of setting a time and place, drawing a portrait of an experience in nineteenth century America, and offering a compelling narrative. That is its strength and its reason for reading. One will not find sophisticated scholarly explication or sabermetric statistical analysis.

Even for those not fan of nineteenth century baseball history, including me, "Fifty-nine in `84" is a good starting point to help understand the formation of the professional baseball establishment.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Jason Seagraves VINE VOICE on February 14, 2010
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Fifty-nine in '84 tells the story of Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn and the 1884 Providence Grays, who were a team in baseball's National League. Radbourn rung up an astounding fifty-nine pitching victories that year and, as an afterthought, won all three games in baseball's first World Series. But this book is about more than just Radbourn, the Grays, and barehanded baseball in general -- reading it will give you a profound sense of what life was like in late-19th century urban America. Author Edward Achorn is an evocative writer who paints pictures with his words, stirring vivid imagery of horse-drawn carriages, pollution-spewing smoke stacks, and the incessant competitiveness of almost every aspect of urban life during this time of great upheaval in the U.S.

Normally I wouldn't worry about "spoilers" in a non-fiction work, but be warned that this summary contains some: As I said in the title of this review, "Fifty-nine in '84" would make a great movie, but the real-life plot is so preposterous, most viewers would be unable to suspend disbelief if they didn't know it was a true story. The action begins at the start of the 1884 baseball season, when the Providence Grays -- who led the pennant race for most of 1883 but faltered at the end -- have brought on hot-shot rookie pitcher Charles Sweeney. This does not make the jealous Radbourn -- who set a record for most pitching wins the previous season -- happy in the least, especially when Sweeney is depicted as the team's ace and given the opening-day starting assignment. In these days, teams normally used only two starting pitchers, and once a game was started, it was expected that the pitcher finish it, so Sweeney and Radbourn took turns pitching for the Grays.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwinghammer VINE VOICE on February 16, 2010
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FIFTY-NINE in EIGHTY-FOUR is not your typical baseball book in that it describes what conditions were like in nineteenth century America and in Providence, Rhode Island, where Radbourn pitched his great season.

For instance shopgirls, like Radbourn's paramour Carrie Standhope, made only five or six dollars a week, while being required to wear expensive stylish clothes. Some of them were forced into prostitution.

Author Edward Achorn also goes into elaborate detail about how the game was different. Not only did the athletes play the game barehanded, but there was only one umpire, which resulted in cheating: taking a shortcut from first the third on a base hit, tripping the runner on his way by second base etc.
The pitcher also threw from a box instead of the mound. He could run up toward the batter before throwing and he was only fifty feet away from home plate.

Radbourn was able to win fifty-nine games (some say sixty) because he was virtually the only pitcher the Providence had during the last half of the season. At the beginning of the season, Charles Sweeney was considered the ace, but Radbourn was terribly jealous and when Sweeney went down with a sore arm, he demanded more money and was suspended for a week. When Sweeney was kicked off the team for public drunkenness, Rad had to go it alone. The directors of the club briefly considered disbanding the team as they eventually did after the next season. According to Achorn, Radbourn was a "junk ball" pitcher, mixing speeds, throwing from different places in the box, and sometimes throwing overhand, which had recently been legalized.
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