BOSTON – 87 strikeouts. That was Charles Radbourn’s total for the 1887 season. It was the first time in his career that he had not managed to crack triple digits. He would never do so again.
By all accounts, he had a decent year, going 24-23. However, the game was changing. In the pitcher’s box, where ‘Hoss’ took full advantage of every inch to intensify his delivery, 18 inches of space were now gone – effectively pushing him further from the plate and the batter. Also, that year and that year only, four strikes were required to retire a batter.
Old Hoss was starting to show signs of aging. Or at least, his arm was. In the first seven years of his career, he amassed 3,481 innings. However, in 1887, had his lowest total since his rookie campaign. And in that first year, Radbourn had the excuse of only starting 36 contests. In 1887, he had started 50.
Things got really bad for Radbourn near the end of that troubled season. On September 6, he lost 10-4 to the Philadelphia Quakers, ending Boston’s four-game winning streak. He walked five and bounced a wild pitch in the first inning alone. In total, he had seven base on balls, two wild pitches, two errors, and hit two batters. By that point in the season, the Beaneaters were over seven games out of first place, and there were four terribly tough teams higher in the National League standings. And unfortunately for Boston, they only had three more home games remaining and then would spend a month on the road to end that year’s campaign.
Before that western swing, Beaneaters President Arthur Soden was not inclined to pay Radbourn’s travel expenses, thinking that he had become a lackluster pitcher. So instead, he suspended Radbourn for “careless and slovenly play” or as another newspaper put it, “chronic poor play.” He made his announcement: “We have been played for flats long enough. Radbourn is paid over $600 a month to play ball. That sum ought to be enough to make him keep in condition to pitch good ball. I do not know whether it is poor condition, unwillingness, or what it is. But he has been doing the very worst of work. Today’s game was the culmination point. If he cannot do any better work than he has done recently, he is not worth what we pay him.” President Soden even falsely claimed that the Boston fans demanded the action. Regardless, Hoss had not been earning his pay in the box – he was 2-5 in his last seven starts. A suspension would also save the club the salary that Soden spoke of.
The suspension lasted ten days before Soden summoned the pitcher to meet the club in Pittsburgh on the 15th. For his time off, Radbourn’s paycheck was docked $200 for the time off.
After the season ended, Soden publicly offered Radbourn $2,000 for the 1888 season with the incentive offering of $100 for each victory. The pitcher’s response to the club president? He cut off contact with the team, openly stating the Globe, “They have driven me out of the business. You will never see me in another game of ball.”
It was odd to think that only four years before, Hoss had been the most outstanding pitcher in the game. His bravery and stamina all but saved the Providence Grays from mediocrity in the middle of the 1884 season. After the pugnacious pitcher Charlie Sweeney drunkenly left the team on July 22, it was thought that the franchise could not survive. The club ownership had threatened that if the team did not win the pennant that year, they would be disbanded.
However, Radbourn offered to start every single game for the rest of the season in exchange for exemption from the reserve clause for the next season, making him a free agent. Also, he was to receive a hefty pay raise, enough to pay two regular pitchers. He was also given an extra $1,000, as Providence feared that he was considering jumping ship and playing in the Union Association. That year, he made upwards of $5,000.
The next two months saw Providence playing forty-three games, with Hoss starting forty of them. Out of those forty, Radbourn won thirty-six. Toward the end of that span, his arm became so sore he could not even raise it to comb his hair. On game day he would be at the ballpark hours before the starting time. He would begin his warm up by throwing just a few feet, increasing the distance gradually until he was pitching from second base and finally from short centerfield.
Providence won the pennant by 10.5 games over Boston. The Grays played the American Association champion New York Metropolitans in the 1884 World Series – the first of its kind. Radbourn started each game of the series and won all three. In twenty-two innings, he struck out seventeen, allowed only seventeen hits, and had no walks.
That year was to be the main focus of Radbourn’s career. He took the mound in seventy-five different games, starting seventy-three of them and finishing every single one. He pitched eleven shut outs, which was one of his few figures that did not lead the league. In 678 2/3 innings, he struck out 441 batters and posted a miniscule 1.38 ERA – less than half the league average. Hoss actually ceded fewer combined hits and walks than innings pitched.
Winning more than 83% of his decisions, he went 59-12 that season. His success in ’84 and his commitment to take the mound virtually everyday after July 22nd marked his campaign as perhaps the finest that any pitcher had ever entered into the record books. Unfortunately, the wear and tear from his efforts had a lasting consequence to the health of his right arm and his subsequent efficiency.
Though a reluctant Radbourn would eventually return for the 1888 season, it would not be until 1889 that he seemed to regain some of his old form, posting a 20-11 record in a slightly less workman-like year. Though contributing 277 innings to complement Boston’s new star hurler John Clarkson, his Beaneaters fell one game short of winning the pennant that season. And when he joined the Boston Reds of the Players’ League the following year – mainly to contribute to the league effort of breaking management’s control over the game – he pitched the team to the pennant, winning twenty-seven and losing twelve. His .692 winning percentage led the league that year.
“He had regained his old Providence form,” said the Boston Globe. “He is the ‘king pitcher of 1890.’”