A COMMITTED FAN AND TALENTED HISTORIAN Achorn.
Edward Achorn is best known, in these parts, as the voice of Rhode Island’s beleaguered right.
Achorn, deputy editorial pages editor for the Providence Journal and author of a weekly op-ed in the paper, has been shredding the Democratic establishment for more than a decade — and generating more reaction from readers, both delighted and furious, than any other writer on the broadsheet’s staff.
But the columnist is also a committed baseball fan — and, it turns out, a talented historian of the game. His new book, Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had, has received glowing press from Boston to Los Angeles.
The book focuses on Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn — a selfish, profane figure who piled up a remarkable 59 wins pitching for the old Providence Grays in 1884. But it is also a story of the Gilded Age that produced him. The baseball is rugged. The owners are greedy. This is capitalism’s excess laid bare — not the sort of topic you’d expect from a conservative columnist.
With baseball season upon us, the Phoenix sat down with Achorn for a Q&A. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows:
WHAT GRABBED YOU ABOUT CHARLES “OLD HOSS” RADBOURN? It was his numbers that first got me. When I was a kid, The Baseball Encyclopedia — the first edition — came out. It was the first time you could see all these 19th-century statistics. And here’s this guy who won 60 games in one season. The Society for American Baseball Research later reduced it to 59. Still, it’s an amazing number. So I always wondered, what was baseball like then — and how could someone win 59 games in one year? So for many years, I’ve been studying early baseball.
As for Radbourn, personally, he’s a great character. He’s incredibly ambitious, he’s jealous, he’s self-centered, he’s got a mocking tone. He’s the first man ever photographed, apparently, flashing the middle finger, which he did in an 1886 Opening Day photo. In those days, they had to pose very rigidly or there would be a blurred image. So both teams are very carefully balanced, posing beautifully, and Radbourn has got his hand up above the shoulder of his teammate giving the middle finger.
WHAT DOES HIS STORY SAY ABOUT THE GILDED AGE THAT PRODUCED IT? It says you had to be really tough and resourceful to survive in those days. This was before players unions, and generally unions throughout society, so people didn’t have the protections they have now. I write about this in the book — it’s more than just a baseball book, it’s a window on this period of America. There were horrible injuries in factories, people really had a tough time surviving. Many women died young, in childbirth. Child mortality was incredible. Radbourn was one of these people who really gave it his all in the season. He damaged his arm pretty severely. He couldn’t lift his hand high enough to comb his hair by the end of the season.