When baseball analysts write or talk about records that won’t be broken the discussion inevitably turns to Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak as “The Record.” It is revered, sanctified, deified, and worshipped.
And while other hitting records may come into play, pitching feats are rarely discussed which has always baffled me. Will anyone break Cy Young’s career record of 511 wins? DiMaggio’s streak will fall first. But one record is never discussed or talked about, let alone admired, and that is most wins by a pitcher in a season.
It was a long time ago, 1884 to be exact, but it still counts. In a 112 game season Charles “old hoss” Radbourne won 59 games, losing 12, He appeared in 75 games, starting 73, and completing all 73. He did not have much choice. Substitutions were not allowed unless the umpire determined the player was too injured-meaning near death-to continue play.
He pitched 678.2 innings with an era of 1.38. Yes the rules were different, but he did throw overhand and he did throw fast. He reportedly had a great curveball, one that he taught Clark Griffith who taught it to Christy Mathewson.
Often he would start four or five days in a row. It was an era when it would be unmanly to do otherwise. As one writer wrote at the time, “it was only two hours work a day.”
Yet we just shrug our shoulders about the record because it was not the modern era. So what? He still pitched nearly 700 innings, throwing complete games on a daily basis. It is beyond our comprehension.
Pitchers then had to pitch with brains, foolery, and tricks that must be lost to history. Today’s pitchers are said to be in better condition. Maybe so, but why can’t they pitch 300 innings a year? Many players back then were hard drinkers. Perhaps the whiskey numbed the mind to pain. Pour some JD into today’s pitchers and let’s see how far they can go.
Radbourne is in the Hall of Fame. He was 309-194 in his career.
His record of 59 wins in a season will stand longer than any record. And yes, Radbourne fought arm injuries all season. It is no surprise that stiffness, soreness, and other shooting pains plagued him all year. Yet he pitched on. How is a mystery.
You can learn more about Radbourne, the 1884 season, the players, and how they played in “59 in 84” a well written, absorbing book, by Edward Achorn.