Ed. note: If you're a baseball fan on Twitter, you are no doubt familiar with the anonymous and great @oldhossradbourn. If not, you need to be.
As you might imagine, 'tis always a pleasure to read a work on my favorite subject: me.
And thus I've been rewarded by my recent perusal of Edward Achorn's Fifty-nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had, a copy of which 'Duk was kind enough to send to me in the hereafter. (Let us not discuss the meta-physical implications of that transaction.)
Achorn's book, a history of my great triumph of 59 pitching victories in 1884, is very evidently a labor of love. A fan of the game since his youth, my achievements — and my snappy moniker! — caught the author's eye at an early age. A later move to Providence for his career as a newspaperman allowed him a closer connection to his subject matter.
Achorn writes vividly, and a great strength of the book is that one is near transported to the time in question. I felt as if I were once again walking through those dense, crowded streets on the way to the ball park or, in my off time, a house of ill repute. Achorn has clearly studied his subject matter well, and knows the ins and outs of his geography as if he'd strolled these boulevards himself. To his great credit, he equally treats the bad and the good, and his picture is often not pretty: Coal-powered cities teem with fetid smog; rivers clogged with sewage wend their way through the landscape; and the questionable morals and illicit activities of the players and citizenry are omnipresent.
Where Achorn is at his best, however, is in his description of base ball games themselves. It is here that the prose seems its most alive. Achorn has taken his time to learn the patois of the day, and such language is used to recall a more rough-hewn and coarse game. Those under the notion that the players of a bygone era were dandified prima donnas need only read the description of what happened to a catcher's hands — fingers "battered to pieces", joints "swollen and misshapen" — to find their notions disabused. In addition, Achorn nicely gives voice to my supporting cast of ruffians: "Cyclone" Miller, "Grasshopper Jim" Whitney, and a host of others are key players in this tale, and in this book they become much more than random names scattered through an ancient box score.
I quite appreciated the large number of illustrations and daguerreotypes. Small images of many of the book's key characters are placed adjacent to their descriptions, usually from a score card or old tobacco card. (I'll note with some pride the two separate daguerreotypes of yours truly presenting a mischievously placed middle finger — the first this had ever been captured on film.)
The score cards are also particularly worthy of mention: Not only are they lavishly decorated and covered in forgotten logos, they often have been filled out by an anonymous crank. Poring over these long-completed cards while reading Achorn's description of the game in question was a singular joy for me. I especially appreciated the card from the first game of the World's Series in '84, which you of course know was a 6-0 complete-game victory tossed by me.
Other reviews have pointed out that a great deal of Achorn's discussion of my relationship with Miss Carrie Stanhope rests on supposition. I was fine with this, however, for the job of the historian is to make intelligent guesses based on the evidence at hand.
(And he was right: That lass was indeed a hellion.)
Unfortunately, the line between waxing nostalgic for the past and excessively glorifying it is a fine one, and at times Achorn saunters across it. When I acquire a book on base ball I often wonder how quickly the mouldy ghost of that interminable fop Walt Whitman will be invoked. And to my surprise, I encountered a new first in this volume — Whitman's name appeared on the second page of the preface.
Achorn's prose can also be somewhat repetitive, much like the music of "Calico" Bart, the one-armed piano player at my favorite watering hole. Horses, for example, "clip-clop" with irritating frequency and I vowed to place a dollar in a jar every time I came across the word "gritty" or one of its associates. However, I had to give up early for fear of facing bankruptcy. A peek through the index revealed that my grit, in fact, earned its own entry.
And, at times, it also feels if the author is trying to do too much. While I appreciated his knowledge of the dialect of the day and attempt to contextualize the 1884 base ball season into a greater historical context, the result occasionally felt corpulently forced, resulting in sentences such as, "[The Radbourn family] invested in steamship tickets for the perilous two-week trip to the hustling, rambunctious country across the sea, where millions of African Americans still suffered under the chains of slavery, but where free men who had the gumption to think big could make something of themselves." No sentence should suffer the onerous burden of so many masters.
However, these are points that could be applied to most books about base ball, and perhaps base ball writing and nostalgia are inexorably bound. My assumption is that the bulk of the book's readership will appreciate what I have quarreled with, and my quibbles should in no way keep you from purchasing this fine work.
And I do not say this — well, not entirely at least — as a long-dead roustabout who merely wants to keep his name in the public eye. It is genuinely well worth a read. If you're going to read a book — a waste of time if you ask me, what with our nation's secret bordellos a mere telegraph away — read this one. Given that Father's Day is right around the corner, I believe your own pappy might well enjoy reading about base ball's greatest pitcher.
Follow Hoss on Twitter — @oldhossradbourn