Cover the Bases Interview with Ed Achorn

by on April 23, 2010

On this edition of the Cover the Bases podcast, we dive into a book that goes back further than any other topic we have discussed to date.  We are so happy to present a conversation with author Ed Achorn, the Deputy Editorial Page Editor for the Providence Journal.   His first baseball book, Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had is about a Hall of Fame player, and life in general in the mid to late 19th Century.

It appears that Ed Achorn was destined to write a book about Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn since his days as a young boy, sneaking off with his dad’s copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, studying the statistics within the covers, and wondering what it must have been like for a player to make 73 starts in a single season.  Upon moving to Providence, where Radbourn had his Greatest Season in 1884, and after receiving a gift of a painting of Old Hoss, Ed knew he would have to pursue documenting this character’s achievements.

Ed faced many challenges while researching this book, most notably the lack of modern reference materials to extract the story from.  He had to turn to original source, historical documents to provide the details he meticulously compiled.  He was fortunate to have the archives of The Providence Journal and the Rhode Island Historical Society, among others to pour over.  Ed makes the point that the sportswriting of the era was very entertaining to read, once he learned the language.  He needed to be able to translate some of the colloquialisms for his readers in order to tell the story.  He enjoyed the barbs passed back and forth among the National League city newspapers.

The grand discovery for Ed was that baseball, although not using modern equipment, was still at its essence the same in 1884 as it is today.  Pitchers used a repertoire to come after a hitter’s weakness, batters studied pitching tendencies and made adjustments according to situations….. And the glory of a great pennant race always stirred the enthusiasm of the fans.

The most obvious difference in the game of the 1880’s is the lack of gloves for the fielders.  All baseball fans should take pause and reflect upon the difficulty of making the plays that the game of baseball requires, without the benefit (and protection)of a glove!   Long term injuries and mutilation was common among these guys, who were struggling to succeed in a profession that took them away from other occupations with their own types of hardships.

The protagonist of the book is considered to be a difficult person, with character straits of stubbornness and orneriness that contributed in some way to his on field performance.  He was also driven by his desire for more compensation, and became the first “free agent” player after negotiating with the Providence Grays while agreeing to assume greater pitching responsibilities in 1884.

His accomplishment and records are even more astounding when it is revealed how much pain he had to endure during each start, particularly as his workload increased midway through the season.  He was unable to dress himself or to comb his hair as his arm hung limply by his side. His unique warmup regimen loosened his shoulder on a daily basis so that he could pitch in the day’s contest.

It is interesting to contemplate the motivations of a player achieving statistical accomplishments in the game that are unattainable in the modern era.  Could he have known at the time that these feats were extraordinary?  Ed believes that since the sportwriters of the time acknowledged what he was doing on the diamond was amazing, that Radbourn himself knew it as well.  His teammates certainly knew his importance to the team’s drive to the pennant, as the nickname “Old Hoss” is derived from the saying that he was “carrying the team on his back” in the sense an old work horse would.

It should be noted that baseball records did not have the pitching statistic of “Wins” at this point, only a team’s won / loss record was important.  Historians have recreated the statistics of the era and have had some dispute over whether Radbourn won 60 or 59 games in 1884.  Originally credited with 60 wins, it is now accepted fact that his record is 59 wins in a single season.

The City of Providence contributes to this book as the setting for this Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.  It was the smallest market in the National League but had a great rivalry with its neighbor only 50 miles to the north in Boston.  Providence was considered the most technologically advanced city in the country at that time, and contributed the Corliss steam engine to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia as a centerpiece.

Providence Grays

Ed provides a view to the past in his book Fifty-Nine in ’84 with the same qualities that the book The Glory of Their Times provides, which is a glimpse into what it was like to live as well as play baseball during that era.  He believes that baseball is consistently reflective of the culture in our country and set out to provide that detail.

It is easy to find out more about Ed and his writings by visiting his web site at Old

We have to extend our sincerest thanks to Ed for appearing on Cover the Bases to talk about his book Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had. Please let us know in the comment section what you think about this great biography of a significant man in baseball history, as well as any other suggestions you might have for future editions of the podcast.

If you like hearing about the baseball books we profile on Cover the Bases, it might be time for you to pick up a Kindle from Amazon, so that you can take all the best Baseball Books with you no matter which stadiums you visit.

Let us know in the comments what you think about the Cover the Bases podcast. We would love to hear from you. Send a Tweet to @baseballisms with a quick message, send us an email or visit our Upload page with a video message. We look forward to growing a community of fans interested in the poetry of the game of baseball!

  • patrickmurtha

    Great interview! I just linked to it in my blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary.

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