Old Hoss Rabourn is Sports Ultimate MVP

My first encounter with Old Hoss Radbourne (actual name is Charles but Old Hoss is just better in all ways) came while I was likely watching baseball in the living room while in high school. I remember thumbing through the Baseball Encyclopedia that sat on the bookshelf while a game was on in the back ground and the first thing that drew me to him was just the name.

When your name is something like “Old Hoss” a very specific image comes to mind and in this instance the man fits the nickname almost perfectly (in pictures the man has a consistently angry gaze, bushy mustache and as far as we know was the first man to ever flip the middle finger on camera) The name and look fits him so perfectly that it’s surprising to learn that he only lived until 42.

The name is what led me to look down at his stats, just out of curiosity and when doing so I saw the number of wins he racked up in 1884 (baseball reference has it at 60. The book I read by Edward Achorn titled Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season A Pitcher Ever Had) has it at, well, 59. I feel like the old encyclopedia I had, had it at 59 but I can’t remember nor do I think that book is still around.

My initial reaction to this was “holy crap. That’s an insane amount of wins” but then the realization hit that numbers got insane back in the 1800’s and recognition of the accomplishment took a hit. After all, Old Hoss himself had 48 wins the year before and that was a number seen a decent amount of time as pitchers definitely took the mound a lot more then.

With that said it has me thinking about that accomplishment and while the game has certainly changed (some examples of the time period was the fact that a pitcher could get a running start, depending upon league a pitcher couldn’t pitch over hand, the pitcher was closer to the plate and the ball certainly wasn’t juiced like today) It’s still such an extreme number of wins that will certainly never be matched today (and it shouldn’t be. Unless somehow a relief pitcher lucked into it.

I think the game changing so much has us looking at this record and almost minimizing it by stating that “it’s just how it was done back then” but even in that time period the newspapers thought Radbourn would flame out from pitching so much. He pitched every day during a time when a more common practice was to pitch every other day. And he did so following 48 win season that he also pitched injured. He was in a lot of pain the entire season and when added to that the living conditions of the 1880s (stuff like bad water, traveling only by train, staying in hotels that might catch on fire and kill you or playing against men who would threaten to kill you just for…..striking them out) The accomplishment really shows the determination of a man whose main objective was to win (and make a lot of money too but the man wanted to win.)

That’s the other aspect of this. His desire to win. We glorify Michael Jordan for his desire to win. Old Hoss had this too. He had some pretty intense contractual issues due to injuries and issues on the team in 1884. He believed he should be paid double due to putting in the work of 2 men but ultimately his drive to pitch came from wanting to win baseball games. In 1884 there were no playoffs (there was a World Series but the early World Series that isn’t even the same World Series as today’s World Series was more of an exhibition than anything) To win the championship you had to finish in first place, kind of like in European soccer. Rabourn wouldn’t rest until his team officially won that championship. This meant pitching every single day until the second place team could not mathematically catch his team.

And his team, The Providence Grays, did just that. When one things of MVP’s and great individual performances in sports history I’m not sure one would rate higher than Old Hoss in 1884. The team won a pennant because of him and honestly, they avoided folding as a franchise for a couple more years…because of him. I don’t think there’s anyone more valuable as a player or athlete to his team than Old Hoss in 1884.

Old Hoss tagging a man out on a base
Credit: Library of Congress

Another thing that seems to happen when comparing older players to current day, is the classic player is discounted due to “playing against plumbers” and there’s a lot more reason for this claim to happen when talking about someone who played 140 years ago and yes it’s fair to think that if Old Hoss pitched today, the modern hitter would do some damage if he had to pitch with 2024 rules but I will say this. He was a pitcher that relied upon deception and movement more than velocity and that certainly is not how the game is played today. But he seemed to have a high IQ on the mound and would at least have an idea of what to throw. There were people as late as the 1910’s who praised his ability to pitch (not that 1910’s is modern even but it showed some lasting element to his game) and with that desire to win it’s possible there are things he could pick up on to improve in the modern game.

The other aspect of this is while if you took the modern player and put them in the 1880’s, it’s likely they would physically dominate but could they adapt to the lively hood of a player in 1880? Could they handle the reserve clause even? Could they handle 1 umpire who can easily be intimidated by the opposing team and fans or getting pitches thrown at the head with no reward of even taking first base if it were to hit you? I certainly don’t think any modern pitcher would go back and throw nearly every day. Even pitchers in that time weren’t doing it. Only Old Hoss did it because of extreme necessity.

Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn is probably the most stereotypical 1880’s baseball player there is…..he’s probably one of the most stereotypical 1880’s human beings there is but he was a damn good baseball player and his wins record in 1884….well it was damn good too.

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