Throughout the history of sports, there are numerous records that are considered “unbreakable.” Some of these notable records include Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in an NBA game, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, and Jerry Rice’s 22,895 career receiving yards. However, one that may never be seen broken is Old Hoss Radbourn’s record of 60 wins in a season.
In 1884, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn was in his fourth season pitching for the Providence Grays of the National League (a predecessor of today’s Major League Baseball). During that year, he pitched an astounding 678.2 innings pitched, started 73 games, completed all of them, and posted a 1.38 ERA with a 60-12 record.
With stats such as these, it can be assumed that Radbourn was the “ace” of the staff, if not the only pitcher. However, Radbourn would have not achieved this record if it weren’t for his fellow pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, quitting during the season.
Sweeney was in his second season with the Grays and was poised to be the main pitcher of the team. He and Radbourn were slated to pitch nearly all of the 114 games that season. For nearly the first two months, this is what happened, with the two rotating between starts. During this time, the newcomer Sweeney was outshining the veteran Radbourn, leading to animosity between the two.
On June 7, 1884, Sweeney set the major league record for most strikeouts in a game, fanning 19 batters from the Boston Beaneaters (a record that stood for 102 years). Upon their return to Providence, Sweeney was celebrated, furthering Radbourn’s jealousy.
Shortly after, Sweeney began suffering arm pain, leading to an increased workload for Radbourn. Fed up with Sweeney and his antics, Radbourn began campaigning for a pay raise, which the Grays refused. Although unhappy, Radbourn continued pitching.
On June 21, after an exhibition game in Woonsocket, R.I., Sweeney, who was believed to have been drinking during the game, refused to return to Providence with the team, opting to spend the night with a woman he had met prior to the game. The following morning, Sweeney, having realized he slept through morning practice, raced back to Providence to make his start that afternoon. He showed up to the field still intoxicated, but manager Frank Bancroft felt he had no other choice but to start him.
Sweeney pitched five solid innings, but before the sixth began, Bancroft opted to have someone else come in relief. Due to still being drunk, as well as the standing belief in 1800’s baseball that pitchers needed to complete all games they started to show their manliness, Sweeney refused. He went on to pitch two more innings.
Before the beginning of the eighth inning, Bancroft, once again, tried to take Sweeney out, this time threatening him with a 50 dollar fine. Enraged, Sweeney told the manager to keep his 50 dollars as well as the remainder of his contract, and quit on the spot. Sweeney would proceed to watch the rest of the game from the stands with two women, one in each arm. It was believed that these women were both prostitutes Sweeney met at the game.
This blowup led the Grays and the National League to promptly expel Sweeney from the league. Now down to virtually one starter, Radbourn would take the full workload left in the absence of Sweeney. In return, Radbourn received the pay increase he wished for, now earning Sweeney’s remaining salary on top of his own.
Radbourn would pitch every game for the Grays following that incident. Through his 60-win season, he would lead the Grays to the championship series, which they would win, 3-games-to-0. Radbourn won all three games in the series.
Following both the historic 1884 season and their playing careers, Sweeney and Radbourn would travel two different paths in life. Sweeney would continue to pitch professionally until 1887 when arm troubles and drinking caused a decrease in performance. He would finish his professional career with a 64-52 record. He would continue to play in the California League from 1888 to 1892.
In July 1894, Sweeney shot and killed a man in a fight. He would be charged and found guilty with voluntary manslaughter and serve four years in prison. In 1902, just nine days before his 39th birthday, he passed away from complications from tuberculosis.
Radbourn would continue to have success through the rest of his playing career. He finished with 310 wins, becoming the fourth member of the 300-win club. He passed away on Feb. 5, 1897, at the age of 42. Radbourn would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, and he’s believed to be the first person person to gesture the middle finger in a photo.
Although Radbourn and Sweeney resented each other and lived contrasting lives, the beginning of Radbourn’s unbreakable record for wins in a season can, in part, be credited to Sweeney’s debauchery on June 21 and 22.
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