If you don't know the answer to the question, What Major League pitcher won the most games in a single season and the story behind it then this book is for you.  The answer of course is Hall of Fame pitcher "Old Hoss" Charlie Radbourne, who won 59 games back in 1884 as the title of the book tells you.

The book offers you a lot more than a dry account of a baseball legend who no one still alive can recall, but it opens the door to a peek at 19th century America, its strengths, its weaknesses and its love-hate relationship with the game of baseball and the men who played it.

fifty_nineBy Edward Achorn
Published by Smithsonian Books (an Imprint of Harper Collins), 366 pages
It was an age of robber barons, many of whom enjoyed and even loved the game of baseball -- and many of whom wanted to own baseball teams, even if they had to create an entire league to challenge the already established National League.  Outlaw leagues came and went, contracts were jumped, players were blacklisted, and the hated "reserve clause" was already in effect and causing grumbling among the game's stars.  Radbourne, the greatest pitcher of them all, was certainly one of those.

And in 1884 Radbourne accomplished what might be the greatest feat of all time in baseball history, going 59-12 in 75 (yes, that's right) starts while pitching the Providence Grays to their only pennant and then winning all three games of a series that could arguably be called the first World Series.  During that season he pitched 778 2/3 regular season innings, struck out 441 batters and posted an ERA of 1.38.

Many would poo-poo that accomplishment as an anomaly of the dead ball era when athletes were less than professional but they'd be wrong.  Baseball was THE pinnacle of athleticism available in that day and age, and many of the players who were talented enough to find a career in the game escaped 10-14 hour days working at hard physical labor in order to play what was a brutal game.

There were no gloves, no chest protectors, no masks, no batting helmets, little in the way of respect for the umpire, cheating was common and men often found themselves quickly used up with broken fingers (especially for catchers), arm and shoulder injuries, concussions, cuts, bruises and more.  There was no substitution within games -- if you were able to continue you played the whole game and a pitcher was expected to finish the games that he started.  It was far from a soft game, and the athletes who played it were anything but pampered.

To understand that you need to understand a lot of what America was like back in the 1880s, and Edward Achorn certainly gives you a gritty taste of it, especially when it comes to the America that the ballplayers came from, where corruption, disease, malnutrition, medical care and even something innocuous sounding as a road trip, could lead to sickness or even death.  This is a story of love, death, sickness and giving your all for fame, for glory and a chance to be the best.   It's a biography of Radbourne and the season that made him a legend, a legend rekindled due to the work of the author.

Achorn's work here is glorious, especially as he manages to put names and faces together to create a work of historical significance which brings one of the game's forgotten legends back to life and thrusts him back into the spotlight he so richly deserves.  While this work certainly has taken quite a bit of research and scholarship to put together it manages to avoid the dryness and ponderousness that most books about this era seem to possess.  In fact it's a fairly easy read that tends to make you want to know and understand more, not just because the baseball is so different (yet the same), but because the nation that game was growing in is almost unfathomable to the modern reader.

This is a very enjoyable book, and one which every fan of the history of the game will really appreciate.  While the subject matter is at times rather adult (dealing with disease, prostitution and violence) it is a book that will make fans from their teen years to their golden years, think not just about baseball, but how it evolved and how it was a perfect reflection for the nation at that time.

Give this book a solid 3 balls and take the time to savor a baseball book that is far from the ordinary and might well be one of the best baseball books written in the last few decades. writes its book reviews with the following rating scale in mind:

Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Two Balls: A book worth reading/owning and is usually above average.
One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.