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Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of

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Garfien: Greatest pitcher you've never heard of

Thursday, May 27, 20101:40 PM

By Chuck GarfienCSNChicago.com

I think I have found my all-time favorite baseball player. Actually, let me rephrase that: My all-time favorite athlete. Period.

I have never seen him play, in person or on tape. In fact, no one currently on the planet has ever seen him either.

He died 113 years ago.

His name was Charles Radbourn. They called him Old Hoss.

And in 1884, he defied the laws of baseball, not to mention anatomy, physics and most areas of science, when he put together the greatest single season this sport or any sport has ever seen.

(Paul Konerko disagrees with me. Well get to that later.)

Old Hoss pitched in the National League for the Providence Grays, a team Babe Ruth would later play for in 1914. Radbourn was a moody, ornery chap. Give him a ball, a pitchers mound and a few swigs of a bourbon, and this 5-foot-9, 168-pounder suddenly became a ferocious wildebeest -- baseballs version of Attila the Hun.

In 1883, the 28-year-old right-hander led the league in victories. Nowadays, its considered a major achievement when a pitcher wins 20 games.

Old Hoss?

He won 48.

He also had 315 strikeouts that season, to go along with 56 walks, a 2.05 ERA and 66 complete games. Thats not a misprint. Sixty-six complete games!

Last year Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum led the National League with four. Lincecum went onto win the Cy Young.

You hear that sound? Thats Old Hoss up in heaven snickering.

Oh, and did I mention that Radbourn pitched 632 innings that year? Mark Buehrle, the White Sox annual innings eater, has thrown 694... since 2007.

Asked one day if he ever got tired from pitching so often, Old Hoss replied (and this is an actual quote), Tired of tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight at night, I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge. Tired from playing two hours a day for 10 times the money I used to get for 16 hours a day?

Old Hoss clearly didnt have time to be bothered with such absurd questions.

And I dont want to bore you with the details of Radbourns pedestrian season of 1883, because its what happened the following year, in 1884, that created this legend and how fiction became fact.

But first some backstory.

Back in the 1880s, there was no such thing as a five-man rotation. Teams consisted of just two brave, rubbery arm men who didnt care if one day their trusty limb just fell off. For the Grays, these two valiant souls were Radbourn and his teammate Charlie Sweeney.

Tired of tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight at night, I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge.-- "Old Hoss" Radbourne, on whether he got tired of pitching so many innings
But pretty soon this two-man rotation would be whittled down to one. And then zero.

On July 16, 1884, Radbourn and Sweeney had a vicious fight in the clubhouse after Old Hoss lost a game on purpose by lobbing soft pitches over the plate.

Well, nobodys perfect. Radbourn was suspended without pay.

But the next week, Sweeney, the only starting pitcher left on the roster, apparently couldnt take the pressure. He started drinking heavily before a game, and kept the libations going during it as well, tending to his flask in between innings.

By the seventh, Sweeney was officially plastered.

And yet, the Grays somehow led the game, 6-2. When the manager went to the mound to relieve his sauced pitcher, Sweeney erupted, leaving the ballpark in a fit of rage and quit the team.

Left without a starting pitcher on their roster, consensus was that the Grays, who were in first place at the time, should disband immediately.

But out of the darkness came Old Hoss, still suspended, but who had a preposterous idea that could possibly save the Grays season.

In exchange for a small raise and an exemption from the reserve clause the following year, Old Hoss offered to start every single game for the rest of the season.

Hoss might not have been old. But he sure was crazy.

The Grays gladly welcomed him back.

As it turned out, from July 23 until Sept. 24, Radbourn started only 40 of the Grays next 43 games, winning 36 of them. And in the three games he didnt pitch, he played right field and shortstop.

How in the world did he do it?

Well first, according to a relative, he drank a quart of whiskey every day. This was apparently part of the training regiment back then. Booze helped ease the pain. Old Hoss also demanded that a hot stove be installed in the locker room, so he could steam his aching arm for relief. At times, the throbbing would become so great that he could barely lift his arm to comb his hair.

But Radbourn almost didnt survive any of this, and not because of something that happened on the field. One night earlier in that 1884 season, a fire erupted in the hotel where he and many of his teammates lived. The cowardly Sweeney ran for the hills, immediately fleeing for safety. As for Old Hoss, he went door-to-door waking up his teammates, who almost suffocated from the smoke.

Radbourn saved their lives. And a few hours later, he continued to save the Grays' season, throwing a three-hitter against the Detroit Wolverines.

But thats just Old Hoss being Old Hoss.

When the regular season ended, the Grays won the National League by 10 12 games. And Radbourns numbers were simply unfathomable.

Where to begin...

He started 73 games. And completed all 73 of them.

Ill give you a second to digest that.

And it wasnt like the Grays sent Radbourn to the mound with a one-way ticket, keeping him out there even if he was getting thrashed by the opposition. It never happened. Radbourn had a 1.38 ERA.

He pitched 11 shutouts, had 441 strikeouts and just 98 walks.

He also came on in relief and recorded what is now referred to as a save.

Radbourns Gumby-like arm would throw 678 23 innings, four outs shy of the most ever. And his record?

59-12.

Some accounts have him winning 60. No pitcher has topped 30 wins in Major League Baseball since Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Either way, its a record that will never, ever be broken.

And Im not the only one in awe of Radbourns incredible feat.

Years later, John McGraw and Connie Mack, two of baseballs preeminent managers, named Radbourns gritty performance in 1884 as the greatest achievement in the history of the game.

But not everyone is as impressed with Radbourn as McGraw, Mack and me.

Inside the White Sox clubhouse sits Paul Konerko, resident skeptic, who scoffs at Radbourns numbers, calling it pure folly.

I promise you this, this guy right here could not pitch A-ball today, Konerko said, reading over Radbourns stats at his locker.

Noting that he threw 791 innings in his first two years in the majors (1881-1882), Konerko doesnt see how my new favorite athlete could have thrown much more after that.

Lets just assume for a second that the guy was born with a physical gift to throw well," he said. "Im just saying that after the first 800 innings over the first two years, whatever stuff he had was gone!

Maybe it was the whiskey.

When I showed Radbourns statistics to Sox flamethrower Matt Thornton, his jaw dropped.

I get into 75 games in a year, but I throw around 75 innings, Thornton said. He got into 75 games and threw 600 more innings than I do!

As for Jake Peavy, he just uttered one word:

Animal.

Eventually Konerko relented.

I believe that it happened, but Im just saying, lets just call it for what it was," he said. "You cant compare anything else from anybody who throws today, lets just put it that way.

If only we had a time machine...

Radbourn remained with the Grays until 1886, when he joined the Boston Beaneaters. It was there that he made history of a different kind when, according to a new book called "Fifty-Nine in 84," he became the first public figure to be photographed extending his middle finger to a camera.

You gotta love Old Hoss.

But by 1888, Radbourn wasnt the same pitcher anymore. He won only seven games in 24 starts. Maybe his arm was finally breaking down, or as Konerko jokingly suggested, Wasnt there some war in 1888, like the French-Indian War?

Actually that came in the mid-1700s. And no, Radbourn didnt have to go fight in it.

He died in 1897 at the age of 43. Hes actually buried in Bloomington, Ill.

In 1939, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So Paulie, take that.

And while its been over a century since his passing, Old Hoss still exists in the universe. He has magically come back to life, and is communicating to the masses... on Twitter, @OldHossRadbourn.

Hes there rambling on about the soft, multi-million-dollar gents playing the game today, and how things used to be.

Bah! Rain in Minnesota, he said in a recent post. No excuse. In Buffalo in 1884 we were attacked on the field by starving bears. I shot six. And threw a CG shutout.

His thoughts on technology?

I love this inter net. I have now voted for myself as an All-Star. My attempt to do so in 1889 led to a rather unhappy prison stay.

But now, Radbourn is free, carrying with him a baseball resume that pops off the screen and should be remembered forever.

Wherever he is, I do hope that his arm feels better. Not to mention his hands. Thats another thing about Old Hoss.

He never wore a glove. Nobody did.

Muhammad Ali called himself the Greatest. Im not sure how anyone can top this.

You can read more about Old Hoss Radbourn in a new book entitled Fifty-Nine in 84 by Edward Achorn.
Chuck Garfien hosts White Sox Pregame and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet with former Sox slugger Bill Melton. Follow Chuck @ChuckGarfien on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox news and views.

The White Sox sent down Carson Fulmer, so why isn't Lucas Giolito receiving the same treatment?

The White Sox sent down Carson Fulmer, so why isn't Lucas Giolito receiving the same treatment?

Lucas Giolito is having a rough go of things in his second year with the White Sox.

He came into the season with some pretty high expectations after posting a 2.38 ERA in seven starts at the end of the 2017 campaign and then dominating during spring training. But he’s done anything but dominate since this season started, and after one of his worst outings in Thursday’s 9-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, he’s got a 7.53 ERA in 10 starts in 2018.

Giolito stuck around for only four outs Thursday, but he allowed the Orioles to do plenty of damage, giving up seven runs on six hits — two of which were back-to-back home runs to start the second inning — and three walks. He leads the American League with his 37 walks.

“I take what I do very seriously. I work as hard as I can at it,” Giolito said. “So when I experience failure like this, it’s kind of hard to deal with. All I can do is come back tomorrow, keep working on things and hopefully have a better one.”

All of Giolito’s struggles have fans wondering why the White Sox haven’t sent him down to Triple-A to work on his craft.

“I don’t foresee that at this particular time,” Rick Renteria said when asked if Giolito could be sent to Triple-A. “I think he’s just a young man who’s got to continue to minimize the emotional aspect of crossing from preparation into the game and staying focused, relaxed and hammer the zone with strikes. And truthfully it’s just first-pitch strike and get after the next one.”

The White Sox have already sent one young pitcher down in Carson Fulmer, who was having a nightmarish time at the big league level. Fulmer’s results were worse than Giolito’s on a regular basis. He got sent down after posting an 8.07 ERA in nine outings.

But hasn’t Giolito suffered through command issues enough to warrant some time away from the major league limelight? According to his manager, Giolito’s situation is vastly different than Fulmer’s.

“I don’t see them anywhere near each other,” Renteria said. “They’re two different competitors in terms of the outcomes that they’ve had. Lucas has at least had situations in which he might have struggled early and been able to gain some confidence through the middle rounds of his start and continue to propel himself to finish some ballgames, give us six or seven innings at times. So it’s two different guys.

“With Gio, I expect that we would have a nice clean start from the beginning, but when he doesn’t I still feel like if he gets through it he’ll settle down and continue to hammer away at what he needs to do in order to get deeper into a ballgame, and that was a little different with Carson. With Carson it was right from the get-go he was struggling, and he had a difficult time extending his outings after the third or fourth because it just kept getting too deep into his pitch count and not really hammering the strike zone as much.”

Renteria is not wrong. Giolito has had a knack to take a rough beginning to a start and turn it into five or six innings. Notably, he gave up a couple first-inning runs and walked seven hitters and still got the win against the Cubs a week and a half ago. And while his first-inning ERA is 10.80 and his second-inning ERA is 12.54, he’s pitched into at least the sixth inning in seven of his 10 starts.

Renteria’s point is that Giolito is learning how to shake off early damage and achieving the goal, most times out, of eating up innings and keeping his team in the game. Those are a couple valuable qualities to develop for a young pitcher. But are those the lone qualities that determine that Giolito is suited to continue his learning process at the major league level? His command remains a glaring problem, and both he and Renteria admitted that his problems are more mental than physical.

“The one thing everyone has to understand is we have to go beyond the physical and attack a little bit more of the mental and emotional and try to connect and slow that down,” Renteria said. “Those aspects are the ones that ultimately, at times, deal in the derailment of the physical action. So if we can kind of calm that down a little bit.

“He’s very focused. Giolito is high intensity. Nice kid but high-intensity young man when he gets on the mound. You might not believe it. He’s going 100 mph. So I think it goes to more just trusting himself, trusting the process, taking it truthfully one pitch at a time.”

Well, if a demotion to the minors isn’t likely, what about moving Giolito to the bullpen? Carlos Rodon and Chris Sale dipped their toes in bullpen waters before moving to the rotation. Could a reversal of that strategy help Giolito?

Well, the current state of the White Sox starting rotation — Fulmer in the minors, Miguel Gonzalez on the 60-day DL and pitchers like James Shields, Hector Santiago and Dylan Covey, who aren’t exactly long-term pieces, getting a lot of starts — doesn’t really allow for another piece to be removed.

“I know they have done it with Rodon and Sale,” Renteria said. “The difference is we don’t have the makeup of the starting rotation that those clubs had in order to put those guys in the ‘pen. We are in a different situation right now. Moving forward, is that something we can possibly do? Absolutely. It has been done with very good success.

“Right now we are in truly discovery mode and adjustment mode and adapting and trying to do everything we can to get these guys to develop their skill sets to be very usable and effective at the major league level and we are doing it to the best of our ability.”

There could be promise in the fact that Giolito has turned a season around as recently as last year. Before he was impressing on the South Side in August and September, he was struggling at Triple-A Charlotte. Even after he ironed things out, things had gotten off to a rocky enough start that he owned a 4.48 ERA and 10 losses when he was called up to the bigs.

It doesn’t seem Giolito will be going back to Charlotte, unless things continue to go in a dramatically poor direction. Right now, these are just more of the growing pains during this rebuilding process. “The hardest part of the rebuild” doesn’t just means wins and losses. It means watching some players struggle through speed bumps as they continue to develop into what the White Sox hope they’ll be when this team is ready to compete.

Danny Farquhar to throw out the first pitch before White Sox game on June 1

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AP

Danny Farquhar to throw out the first pitch before White Sox game on June 1

In another example of how amazing Danny Farquhar’s recovery has been, the pitcher will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the White Sox game on June 1.

Farquhar suffered a brain hemorrhage from a ruptured aneurysm during the sixth inning of the team’s April 20 game against the Houston Astros. But his recovery has been astounding, and he was discharged from the hospital on May 7. Farquhar’s neurosurgeon expects him to be able to pitch again in future seasons.

Farquhar has been back to visit his teammates at Guaranteed Rate Field a couple times since leaving the hospital. June 1 will mark his return to a big league mound, even if it’s only for a ceremonial first pitch with his wife and three children. Doctors, nurses and staff from RUSH University Medical Center will be on hand for Farquhar’s pitch on June 1.

The White Sox announced that in celebration of Farquhar’s recovery, they will donate proceeds from all fundraising efforts on June 1 to the Joe Niekro Foundation, an organization committed to supporting patients and families, research, treatment and awareness of brain aneurysms.