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Footnotes of Baseball History: Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s Insane 1884 Season and a Photographic First

The 19th century pitcher who holds the record for most wins surprisingly isn’t famous for this photo

Note the raised middle finger of the hand resting on the shoulder of the player in front of him
1886, Opening Day, the Boston Beaneaters and the New York Giants. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn is in the top row, all the way to the left.

Baseball has a storied history, going back well into the 19th century. Many achievements of the greats of yesteryear are becoming forgotten. To bring history alive we need to peer deep into the vault of baseball history and find the great players, achievements, and oddities. Buried in the footnotes of history are the great stories that should never be forgotten.

Today we’re going to look at Hall of Famer Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn.

Old Hoss Radbourn was born December 11th, 1857 in Rochester, New York. He played from 1880 to 1891 for the Providence Grays (who would fold after the 1885 season), the Boston Beaneaters (who would eventually become the Boston Braves, and then move to Atlanta), the Boston Reds (who would become the Red Sox), and the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1884 Radbourn had a season that will likely never be beat in many ways. Radbourn appeared in 75 games, and pitched an arm-numbing ​678 2⁄3 innings(which is just an inning and a third behind the record), put up a 1.38 earned run average, 2.75 FIP, and insane 201 ERA+. Radbourn struck out 441 batters while walking just 98. With the 59 wins, Radbourn would win the pitching triple crown, just the second pitcher to do so.

No starter has made as many as the 37 starts that Greg Maddux made in 1991, so Radbourn’s record for wins will likely never be broken. It is worth noting that due to the changes in how wins are allocated, Radbourn would be credited with an astounding 61 wins by modern rules, which makes the record even more impressive. To make all of that even more impressive, of the 73 games that Radbourn started, every single game he finished. Radbourn lead the league in saves in 1884 as well. How? Well, remember those two games he didn’t start? He got the save in both of those games. So Radbourn closed out all 75 games he pitched in, leading his leagues in both wins and saves.

To top all of that off, Radbourn’s team went to the 1884 precursor to the World Series. Radbourn started all three games, and gave up just three runs, while striking out 17 and walked none. In addition to that he tossed a complete game shutout in one of the games in Providence’s win over the New York Metropolitans. Old Hoss ended up pitching 700 innings, maybe more that year, depending on how many pre-season or exhibition matches he played before the season started.

As amazing as that season was, the real reason for this article isn’t really about Old Hoss’s pitching accomplishments, this article is about the headline picture. Radbourn holds the distinguishing record of giving someone the middle finger for the first time in a photograph.

Here it is again:

Opening Day, 1886 Boston Beaneaters who would become Braves and move to Atlanta and New York Giants who’d move to San Francisco. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn is in the top row, all the way to the left standing. He’s resting his left hand with his middle finger raised on his teammate’s shoulder in front of him.
A closeup of the first photograph to ever feature someone using the middle finger gesture, where it is much more obvious.

Here’s the story of the two incidents as told by Edward Achorn in his book Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had…

Charlie dutifully rested his right hand on the shoulder of the teammate sitting in front of him. But at the last minute, wearing a straight face…he lifted his left hand above his teammate’s other shoulder, firmly thrust out his middle finger, and held it rock steady so that it would remain sharp and clear in the captured image….

Charlie was seemingly the first man in history whose use of the obscene gesture was preserved on film. He may well have been the second, too. The following year, posing for his photograph on an Old Judge Tobacco baseball card, Radbourn placed his hands on his hips and, wearing a bland expression, subtly extended the middle finger on his left hand. Click.

There’s one more thing I left out. Charles Radbourn is by all accounts, the second person to be photographed giving the middle finger. Behold the much better picture in all of its glory:

Old Hoss Radbourn giving the world the finger for a tobacco company.

[Note by Jim. Remarkably, Radbourn is still alive to this day and actively engaged on social media. Or so Twitter informs me, anyway...]