Like most 19th-Century players, Arthur Irwin was convinced the game didn’t get any better after he played. He talked to a reporter from The Buffalo Times in 1906 and said there still had never been a pitcher who was better than one of his former teammates.
“In my opinion (Charles “Old Hoss”) Radbourn was the greatest pitcher the world ever saw and I doubt if his equal will appear. He had a spit ball and worked it to perfection, only it was not known under that name.”
Irwin’s recollections of Radbourn highlight how open gambling was in 19th Century baseball:
“I remember on one occasion when we (the Providence Grays) were playing the Boston team one of our stockholders came to the hotel the night before the game and said he had wagered $6,000 on the Providence club. Then he told Rad that he would give him $500 if he would pitch. Radbourn would only accept the money on condition that the money be bet on him and the $500 was so placed. The afternoon of the game found Radbourn in grand form and he made the Boston players look like a bunch of minor leaguers, not one of them scoring.”
If the story is not apocryphal, it could refer to Radbourn’s 4-0 shutout of the Beaneaters on August 12, 1884 in Boston—it was his only shutout there while he and Irwin were teammates.
Irwin also told the reporter about an exhibition game in 1884 against the Toledo Blue Stocking in the American Association:
“When we arrived the night before the game we found that they were betting $10 to $7 against us. That same evening the mayor of a small town some few miles away drifted into the hotel and during the conversation remarked that he guessed we were not very anxious to win the game. Naturally, we asked why he said that and he said the odds were against us, with no Providence money in sight, but he was willing to bet $2,500 on us if Radbourn pitched. It was not Radbourn’s turn, but when the mayor supplemented his remarks by offering to give Rad $100 if he went into the box, the offer was snapped up. Toledo had such stars as Curt Welch and (Tony) Mullane. Welch, who was the first man up, got to first base. After that there was nothing to it and not another man reached first during the entire game.”
Not only were no current pitchers as good as Radbourn, Irwin said no current catcher was nearly as tough as another of his teammates with the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1880:
“One of the most remarkable exhibitions of catching I ever saw was performed by Charles Bennett…As you know, we did not use gloves in those days and the pitcher was allowed to take a hop and step before throwing the ball from the box, which was only 45 feet from the batter. On three successive days Bennett caught 14, 15 and 16-inning games without any protection. The following day we were booked to play New York and Bennett went in to catch. After half a dozen balls had been pitched , Charley suddenly dropped his hands and walked away from the plate. I at once ran over to him and a glance at his hands told me all I wanted to know. Both hands were black and blue from the base of the fingers almost to the wrist and the bruises went clear through the hands. Of course it was impossible for him to continue, but imagine the torture he must have suffered before he was forced to quit. I don’t believe you could find a catcher today who would go through that experience.”
Irwin also didn’t have much use for the belief that the game had progressed in terms of strategy since his playing days:
“It is amusing to hear (John) McGraw and other talk about the wonderful progress made in playing scientific baseball. I am sure we put up just as clever a game in the 80s as they do today, but we did not have fancy names for our plays. We worked the squeeze, hit and run and other tricks. When I first came to the Philadelphia club (1886) I worked the trap play and got away with it. There were men on first and second and the ball was hit into short left field. I yelled for (George) Wood to let me have it, although it was his ball. Then I let it drop through my hands and the bleachers let out an unearthly holler. I picked up the ball; shot it to second in time to tag the man there and then the other man was easy. We had taken our places on the bench before the crowd got wise to the play and then the cheers more than made up for their hisses.”