Posted by Alex Bonilla on April 10, 2019
Keen-eyed Baseball-Reference users have written us asking about an update made to the statistics of Hall of Fame pitcher Old Hoss Radbourn. In the past, we had displayed Radbourn with 59 wins in his 1884 season with Providence. However, in a recent update, Radbourn has been bumped up to 60 wins.
Before we delve into what the correct number is, let's zoom out a bit, first. It will probably surprise most baseball fans to discover that there was no league-mandated rule in place for assigning wins and losses before 1950. Wins were awarded, but they were entirely up to the discretion of the official scorer. Compounding this issue is the fact that while the leagues tracked pitcher wins for much of the Deadball Era, they made many errors, and even briefly stopped officially counting pitcher wins and losses for a few years in the 1910s as ERA was first gaining popularity. A SABR member named Frank Williams meticulously corrected the record, and his research formed the basis for the accepted totals you see today.
Williams unveiled his groundbreaking work in 1982 with the article All the Record Books Are Wrong. I'd encourage you to read the article at that link (and thank you to John Thorn for re-posting it in its entirety).
Williams was the original source for the 59 wins attributed to Radbourn in 1884. He arrived at this number by determining what practices were used at the time to determine pitcher wins and losses. Earlier record books had retroactively applied the 1950 rule to Radbourn's era and given him 60 wins as a result. However, it was discovered by Frederick Ivor-Campbell that this was done in error and that one of his 1884 wins (on July 28) should have actually been credited to his teammate Cyclone Miller.
Miller was indeed the correct winner if you applied the 1950 rule, since he pitched 5 innings and left with a lead. However, Radbourn pitched 4 shutout innings and was more effective. Practice in the 1880s allowed for the more effective pitcher to be deemed the winning pitcher, per Pete Palmer. While Williams originally concluded that Miller was the correct winner of this game (giving him 59 wins on the season), he has recently concluded that using practices of the time Radbourn is the correct winner, and therefore has 60 wins in 1884.
Ironically, we end up back at the original 60 wins attributed to Radbourn's 1884 season all the way back in 1920, but hopefully we've learned a good deal along this path. We hope this serves as a reminder how valuable the research done by SABR members is.
In conclusion, we are now showing that Old Hoss Radbourn was credited with 60 wins in his 1884 season.