“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘drinking while pitching a professional baseball game.’ Or there are six ‘I’s’ there. Shut up.”
~A Drunk Charlie Sweeney
The infancy of baseball in America was lawless time. The World Series wouldn’t became an established event until 1903, entire leagues were created and disbanded over the course of just one or two seasons, and most team names were just, well, silly. Considering that, in the 1800s, baseball was relatively new and didn’t really pay particularly well, the players that decided to pursue a professional career in the sport tended to be pretty eclectic. They had names like Ice Box Chamberlain, they routinely threw games for gamblers, hell, in 1872, during the season, a team’s left fielder straight up drowned while fishing. So in order to stand out as someone truly (and hilariously) noteworthy during this period, you had to either be one of the early greats in the sport, or you had to be an absolute nut job.
Starting pitcher Charlie Sweeney was a little bit of both.
If you claim to have heard of Charlie Sweeney before, we might have a hard time believing you. His career wasn’t particularly remarkable, save for a few bright spots. He played for five seasons, winning one Union Association pennant, and finishing his career with a 64-52 record with a 2.87 ERA and 505 strikeouts. However, in his short time on the field (and off the field) he managed to leave a legacy filled with prostitutes, alcohol, manslaughter, and a few MLB records. So hold onto your britches or whatever the fuck people said back in the late 19th century, because we’re here to tell you about…
Charlie Sweeney: America’s Greatest Drunk Pitcher
Born in San Francisco in 1863, Charlie Sweeney began playing ball locally, where he immediately established himself as talented, brash, and kind of a reckless asshole. He managed to get kicked off his team and out of the California League because he walked off the field for no apparent reason, and, spoilers, this would not be a one-time thing for the man. His talents were noticed by the Providence Grays, who signed him as a pitcher in 1882 where, at the ripe old age of 19, he played exactly one game as an outfielder, going 0-4 with a strike out and one error on two chances. The following year, however, he managed to make it as a pitcher on the team, going 7-7 with a 3.13 ERA with 14 complete games in 18 starts (this was during an era where a pitcher viewed it as an insult to their manhood to not be allowed to complete the games they started, even if both pitchers have to go 26 innings before a game is called a tie due to darkness).
However, most of Charlie Sweeney’s legacy comes from his 1884 campaign for the Providence Grays, who would go on to win the 1884 World Series (which today is not considered an actual World Series title, because again, baseball didn’t really have its shit totally together by this point). At the time, you weren’t able to have substitutions in baseball games, and you didn’t really have a starting rotation. Most teams kept two primary pitchers on their rosters, and would have them alternate starts. If the pitcher was becoming ineffective in the late innings of the game (which wasn’t often—about 85% of starts were complete games during this period) a “change pitcher,” who spent the first part of the game playing right field, would swap positions with the pitcher. You now know more about the intricacies of 1880s baseball strategy than you ever wanted, and we suspect part of you hates us for that. You are welcome.
Also, if you had more than two clean-shaven members of your team, your stadium had to be burned to the ground. These are established rules not made up by us.
In 1884 the Providence Grays were struggling as a franchise- the general consensus was that the team would disband unless they could win the pennant that year. In their last ditch, Major League II, attempt to save the team, they were relying on the talents of Charlie Sweeney and the future Hall of Famer, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. Unfortunately, Radbourn, the veteran and ace of the Grays, did not take kindly to finding himself overshadowed by the dynamic Sweeney at the start of the season, and it inspired a somewhat bitter rivalry throughout the early parts of the season. This culminated in June 7th, 1884, when Sweeney pitched what was perhaps his greatest game.
The previous day, Radbourn had gone for 16 innings in a 1-1 tie against the defending National League champions, the Boston Beaneaters (that’s both the dumbest and best name we have ever heard), which was described as “a phenomenal game, the like of which will probably never be seen again” to which Sweeney said, “Fuck that, watch this.” In a 2-1 victory, Sweeney managed to strike out 19 batters (making matters even more difficult was the fact that he did this before foul balls counted as strikes), setting a Major League single-game record that would not be surpassed for 102 years.
Interestingly enough, he would be surpassed by ANOTHER pitcher widely considered a difficult asshole
This was the high point of Sweeney’s season and career, and he soon started to suffer arm issues, which was pretty common during an era where pitchers were expected to pitch about three times as many innings as pitchers do currently. Despite his nagging injuries, he found himself having to take most of the team’s workload because the team decided to suspend Radbourn after he started a fight with Sweeney and followed that up on July 16th of 1884 with an uncharacteristically poor outing that he was suspected of losing intentionally.
This left the hobbled Sweeney as the team’s only real starting pitcher. He didn’t particularly handle his responsibility as well as his team might have hoped.
It started during an exhibition game in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where Sweeney was drinking throughout the whole game and refused to go back to Providence with his team, since he wanted to stay with the woman he had taken to the park, and we’re trying really hard not to make some sort of “he showed her his fastball” joke here. He woke up the next day, still drunk, having missed the team’s morning practice, and raced over to Providence to make his start that afternoon, during which he kept drinking during the game, while still managing to pitch 7 solid innings, giving his team a 6-2 lead. Well, what actually happened was, he pitched five effective innings when his manager, Frank Bancroft, signaled for a pitching change, which Sweeney flat out refused. He kept pitching for two more innings, again while drunk, before Bancroft threatened to fine him $50 (about $1,200 today) if he didn’t leave the mound. Sweeney cussed out Bancroft, swore at the Gray’s president, quit the team and stormed off the field (leaving the Grays to finish the game with only 8 players on the field, which they eventually lost 10-6). He stuck around and watched the rest of the game from the stands in street clothes before leaving with two women, who were presumed to be prostitutes.
Say what you will about the man, but Charlie Sweeney is better at memorably quitting his job than you are at just about anything.
Oh, you made a youtube video of you dancing to quit your job? Charlie Sweeney thinks that’s cute.
Strangely enough, this drunken temper tantrum (the most American of temper tantrums) also managed to affect the history books. With Sweeney having quit the team, getting kicked out of the league in the process, Old Hoss Radbourn was brought back in, since he was the only pitcher left to pitch the team to the pennant. He offered to start every remaining game of the season (having already pitched 76 of the 98 previous games) under two conditions. He would receive the remainder of Sweeney’s salary, and he could be removed from his reserve clause and allowed to sign elsewhere the following season. Having little choice, management agreed, and Radbourn started 40 of the next 43 games, winning 36, and ending the season with an impossible 60-12 record. Though one of the wins has retroactively been taken away and scored as a save, his 59 wins in a season remains the all-time single season record, and one which will never be broken, all thanks to Charlie Sweeney being kind of a mean drunk.
That wasn’t the end of Sweeney’s baseball career, however. He was almost immediately picked up by the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association, where he won 21 games in leading the Maroons to win the pennant (which, incidentally, is the only pennant of the Union Association, as the league only existed in 1884 because, again, baseball was ridiculous in the 19th century). Between his time with the Grays and the Maroons in the 1884 season, he ended up with a 41-15 record and a 1.70 ERA in 492 innings which, even considering how shitty the competition was in the Union Association, still is a relatively historic season. Unfortunately, he was never the same after that as a pitcher, as many speculate that he simply threw out his shoulder in the 1884 season, and his decline saw an 11-21 campaign in 1885 followed by a 5-6 stint in 1886. But while he wasn’t the same as a baseball player, he totally was still the same prostitute-banging, whiskey-swilling bastard who liked to start fights.
For example, in 1886, Sweeney decided that he really liked making fun of Emmett Seery, who was batting .162 through the first 59 games of the season. This eventually lead to a “vicious” fight between the two, and while we’d have to assume it was started when Seery exploded at Sweeney for doing the “stop hitting yourself” thing one time too many, Sweeney was enough of a dick about it that the entire team sided with Seery.
Here is Seery on a baseball card and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the baseball is on a string so that they could have him hold still long enough for the 1887 exposure to go through.
We should point out that during the very 1886 season where he was badgering his teammates to the point of wanting to punch him in the fucking head, Sweeney again made MLB history, but not the good kind, since he gave up seven home runs on one game, a mark that still stands today. So for those keeping track at home, he set a strikeout record that lasted 102 years, he helped someone else set a wins record that will last until the Sun swallows us whole and all of humanity is lost and forgotten, and he set a record for giving up the most home runs in a game against a Detroit Wolverines team that hit 53 home runs total in 120 games. We’ve got everything here—historically good, historically bad, and historically drunk and angry.
He closed out his career playing in 3 games (and losing all three) for the Cleveland Blues of the American Association, rounding out a short but colorful career (get it? Because he played for the Greys, the Maroons, and the Blues? Oh fuck off, we thought it was good), though he wasn’t done starting fights in the name of baseball. In 1887, Sweeney could be seen playing in the California League again, and during a winter exhibition game he did not take kindly to a visiting New York Giants player hitting a home run off him. Apparently, the player hit the home run and then, the next day, mysteriously fled town on a train, and the prevalent story at the time was that Sweeney got in a fight with the player, got beat up, and went to fetch his pistol, causing the player to leave. That is almost absolutely true, because the next time that Charlie Sweeney was heard from again, it was in July of 1894 when he shot and killed a man named Cornelius McManus during a bar fight. Yup, shit got dark.
The 31-year-old former pitcher was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter, though he was released after little more than four years due to failing health, and murder being considered more of an inconvenience than a serious crime in 1890s California. Still, Sweeney returned to baseball, though instead of pitching he took a job as an umpire in the California League in 1898. If you were thinking to yourself that a man prone to alcohol-fueled rages who had just gotten out of prison for killing someone might not make the most calm game caller, well you’d be exactly fucking right. After umpiring a game between Santa Cruz and Fresno, Sweeney was told that the Fresno catcher was critical of the calls he was making. Instead of shrugging and realizing that you can’t please everyone when you’re calling balls and strikes, he instead found the catcher and beat the living shit out of the catcher. He was, of course, arrested. He made bail, at which point he, of course, fled to another fucking city.
When the local sheriff tracked him down, Sweeney played the, “Well, while we wait for me to get sent back to Fresno, why don’t we get shitfaced together?” card that we didn’t even realize was an option for dealing with law enforcement officials. The sheriff, either because he was a hopeless alcoholic or he was hopelessly charmed by Sweeney and wanted to hear some stories of his time as a Major League pitcher, said, “Sure, why not!” He eventually got drunk enough that Sweeney was able to slink away, and it’s assumed that he never actually had to face charges for his assault.
That was sort of Sweeney’s last hurrah, though. Just four years later, in 1902, Charlie Sweeney would be dead at the age of 38 from tuberculosis. Which, in a way, is kind of amazing—every single one of you assumed that if he was going to die young it was going to be from an acute case of alcohol poisoning, or maybe a bar fight gone wrong. Instead, he just was a victim of being around when the doctors were unfortunately performing medicine in the year 1902.
Trust us, things were not very great in that area.
And thus dimmed the shooting star that was Charlie Sweeney, a man whose names still sprinkle the record books of our nation’s oldest and most storied sport, all while living life as a borderline psychopath. It might make you pine for the simpler days of baseball, where instead of taking steroids or driving drunk our ballplayers were killing people in bar fights and pitching drunk. We won’t go as far as to say that Charlie Sweeney was an American hero, but he at least made things interesting, which can be pretty hard to do with a sport like baseball.