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Tree Carving Immortalizes Bloomington's Baseball Legend

Nearly to the day 139 years after making his major league baseball debut on May 5, 1880, a tree carving of Bloomington's Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn was dedicated not quite 60 feet, 6 inches from his final resting place.

Fifty people, some history buffs, some baseball fans, many both, attended the dedication at Evergreen Cemetery on Saturday, which included a peanut vendor dressed in period clothing.

Also present was the man responsible for the work of art. Bill Baker of Naperville-based Top Notch Chainsaw Carvings spent four days in late April carving the Radbourn likeness, which is lifesize, and includes his infamous left middle-finger "bird" flip. He's depicted with finger extended in a team portrait, and on a baseball card. Radbourn is believed to be the first person ever photographed in such manner.

Baker spent a week last year creating a similar carving near the Evergreen gravesite of Dorothy Gage, believed to be the inspiration for the eponymous character in L. Frank Baum's classic "Wizard of Oz." Baker said carving Radbourn was easier than the Dorothy creation.

Credit Jeff Smudde
Radbourn is depicted with finger extended in a team portrait, and on a baseball card. Radbourn is believed to be the first person ever photographed in such manner.

"I just had to cut straight down on both sides because it was more of a flat (shape) instead of having her dress, which kind of flared out," he said. Baker carved a baseball bat out of ash. In the carving, the bat rests against Hoss' right side. The artwork is considered a positive way to save dying trees.

Expletive Undeleted

Radbourn's extended middle finger has long provided historians with a major clue as to the New York native's demeanor and character. Terry Hansen, incoming Evergreen Cemetery manager, said the decision to make the artwork historically correct was an easy one. 

"We wanted to portray him as he was, and he was a bit of a rowdy guy," said Hansen. "If for some reason, we get too much grief over it, we can always remove it," Hansen said of the left finger. "I think it will be alright though."

Radbourn's baseball legacy is eye-popping, partially because of the different rules and practices in vogue during pre-20th century baseball. In 1884, he pitched and won 59 games (or 60 depending on the source), including 14 in August, hurling for the National League’s Providence Grays. He won all three games of a playoff series that fall, deemed a precursor of the modern World Series. Radbourn completed 73 of 75 starts, compiling an astonishing 678 innings pitched. He was inducted in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939. Two years after his induction, a copy of his Cooperstown plaque was installed near Hoss' Evergreen tombstone, located less than the distance of a baseball mound to homeplate from the tree carving.

Paying the Price

But Radbourn was known for throwing games. And his carousing nature caught up with him after he retired in 1891. He opened a pool hall on West Washington Street in Bloomington (current site of the Commerce Bank), and lost his left eye in a hunting accident. On the carving, Baker was able to use a black spot in the dead oak tree to depict the injury. Radbourn contracted syphilis and died in 1897.

Maureen Radbourne McAtee of Normal is Old Hoss' great-great niece (her dad's great grandfather was his brother). She attended Saturday's dedication and was impressed with Baker's product.

"It is so fantastic! Can you get any better than that? (Baker) is truly a talent beyond talents," McAtee said.

About Radbourn's brawling, outspoken nature, McAtee said hints of it remain.

"I think it continues in family members as time has gone on, yep," McAtee concluded.

Acting the Part

Radbourn was a butcher in Bloomington before embarking on his legendary sports career. This fact was highlighted at the dedication by Bloomington actor Rhys Lovell, who has portrayed Hoss in theatrical productions as well as during Evergreen's fundraising Cemetery Walks, held annually in the fall. Lovell appeared in character at the event, bragging about Old Hoss' ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone.

"Somebody asked me once if I got tired pitching every day," Lovell said as Radbourn. "I said, 'Tired out, tossin' a little five-ounce ball two hours a day? Man, I used to be a butcher, from four in the morning until late at night, I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge.' So, tired out playing two hours a day for 10 times the money I used to get working 15 hours a day? What are you crazy in the head?"

Adlai Waits

The Radbourn carving is the third on display at Evergreen Cemetery. In 2015, a tree was carved into an airplane, near the location where a plane crashed into a tall oak tree in 1948 prior to a Memorial Day ceremony. The pilot survived but a passenger did not.

Perhaps Evergreen's most famous person buried in the cemetery is yet to get his tree-carving. Hansen said the carvings are created as nearby trees die off. Right now, all the trees near the grave of famed U.S. statesman and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II remain healthy, said Hansen.

Sunday, May 5, exactly 139 years to the day Charles Radbourn made his major league debut, the Vintage Baseball Association--playing under rules and customs of 1858--staged a three team round robin tournament in Normal involving teams from Belleville and Somonauk, Illinois as well as the Prairie Chickens of McLean County. One of the players in the tournament was nicknamed "Old Hoss."

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Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.