Flipping the bird, flashing the single digit, giving the finger—there are all sorts of ways to describe flaunting your middle phalanges as a gesture of insult—and it was all caught on camera for the first time in history here in the Hub.
According to Providence Journal reporter and local author Ed Achorn, the first and earliest documented case of someone giving the finger on film came from a Boston baseball player with a bad attitude.
Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, of the Boston Beaneaters, a baseball team dating back centuries ago, extended his middle digit to a cameraman when two teams gathered for a group photo in New York on baseball’s opening day in April of 1886.
According to Achorn’s book, titled “Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had,” which chronicles the player’s time on the Boston team, Radbourn rested his hand on a teammate’s shoulder and right before the photographer snapped a shot, he raised his finger in defiance, seemingly becoming the first man captured on film flipping the bird.
Radbourn was a bitter man all around. Despite being one of the best pitchers in the league, pitching more than 678 innings, winning 59 games, and starting 73 games in 1884, later landing him in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Radbourn’s cranky attitude put fear in other players coming up to bat.
“A teammate used to go to the opposing teams bench and say ‘you should watch it,’ and then the first pitch would come so close to the guy’s ear. And that’s one of the ways he dominated other teams,” said Achorn.
The ornery attitude was a side effect of the amount of booze the Boston baseball player used to put back, even during games.
According to Achorn, a family member said Radbourn drank a quart of whiskey a day while playing the sport.
“He was a heavy drinker, and that was a heavy theme through his entire career,” he said.
Achorn first stumbled on the infamous picture of Radbourn giving the finger during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame several years back. The photo got him thinking about who the first person was to ever brandish the bird, and after some research, he discovered Radbourn may not only have been the first, but also the second to be documented doing it.
In a later photo of the legendary player, Radbourn again gave the finger when posing for an Old Judge Tobacco baseball card.
Radbourn put his hand on his hip, and then casually raised the middle finger, defiantly flaunting the gesture.
“I always laugh when I look at the cover of my book. He has his hands on his hips and his middle finger extended. He is sort of sending a message about not being that impressed with being in pictures or in baseball cards,” the author told BostInno.
When asked if he was surprised that the first photo of someone conducting the insulting act came from the Hub, a city known for its bad attitudes and rude residents, Achorn said no, despite the fact that Radbourn was originally from the Midwest.
“Clearly [the finger] did have the same meaning back then…this is Radbourn trying to make a message like ‘screw you,’ or his way to be funny,” said the author. “They had to airbrush some out of photos in later books.”
Achorn has a new book coming out soon, which also focuses on historical aspects of baseball, called “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey.”
“It’s about league owners wanting to sell alcohol at the ball park,” he said. “It’s crazy and fun.”