There must have been something in the air, or maybe it was the water, in the late 1880s and the 1890s, something that reached up and attacked baseball teams with poor play. The period served up over and over some truly awful teams. Almost yearly some team wasn’t within the same time zone of a pennant.
I define truly awful teams as teams that play below .300 baseball. In modern terms (a 162 game season), a team that goes 48-114 has a winning percentage of .296 and is a truly awful team. OK, I know it’s arbitrary and that a 49-113 team with a winning percentage of .302 isn’t really any better, but I need a cutoff and .300 works for me.
In 1884 the Union Association went under, the players worthy of distribution to the remaining teams got jobs and the big leagues went back to a 16 team format. From that point on there is almost always a team under .300. Remembering that the National League (NL) lasts through the entire period, that the American Association (AA) folds in 1892, and that the Player’s League (PL) only exists in 1890, here’s a brief list of them:
1886: Kansas City NL (30-91, .248); Washington NL (28-92, .233)
1887: Indianapolis NL (37-89, .294); Cleveland AA (39-92, .298)
1889: Louisville AA (27-111, .196)
1890: Pittsburgh NL (23-113, .169), Brooklyn AA (26-72, .265), Buffalo PL (36-96, .273)
1894: Louisville NL (36-94, .277)
1895: St. Louis NL (39-92, .298); Louisville NL (35-96, .267)
1896: Louisville NL (38-93, .290)
1897: St Louis NL (29-102, .221)
1898: St. Louis NL (39-111, .260)
1899: Cleveland NL (20-134, .134)
What we have is that almost yearly there is at least one team that can’t play .300 ball. In 1890 there are, with the one year advent of the Player’s League, three leagues. In 1892, the National League expands to twelve teams and the American Association goes under. In 1900, the National League drops four teams and becomes an eight team league. Those are the changes in team numbers for the period. Three of the worst teams occur in 1890, but not in either 1892 or 1900.
So why is this? Well, my guess is that several things are going on. First, the country simply doesn’t have enough quality players to sustain sixteen, and in 1890 more than sixteen, teams that play reasonably well. Second, there is simply shoddy ownership, owners who don’t have any idea how to run a team. Third the abiliy of owners to control more than one team, which peaks in the 1890’s, especially in the destruction of Cleveland in 1899, makes them place their talent on one team and leaves the other to take it on the chin. Finally, the leagues are segregated and unable to draw on a rich pool of players that could and probably would have improved the play of the teams, including those that end up on the bottom. There are probably other reasons, and if you have one feel free to add it.
Baseball works best when teams are competitive. That doesn’t mean the same team can’t win year after year, but it does mean that someone must be able to challenge them for superiority. As this season is set to begin, there are teams that have no chance of winning a pennant, and others that are locks for the playoffs (unless the unforeseen occurs, which it frequently does). We are lucky that we are in an era where the number of truly awful teams is minimal. Pity the poor 19th Century fan that had to watch the teams listed above.