Posts Tagged ‘1899 Cleveland Spiders’

Decimation of a Team

March 23, 2010

There was a policy in the 19th Century that one man could own interest in two different Major League teams. It started out innocently enough because some teams were struggling and it was in the interest of the league to keep them afloat. So an owner of one team would loan the other money to help the second team survive the season. In return he could claim a stake in the team. This began to spiral, other factors got involved, owners worked to set up cabals and partnerships, and by 1899 it had reached the point were certain individuals owned two teams. One such combination was St. Louis and Cleveland.

Frederick and Stanley Robison owned the Cleveland Spiders (not the same team as the modern Indians). By 1899 they had also gained a controlling interest in the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals). St. Louis provided a significantly greater baseball market than Cleveland (St Louis was the fourth largest market in the US in 1899), so the Robisons decided to put all their good ballplayers on one team and try to capture a pennant with the St. Louis team.

In 1898 the Cleveland starting eight were Patsy Tabeau (who also managed), Cupid Childs, Larry McKean, and Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace in the infield. The outfield was Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, Jim McAleer, and Harry Blake. The catcher was Lou Criger, and three pitchers had double figure wins: Cy Young, Jack Powell, and Zeke Wilson. They finished fifth. By 1899 all of them except McAleer, who was out of the Major Leagues, were at St. Louis in 1899. With Tabeau again managing, they managed fifth place, the same place Cleveland finished the year previously.

The Spiders got what was the worst of the two rosters dumped in the same place, added in a few rookies, tossed in a couple of old-timers trying to hang on and attempted to create a viable team. What they got was a disaster. Third baseman Lave Cross took over as manager. Thirty-eight games into the season the team was 8-30 and Cross was hitting .286. He was promptly sold to St Louis where he took over much of the third base work. Backup outfielder Ossee Schreckengost hit .313 and took 43 games to end up in St. Louis where he settled in as a backup catcher. Starting catcher Chief Zimmer hit .342 and got out after only 20 games.

When Cross left for St. Louis, second baseman Joe Quinn got the managerial job. He stayed the entire year, despite hitting .286 with 72 RBIs and 176 hits (a sure call to St. Louis if Cleveland hadn’t needed a manager). The team hit .253, dead last in the league, was last in slugging, in RBIs (by more than 100), runs (by almost 200), hits, doubles, triples, home runs (although only by one homer), stolen bases, fans in the stands, hot dogs sold, and just about anything else you can think of.

If possible, the pitching was worse. Jim Hughey went 4-30, Charlie Knepper 4-22, Frank Bates was 1-18. The team ERA was 6.37 almost two full runs higher than the next team (Washington at 4.93). Harry Lochhead pitched 3.2 innings, gave up no earned runs, and became the only pitcher without a losing record. He went 0-0.

The last half of the season, Cleveland played every game on the road, even “home” games. No one was in the Cleveland park (except maybe the grounds crew) and the only way to pick up any money was to go on the road. Apparently on the rare occasions anyone showed up, the most common sound was “boo” and beer sales exceeded hot dogs and peanuts (Wouldn’t watching this team make you want to drink?).

They finished (hide your eyes if you’re squemish) 20-134, 84 games out of first. Their winning percentage was .130. By comparison the infamous 1962 Mets had a winning percentage of .250 and only finished 60.5 games out of first. The Spiders went 11-101 on the road and 9-33 in Cleveland. It was, as I said earlier, a disaster.

Fortunately it did change a few things. The National League had twelve teams and it was becoming increasingly evident that it couldn’t sustain that many and be profitable. So for 1900, four teams were eliminated. The Spiders were one of them. A handful of the players let go when the league contracted were pretty good. Western Association president Ban Johnson scooped up most of them and they became part of the nucleus of the American League in 1901. Because the other owners with two teams had done the same thing as the Robison brothers, all four eliminated teams were owned by other teams. This brought, by default, an end to dual ownership. As far as I can tell, that was unintended.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the players. It must have been awful knowing you were going to lose every day. It had to have been a gnawing hurt for both managers, knowing that no matter what you tried, you just didn’t have the talent to compete. Mostly I feel sorry for the fans. They put out money to see competitive baseball and got the Spiders instead. After 42 games they just quit coming.

What happened in Cleveland was horrific. It is a great blackmark on baseball. There were bad teams before, there’ve been bad teams since, but nothing like the Spiders.

Down and Out in Philadelphia

February 1, 2010

There have been 5 truly awful teams in Major League Baseball history. I define that as teams that lose 115 or more games. The most famous is the 1962 New York Mets. The most awful is probably the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. In between lie the 2003 Detroit Tigers and the 1935 Boston Braves (which included Babe Ruth in his final half season). Then there is the team that fell the farthest the fastest, the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, two years removed from the World Series.

Between 1910 and 1914 the A’s won three World Series (1910, 1911, 1913) and lost one (1914). The advent of the Federal League changed the financial system in baseball making bigger contracts for the players. It also pulled players from the established leagues. For the A’s, pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank went to the Feds. Financially strapped, A’s owner/manager Connie Mack sent Eddie Collins (2nd base), and Eddie Murphy (outfield) to the White Sox. Pitcher Jack Coombs ended up with Brooklyn. During the season Mack sent shortstop Jack Barry and pitcher Herb Pennock to the Red Sox, and hurler Bob Shawkey to the Yankees. Third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker held out for the entire season looking for more money. Of the eight primary starters and four top pitchers who played in the 1914 World Series, only 3 remained by 1916.

Mack sent a bunch of new guys, a couple of old guys, and a few of his holdovers to play in 1916. They got killed. The holdovers did OK, but not great. First Baseman Stuffy McInnis hit .295, not bad, but the first year below .300 for his career. Amos Strunk, the centerfielder managed .316 and led the team in both hits and runs. Wally Schang, the 1914 catcher, moved to left field and led the team with 7 home runs.

The old guys were 41 year old Napoleon LaJoie and 30 year old Jimmy Walsh. It was LaJoie’s last year. He played like it, hitting .246 with a .312 slugging percentage. It was the second time he hit below .280 for his career. Walsh didn’t last out the season, being traded 120 games in. With the A’s he hit all of .233.

The new guys were everybody else.  They ranged from 28 year old Charlie Pick to 19 year old Val Picinich. The team hit .242 with  380 RBIs, and 447 runs. All were league lows (actually the .242 tied with Washington for last).

It was the pitching that was really awful. The team ERA was 3.84 almost a full run higher than anyone else. Bullet Joe Bush led the team with 15 wins, but had 24 losses. Elmer Myers had 14 wins and 23 losses and no one else won more than two games. Tom Sheehan and Jack Nabors won two games between them (one each) and lost 34. Rube Parnham was the only pitcher with a winning record managing to go 2-1 in four games. It was the high point of  his career.

The result of all this was the worst winning percentage of either the 20th or 21st Century, .235. By contrast the ’35 Braves winning percentage was .248, the ’62 Mets were at .250, and the 2003 Tigers managed .265. Only the 1899 Spiders did worse. They were 20-134 for an all-time low percentage of .130 (Gimme some time, it’s coming).

Mack weathered the storm. It took a while, but he finally put together another fine team from 1929 through 1931. It won two World Series and lost a third. It was Mack’s last great team. It was followed by another series of bad teams, but nothing ever again like the woeful team of 1916.