Best of the 1800s | The Worst of All Time | The Best Black Teams
The Greatest Teams of All Time
by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
W.W. Norton, 2000 | Buy the book
So we've established the fact that the 1962 Mets didn't have the worst record of the twentieth century. They wouldn't have had the worst record of the nineteenth century, either. Even though they played outside the period we're discussing in this book, no treatment of the worst teams of all time would be complete without some mention of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
The 1890s were bad times for the National Pastime. Beginning in 1892, the National League had a monopoly on major league baseball. During this decade, ownership of multiple teams came into vogue; that is, various owners would have parts of more than one team. As bad as some things are today in baseball, at least that doesn't happen any more. With multiple ownership, really bad things began to happen. If the same ownership group owned two teams, for example, the weaker team would inevitably find itself losing most or all of its best players to the stronger team, so the latter could compete with the other similarly situated teams. The effect of this was to create a hybrid major/minor league, where teams would play against their de facto farm team(s), but the games counted in the standings. From 1892 through 1899, the last-place teams finished an average of 59 games behind the first-place teams, and finished fewer than 50 games out of first place just once in those eight seasons.
For the most part, the Spiders benefited during those seasons, and finished in second place in both 1895 and 1896. Cleveland fell to fifth place in 1897, however. And in 1898, with the Spiders in the middle of another so-so season and suffering poor attendance, club owner Frank De Haas Robison arranged to have nearly every home game for the last two months rescheduled for the road.
The following spring, with the few remaining fans threatening a boycott, Robison purchased controlling interest in the N.L.'s St. Louis Cardinals. And shortly thereafter, Robison arranged a "trade" whereby St. Louis received Cleveland's best players, including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace, and Cleveland received a motley collection of has-beens and never-wases. This questionable transaction didn't make pennant winners out of St. Louis, but it did make history for the Cleveland club. Here are the 1899 N.L. standings:
Team W L Pct GB
Brooklyn Superbas 101 47 .682 -
Boston Beaneaters 95 57 .625 8.0
Philadelphia Phillies 94 58 .618 9.0
Baltimore Orioles 86 62 .581 15.0
St. Louis Perfectos 84 67 .556 18.5
Cincinnati Reds 83 67 .553 19.0
Pittsburgh Pirates 76 73 .510 25.5
Chicago Cubs 75 73 .507 26.0
Louisville Colonels 75 77 .493 28.0
New York Giants 60 90 .400 42.0
Washington Senators 54 98 .355 49.0
Cleveland Spiders 20 134 .130 84.0
Yes, the Spiders finished 84 games out of first place. They also finished 35 games out of eleventh place.
The Spiders were swept by Brooklyn (0-14) and Cincinnati (0-14), and won only one game against Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. Just for the heck of it, I figured SD scores for the 1899 National League. Pennant-winning Brooklyn was tops, at a modest +1.82. How bad were the Spiders? Negative 5.63.
With such distorted standings and runs scored/allowed totals, I'm not sure how to interpret those numbers. (Also, I'm not going to tell you, just yet, if that's the worst SD score I've ever seen.) The Spiders scored 529 runs; the next-worst team scored 734, and the league average was 804. Cleveland allowed 1,252 runs; the next worst was 983. The Spiders' best month was May, when they went 7-19. They were 1-34 from September 1 through the end of the season. They were 1-40 in their last 41 games.
|BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR...|
» For most of my life, I've wanted to work in baseball. Early on, I especially wanted to work for the Baltimore Orioles, my hometown team, and I did work for them in a full-time position for six years. I was born and raised in Baltimore, and I lived there until I was thirty-five. I grew up as an Orioles (and Colts) fanatic, and I was blessed in being able to watch one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, the 1969-71 Orioles. I only wish I had known it then. I won't bore anyone with the story of how I got a job with the Orioles. Suffice it to say, they hired me on full-time in January of 1988. Yes, 1988.
Some people think that the 1988 Orioles were one of the worst teams of all time. Obviously, we were not a good club. The 0-21 start was the first tip-off. Our baseball people moaned about bad luck during the losing streak but, given the run differential for those 21 games, our record was pretty much what it should have been. I don't have the exact figures, but I remember calculating our Pythagorean record for those 21 games at something like 2-19.
The 1988 Orioles' final record was 54-107, the worst in baseball by half a game. (Atlanta finished 54-106 after losing their first ten games of the season.) In addition to the horrible start, Baltimore lost 17 of its final 20 games. The only three games we won in that span were the three games started by Bob Milacki (his first three major league appearances).
It's difficult to explain just how bad one feels when working for a team that starts 0-21. I had a hard time sleeping, for one thing, and eventually I stopped watching the road games on television. Thus, I didn't know we had broken the streak until a friend called with congratulations. Even though I had been with the club for only a few months, I was beginning to hear that famous remark: "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it." I did have some concerns that most or all of the baseball people might be fired because of the team's horrible start, which would have meant a very short baseball career for me.
The 1988 Orioles' SD score was -3.75, the fourteenth worst of the twentieth century. The 1987-88 Orioles' SD score was -6.16, the twenty-fifth worst two-year score of the century. Almost everyone associated with the team complained about our pitching and defense but, in fact, the offense was the bigger culprit. We allowed 789 runs in 1988, about 12 percent worse than the league average. But we scored only 550 runs, 22 percent fewer than the league average. Those 550 runs were, and are, the fewest scored by any Orioles club over a 162-game schedule. Everyday second baseman Billy Ripken was horrible (.260 on-base percentage, .258 slugging), but a bigger problem was the lack of production from many of the corner players: Ken Gerhart, 600 OPS; Rene Gonzales, 529 OPS; Rick Schu, 679 OPS; Larry Sheets, 645 OPS; Jim Traber, 585 OPS.
Actually, Gerhart played a lot of games in center field and Gonzales played a few games at second and short, but you get the point. This team got next to nothing from most of the players at positions that are expected to make offensive contributions.
The 1988 season also included a genuinely sad event. Edward Bennett Williams, who had owned the team since 1979, died in August after a long battle with cancer.
Despite the terrible season, our fans supported us. We weren't anywhere near the bottom of the league in attendance and drew 82 percent of the league average, which is pretty good for a team that starts 0-21 and finishes 54-107.
The next year, amazingly enough, our record improved by 321/2 games and we almost won the A.L. East. We spent 117 days in first place and weren't eliminated until the next-to-last game of the season.
As mentioned, in 1988 the O's had scored 22 percent fewer runs than the league average, and allowed 12 percent more than the league. In 1989, the club was slightly better than the league in both runs scored and allowed, which means that we made a much greater improvement in the former. Nevertheless, people in the organization attributed our greatly improved record to "better pitching and defense." Some things never change.
The dramatic turnaround, and the fact that the team only spent two years at a particularly low level (the O's were 67-95 in 1987), are why I don't consider the '88 Orioles one of the worst teams of all time.
It certainly was an interesting first two years in baseball. I am fortunate to have been with a team that made two postseason appearances, including a trip to the World Series, but unless I am with a team that wins the World Series, I doubt I will have any more fun than I did in 1989. I also hope I never have to endure another season like 1988, although the "suffering" was tempered by the fact that it was my first season with a big league team, and with my hometown team, to boot. Maybe it's okay to get what you wish for. -- Eddie
My favorite player on the Spiders was Harry Colliflower. A left-handed "pitcher," he was 1-11 with an 8.17 ERA (the league ERA was 3.85). He allowed 152 hits in 98 innings, striking out eight and walking 41. Yet he was not a bad hitter. Colliflower played six games in the outfield and four at first base and batted .303. His .676 OPS was better than the team's regular first baseman, not to mention the regular catcher, the regular second baseman, the regular third baseman, the regular shortstop, and two of the regular outfielders. It was Colliflower's only year in the majors.
The Spiders also had pitcher Jim Hughey, who tied for the team lead in wins (4), but also lost 30 games and posted a 5.41 ERA. He allowed 403 hits in 283 innings. Hughey finished his major league career with a 29-80 record. Another interesting pitcher was Frank Bates, who played part of the year in St. Louis and may have been part of the "trade" that sent Lave Cross from Cleveland to St. Louis. Bates' Cleveland numbers were: 1-18, with a 7.24 ERA, 13 strikeouts, and 105 walks in 153 innings.
The starting second baseman was Joe Quinn, who led the team with 72 RBI and a .286 average. His 657 OPS ranked eighth among N.L. starting second basemen. At least Quinn enjoyed a bit of glory in his career, as he was a member of the dynastic Baltimore Orioles from 1896 through 1898. One can only imagine his thoughts during the 1899 season.
The 1899 Spiders and the 1916 Athletics are similar in that they had both been winning immediately preceding their decline. Of course, the Spiders were not as good as the Athletics. In 1895, Cleveland's record was 84-46 and they finished in second place. They finished second again in 1896 (80-48) and had winning records in 1897 (69-62) and 1898 (81-68). The two teams are also similar in that their declines were essentially planned by management and were not a function of poor personnel decisions.
Cleveland was one of four N.L. franchises that were eliminated after the 1899 season. A new Cleveland franchise joined the American League in 1901, and the club eventually became known as the Indians, reportedly in honor of an old-time Spider of American Indian descent, Lou Sockalexis.
From Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein.
Copyright © 2000 by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Reprinted with permission.