The 25th anniversary of Hank Aaron's 715th home run? Fine. The
50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's lone MVP award? Sure. But
don't bet on a particular centennial baseball celebration this
year. They don't build monuments to misery.
As good as the New York Yankees were last season, the 1899
Cleveland Spiders were that bad. Even worse. Think of the fire
sale that led to the Florida Marlins' collapse, and then imagine
an uglier version. Picture the 1962 New York Mets, and then
imagine a team half as successful. That's the kind of sorry
squad that closed out the 19th century.
Essentially the Spiders were undone by the greed of their owner,
Frank Robison. Under the rules of the 12-team National League at
the time, one man could own stock in more than one National
League team, which Robison did when he bought the St. Louis
Browns. Cleveland had produced an 81-68 record in 1898. But
Robison believed that a good team in St. Louis, where the Browns
had finished in last place, would draw bigger crowds, so he
stripped Cleveland of talent so brazenly that Marlins owner
Wayne Huizenga would have gasped.
Cy Young himself, who had won 241 games for Cleveland over the
previous nine seasons and still had 270 wins left in him, was
shipped to the Browns, whom Robison renamed the Perfectos. Two
more Cooperstown-bound players--two-time .400 hitter Jesse
Burkett and infielder Bobby Wallace--went with Young. Wallace
would hit 12 home runs for the Perfectos in 1899, matching the
total number hit by the Spiders that season.
Joining that trio in St. Louis were second baseman Cupid Childs,
who had averaged 118 runs scored in eight seasons in Cleveland;
pitcher Jack Powell, who had recorded 23 wins for the 1898
Spiders; four-time 20-game winner George Cuppy; shortstop Ed
McKean; catcher Lou Criger; and even player-manager Patsy
Tebeau. As baseball historian Bill James has observed, "The 1919
White Sox sold only one series; the Cleveland owners sold out
the whole season." The result: St. Louis rose from 12th to fifth
place, while Cleveland sank to the farthest depths in the annals
of the game.
After the Spiders lost 30 of their first 38 games, their best
remaining player, third baseman-manager Lave Cross, was sent to
St. Louis. An Australian-born second baseman named Joe Quinn
replaced Cross. Quinn, who would play for eight teams in four
leagues during his 17-year career, batted a team-high .286 on the
season. He also topped the Spiders with 72 RBIs and actually led
the league in fielding percentage. But manager Quinn knew he was
in trouble if Quinn was his best player.
How much trouble? Cleveland lost 24 games in a row at one point,
still a big league record. The Spiders had six streaks of 11 or
more consecutive defeats. Only once did the team win two games
in a row. Cleveland was so bad that when Baltimore Orioles
pitcher Jerry Nops lost to the Spiders in June, his manager,
John McGraw, fined and suspended him. The following day
Baltimore beat Cleveland 21-6.
Amid the losing, Cleveland sportswriter Elmer Bates devised a
precursor to David Letterman's Top Ten List, describing the
benefits of following the dismal Spiders: "1) There is
everything to hope for and nothing to fear. 2) Defeats do not
disturb one's sleep. 3) An occasional victory is a surprise and
a delight. 4) There is no danger of any club passing you. 5) You
are not asked 50 times a day, 'What was the score?' People take
it for granted that you lost."
The numbers tell the sordid story best. The Spiders scored 205
fewer runs and allowed 269 more runs than any team in the
league. Their No. 1 pitcher, Jim Hughey, won a team-high four
games and lost a league-high 30. No. 2 pitcher Charlie Knepper,
in his only major league season, went 4-22. A third pitcher,
Crazy Schmit, won two of 19 decisions. Teammate Frank Bates
produced a 1-18 record and a 7.24 ERA, which might qualify as
the most dismal performance ever, except that fifth starter
Harry Colliflower had an 8.17 ERA to go with his 1-11 mark.
In the Spiders' season finale, which proved to be the last game
ever for a National League franchise in Cleveland, the team
called on a cigar-store clerk and amateur player named Eddie
Kolb to pitch against the Cincinnati Reds. He lost 19-3. It was
the Spiders' 134th loss of the year, the most in league history.
Their 20 wins are the fewest. Their .130 winning percentage is
far and away the worst. Cleveland finished in 12th place, 35
games out of 11th and 65 1/2 games out of first.
One person actually may have benefited from Cleveland's
incompetence. After the final game the players are said to have
presented George Muir, the team's traveling secretary, with a
diamond locket because, according to the dedication, he "had the
misfortune to watch us in all our games."
Freelancer Brad Herzog, who lives in Pacific Grove, Calif., is a
frequent contributor to SI.