HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CLEVELAND SPIDERS!
It's taken a century, but your accomplishments are finally something to be proud of--a losing season unmatched by 100 years of baseball's worst teams. Compared to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, the miserable St. Louis Browns of the 1930s are world-beaters. Casey Stengel's 1962 Amazing Mets would have beat them like a drum. Even the 1991 Indians, they of the dubious 57-105 record, laugh at the Spiders.
How lousy was this bunch? Try 20-134--that's a winning percentage of .130. In 1899, the Spiders finished dead last in the National League--a mere 84 games behind the first-place Brooklyn Superbas and only 35 games behind the 11th place Washington Senators. By their last game, the Spiders' starting pitcher was a clerk from the local cigar store who had begged for a chance. He held the opposition to 19 runs--a performance any Cleveland hurler would be proud of.
The Spiders' story goes beyond wins and losses. It's a tale of a city held baseball hostage by the evil empire of the Robison brothers, Frank deHaas and M. Stanley, who ran their streetcar line past Cleveland's old League Park, and the team inside the ballpark out of town. It's also the saga of men masquerading as a baseball team, endlessly roaming the country by rail, and being humiliated in every city they visited.
"The story I attempted to tell," says J. Thomas Hetrick, author of Misfits! Baseball's Worst Ever Team, "was of the 'harmonic convergence' of has-beens, never-weres, never-would-bes, and Charlie Browns that somehow 'gathered' that summer in Cleveland. They had a few good players, but were an extraordinarily non-talented team. Adding to that were the repellent conditions they played under, and the fact their management treated them like dirt."
ONCE A GOOD TEAM
The story of the Cleveland Spiders begins a few years before in St. Louis, where Browns owner Chris Von der Ahe was running his National League team into the ground. Hetrick, also the author of Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, describes the Browns owner as a man who loved "wine, women, and song--all to excess."
By 1899, Von der Ahe lost his team, creating an opportunity for the Robison brothers, owners of the Spiders. With no league restrictions to prevent them from purchasing another NL team, the Robisons bought the St. Louis franchise and renamed them the "Perfectos."
The brothers' new team was far from perfect. Von der Ahe had long since sold off his good players, and left in the rubble was a St. Louis squad that had gone 29-102 in 1897 and 39-111 in 1898. The Spiders were far superior--owinning the NL Temple Cup in 1895 and finishing no lower than fifth in the years after.
The Robisons had just one little problem with their Spiders. They didn't like the city where they played.
The brothers saw Cleveland as a bad baseball town and were disappointed with the support their winning Spiders had received. Their solution was to shift all their Cleveland players to St. Louis, where they hoped to make more money, and move their underachieving Browns to the Spiders' roster.
The Cleveland "Misfits" were born.
SECOND CLASS CITIZENS
After switching the players, M. Stanley Robison's pledge that "it is our intention to build up the Cleveland club" didn't fool anyone. While the Perfectos departed for the southern climate of Hot Springs, Arkansas, for Spring Training, the Spiders went to the balmy resort of Terre Haute, Indiana, to train. By opening day, frosty Cleveland players were said to be in "wretched condition."
Starting the season on the road, the 1-7 Spiders arrived at League Park on May 1 for their home opener. Cleveland pitcher "Still Bill" Hill remarked, "I am glad that I am not a catcher. I would have the satisfaction of not being shot in the back when I play the first game." Pitcher Willie Sudhoff was happy the streets around League Park were recently paved, wondering, "what we might have got if the streets were full of paving stones."
To everyone's surprise the Spiders split a doubleheader with Louisville, winning the first game, 5-4, before a big crowd of 500.
By May 25, the Spiders were 7-22 and winners of four of their last six games. Cleveland player/manager Lave Cross reportedly asked boss Frank Robison for a few pitchers a shortstop, saying, "Give me these and even with the other Misfits we'll win some games." Robison informed him he didn't care if they won games, only that they played out the schedule. "I believe," Hetrick says, "Robison did this to spite and punish the people of Cleveland."
On June 5, the Robison began using the Spiders as the Perfectos' farm club. They transferred player/manager Cross and pitcher Sudhoff to St. Louis and sent Cleveland pitcher Frank Bates and catcher Ossee Schreckengost.
The move was like throwing a drowning man a large rock. Cross was the Spiders' best player--a good defensive third baseman and .286 hitter and, despite his losing record, Sudhoff showed promise. The Perfectos hardly used Bates, and Schreckengost was known more for his eating than playing.
With the Perfectos fading to fourth place, the Robisons had panicked. Their idea of "syndicate baseball"--using one Major League team to fuel another--was a good one, but another syndicate was beating them at their own game. The Baltimore Orioles owners had purchased the Brooklyn Superbas and stocked it with their best Oriole players. The move worked as Brooklyn roared into first place, while Baltimore would finish a respectable fourth.
With Cross escaping from baseball's Devil's Island, a new manager was needed for the Spiders. The Robisons selected veteran second baseman Joe Quinn for the job. Fittingly, Quinn was an undertaker in the off-season.
A SCARY CAST
At least the new manager inherited a still breathing baseball team. At first base was Tommy Tucker, a fiery, leather-lunged veteran who had won an American Association batting title and played on pennant winners in Boston. For the Spiders, he chased after wild throws from the infielders and choked umpires when things got tough. Shortstop Harry Lochhead could self-destruct in an avalanche of errors at any moment. Suter Sullivan played a respectable third base, and undertaker Quinn planted himself at second.
In the outfield was "Buttermilk" Tommy Dowd, who played 147 games for the Spiders. A good player, Dowd played with incredibly bad ball-clubs throughout the 1890s. He also went bald at a young age. Alongside Dowd was Dick Harley, a gentleman player who was the worst outfielder in the league, leading the circuit with 27 errors. Rookie Charles Hemphill and "Sport" McAllister, Cleveland's game utility player, also spent time chasing after base hits. The original Cleveland Indian, Louis Sockalexis, returned for seven games, but his great skills were then but a memory.
At catcher, "Peanut Hands" Joe Sugden was behind the dish when he wasn't resting the floating cartilage in his knee or suffering from malaria. Veteran Chief Zimmer hit well, but had the range of an anchor and was released after 20 games. Backstop Schreckengost proved too good for the Spiders; he was returned to St. Louis in mid-season after showing he could hit.
Cleveland's pitching delighted the rest of the league. Frank Bates went from St. Louis to hardball hell, going 1-18. Staff ace Jim Hughey started off strong at 4-14--then lost 16 in a row. Charlie Knepper, known for his 6'4" frame and long blond locks, but not his talent, went 4-22. Harry Colliflower, "the pitching vegetable," was signed of a Washington D.C. YMCA team and won his first game--then lost his next 11.
Like other bad teams, the Spiders found creative ways to lose. On June 12, a League Park "crowd" of 58 (which may have included reporters and groundscrew) saw Pittsburgh beat Cleveland, 5-3, on a series of bunts that paralyzed Hughey and Tucker. The next day, the Spiders committed seven infield errors, four by the skittish Lochhead, in a 10-6 loss. On June 24, the New York Giants stole 10 bases during a 7-2 victory over Cleveland.
But help was on the way. That same day, the Spiders signed pitcher Frederick "Crazy" Schmit--a legend in his own mind.
Crazy defined the Spiders. He kept a notebook on how to pitch hitters in his cap. His instructions for pitching to Hall of Famer Cap Anson were to walk him. He spoke in his own strange combination language of German and English, proclaimed his greatness to fans on the field ("I am the only professional on this team," he'd yell), and ranted at his teammates if they made errors.
Schmit was often too drunk to field bunts, fancied himself a great batter (hitting .157 in 1899), and practiced medicine on his teammates, nearly killing Dowd by inducing vomiting with a concoction. Schmit said Dowd's stomach needed o be "revolutionized." Crazy went 2-17 for the Spiders and, in late September, was fined for insubordination and released.
CAN ANYBODY PLAY THIS GAME?
Since other teams could not afford the travel costs to League Park because of the meager gate (Cleveland fans had the good sense to stay home), the Spiders, also called the "Orphans" and "Nomads," played an incredibly tough road schedule. In July, they played 11 doubleheades, eight of them in 16 days. They finally played a home game on August 24 after seven weeks on the road, going 6-44 during their marathon road trip.
It didn't seem it could get any worse for the Spiders--but it did. They lost 40 of their last 41 games, getting bombed 53-10 in their last four contests.
During the season, only 6,000 Cleveland fans came to League Park to see the Spiders play, but on the road, they were everyone's favorite patsies. Over 260,000 fans watched their losing antics, second only to Brooklyn's road attendance mark. Of course, the "Exiles" played an incredible 113 away games.
"From my research," Hetrick says, "I sensed they played hard and were sincere, but never had a chance."
As proof, Hetrick points to Dowd's late season quote that reads, "At least fifty times the past season we have gotten together at the hotel before going to the grounds and said, 'We'll win that game today or break our necks.' We would mean it too, but all the other teams would jump up at the start and skin us so bad that we'd come off the field with our heads hanging down and our good intentions shattered."
After the 1899 season, the Cleveland franchise was dropped from the National League and syndicate ball was outlawed. A new Cleveland franchise debuted in the American League in 1901, becoming the Infants, Bronchos, Blues, Naps, and finally the Indians.
The Robisons continued to run their St. Louis franchise and, by 1907-08, the team suffered through back-to-back 100-game losing seasons. Frank Robison died in 1908 at 56 after learning his miserable Cardinals had lost in the ninth inning. M. Stanley hurt himself by falling off one of his own trolley cars, recovered, then died of a heart attack in 1911.
One hundred years layer, the Spiders' record for futility stands unmatched. Pity the poor ghosts.