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What can we learn from the worst team in baseball history?

If you thought the Cleveland Browns were bad, then you haven’t heard of the Cleveland Spiders.

League Park - Historical Marker
Michael Uhrich

The 1899 Cleveland Spiders are the worst team in the history of Major League Baseball.

The team was so awful that by the time July came around, Cleveland crowds were so hostile the Spiders played the remainder of their games on the road. Their best starting pitcher was a man named Jim Hughey who won four games that season. As discussion of tanking persists into the 2019 season, 120 years later the Spiders still stand up as the biggest example of why non-competitive teams are bad for the game.

Frank and Stanley Robison first organized the Spiders in 1887 and they were incorporated into the National League in 1889. Cy Young made his debut with the team a year later, and pitched for them for nine seasons. Frank Robison bought the St. Louis Browns out of bankruptcy in July of 1898 and also continued his ownership of the Spiders. This was the product of the syndicate rule:

“Some of the franchises proved financially unstable. In order to preserve the structure of the league and avoid bankruptcy of some teams, syndicate ownership evolved, in which owners purchased a controlling interest in two teams. ... This period in league history exhibits some of the greatest examples of disparity between the best and worst teams in the league.”

A syndicate today would be like if Magic Johnson and Dodgers ownership bought the Padres and said, “This is our Triple-A team now!” Attendance at Spiders games was so low in 1898 that Frank Robison decided to punish Cleveland fans by sending all the good Spiders players to play in St. Louis. Yes, even Cy Young. “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.

The Cleveland Spiders still hold the record for most consecutive games lost (24), fewest wins in a season (20), and most losses in a single season (134). Jim Hughey, the man mentioned earlier as their winningest pitcher, still holds the record for most pitching losses in a single season (30).

The drama doesn’t stop there.

The Cleveland Spiders had two player-managers in 1899, beginning with Lave Cross. After 38 games he was transferred to Robison’s other team. He hit .303 the rest of the season with the St. Louis Perfectos and was replaced by second baseman, Joe Quinn. Quinn was the first Australian-born player to reach the major leagues and is a member of the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame.

The Spiders’ Everyday Lineup

First base was manned by Tommy Tucker. He had retired, but management convinced to come back for one season. Harry Lochhead played shortstop. He batted .238 and made 81 errors, arguably the team’s worst player, so of course, he appeared in more games than anyone: 148 of the Spiders’ 154. Interesting tidbit: he died from liver complications at age thirty-three, a month after getting lost in the desert. Suter Sullivan played third base and would end his major league career with the Spiders that year.

Onto the outfield where Sport McAllister played in right and he looked very dapper in a bowler hat. He was a switch hitter who was, at one point, a pitcher. He had ten complete games in his career. Center field was manned by Tommy Dowd, who had been player-manager for the St. Louis Browns from 1896-1897. He hit for the cycle on August 16th, 1895, while playing for St. Louis. Dick Harley played in left. He had six hits in twelve innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 24th, 1897, while playing for the St. Louis Browns.

My favorite person on the team was Joe Sugden, catcher who looked like he should be stopping Rose from jumping off the back of the Titanic. He played his final game on May 18th, 1912 as a member of the Detroit Tigers coaching staff. Sugden was called in to play after the team went on strike to protest the suspension of Ty Cobb. He was a scout for the Cardinals until he died at age 88.

Spiders Batting (1899)

Sugden 268 .276 .611 11 0
Tucker 499 .241 .593 24 0
Quinn 640 .286 .657 21 0
Lochhead 578 .238 .540 21 1
Sullivan 514 .245 .589 25 0
Harley 624 .250 .621 40 1
McAllister 451 .237 .570 19 1
Dowd 659 .278 .668 48 2
Spiders Batting (1899)

The Starting Pitchers

Then comes the pitching. Jim Hughey was simultaneously their best and worst pitcher. Charlie Knepper only had one year in the big leagues. During a game on June 24, 1899, he hit a double, and the next day The Plain Dealer’s game recap stated that:

“A hay wagon drawn by lame horses could have reached third, but Knepper is no hay wagon and had no lame horses to assist him.”

Frank Bates won only one game for the Spiders on July 1st, a game in which he allowed seventeen hits. He lost his next fourteen games and was released in September. Their fourth pitcher was a man named Crazy Schmit, which, I really love. His given name was Frederick, but I don’t think I’d ever want someone nicknamed “Crazy” hurling hard objects at me. Teams thrive and die on starting pitching, and the Spiders pitchers wove a too-tangled web.

Spiders Pitching (1899)

Pitcher IP W L FIP
Pitcher IP W L FIP
Hughey 283.0 4 30 4.14
Knepper 219.2 4 22 4.45
Bates 153.0 1 18 5.79
Schmit 138.1 2 17 4.52

This team was awful.

The city, the game, and even the owners lost because of Frank Robison’s decisions. In 1900, the NL decreased from twelve teams to eight and squashed the Spiders franchise in the process. The past two offseasons have seen a real dearth of movement. Lack of competition and subsequently ownership collusion only serve to make the game worse. The Spiders are a prime example of what happens to teams with no incentive to compete. It alienates fans and is not profitable in the long run. Though, there was one person who gained something from the Spiders’ final season ...

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.”

. . .

Audrey Stark is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @HighStarkSunday.