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 I baseman named Joe Quinn replaced Cross. Quinn, who 1 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 65½ games out of first.