The McGraw Principle Applied Inversely

This article was written by Marshall Smelser

This article was published in the 1974 Baseball Research Journal


It seems safe to say that almost all arguments about worst baseball teams are attempts to answer the question, Which team was the best major-league team?

A neglected but fruitful field for argument is the opposite question, Which was the worst major league team? There is a way to answer this usually unasked question, for the teams of this century.

John McGraw said a great team was a team that won the pennant three years in a row. He didn’t say what a really bad team was, but we could turn his rule around and say a rotten team was a team that finished last three years straight. (Some have stayed at the bottom longer than that.) Here is a list of such weakling teams from 1901 through the 1960’s.

Year

Finishing Last Three or More Consecutive Years

Braves

1909, 1910, 1911, 1912

Athletics

1915, 1916, 1917,  1918, 1919,  1920, 1921.

Phillies

1919, 1920, 1921.

Red Sox

1925, 1926, 1927,  1928, 1929,  1930.

Phillies

1926, 1927, 1928.

Reds

1931, 1932, 1933,  1934.

Phillies

1938, 1939, 1940,  1941, 1942.

Athletics

1940, 1941, 1942,  1943.

Pirates

1952, 1953, 1954,  1955.

Senators

1957, 1958, 1959.

Phillies

1958, 1959, 1960,  1961.

Mets

1962, 1963, 1964,  1965.

 

Whatever else this list might teach us, it helps us to understand the sorrows of Philadelphia and more easily to forgive the surliness of its fans. Of the 51 sad seasons tabulated above, Philadelphia suffered through 26. Altogether, Philadelphia teams finished last more than 20 times since 1901.

In each of those clubs’ wretched streaks it stands to reason that one season must have been the worst. There seem to be two possible ways to pick the weakest year — take the year in which the sorry group scored the fewest runs, or, to be a little fancier, choose the season in which it made the smallest share of the runs scored in the games it played. But either method gives the same list except for the A’s and the Senators.    On the fewest-

runs list,  the 1943 Athletics and the 1957 Senators appear. By percentage of runs scored, the 1942 Athletics and the 1958 Senators were worse. In all other clubs’ streaks the worst team is the same worst team, either way you take it.

Here is the shortened list of surely weakest teams. After each name is the percentage of the runs they scored in the games they played that season.

1909

Braves

38.5

1916

Athletics

36.5

1921

Phillies

40.2

1926

Red Sox

40 2

1928

Phiilies

40.8

1934

Reds

42.4

1942

Phillies

35.8

1942

Athletics

40.7

1952

Pirates

39.4

1958

Senators

42.5

1961

Phillies

42.3

1962

Mets

39.4

 

There are those who will note the absence of the 1935 Braves from the list, but their faults were passing things in spite of their 38-115 season. They finished fourth in 1934 and sixth in 1936, and they haven’t finished last at any of their three sites since.

There are some Mets fans over 30 who have an upside-down pride in their support of the world’s worst club a decade back. They can forget it. The Phillies of 1938-1942, five long seasons, were worse, if we can believe the scoreboard.

What did these rottenest teams have in common?   The way to find out is to find out what categories of play they usually did worst in. (Home-runs hit, and shut-outs pitched were not very important in settling the fates of these teams; they were not usually the weakest in their leagues in those two aspects.)

Here are the categories of play in which these teams were the weakest in their leagues in their worst seasons.

   

BA

SA

E

PA

CC

SV

ERA

Totals

                   

1909

Braves

X

X

X

X

     

4

1916

Athletics

X

 

X

X

 

X

X

5

1921

Phillies

   

X

X

   

X

3

1926

RedSox

X

X

   

X

X

X

5

1928

Phillies

       

X

 

X

2

1934

Reds

X

X

   

X

   

3

1942

Phillies

 

X

X

X

X

X

X

6

1942

Athletics

         

X

 

1

1952

Pirates

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

7

1958

Senators

X

X

   

X

 

X

4

1961

Phillies

X

X

   

X

X

X

5

1962

Mets

 

X

X

X

 

X

X

5

                   

TOTALS

 

7

8

6

6

7

7

9

50

 

This reading of the record books not only gives us a list of the century’s feeblest teams, but confirms the popular notion that giving up a lot of earned runs is a bad idea. Only half of these teams had the worst fielding averages, but three-quarters of them had the worst earned run averages of their grimmest seasons. Could we say that weak pitching is 75% of bad baseball?

Now back to the question:  Which was worst?

The worst team has to be either the 1952 Pirates, who took it all apart instead of putting it all together, or the 1942 Phillies who seemed to like to lose big. The Phillies scored 394 runs and gave up 706. Manager Hans Lobert just could not get them going. The only notable feature about the 1942 club was that Danny Litwhiler compiled a 1.000 fielding average. In the years 1938-1942 the Phillies lost a hundred or more games every year. In 1943, after the fifth year of desolation, the National League reclaimed the franchise and arranged new ownership.

The 1952 Pirates had bad artistic form — even Ralph Kiner had an off year — but the 1942 Phillies were worse. They missed the point of the game, averaging 2.6 runs a game while giving up 4.7. The scoreboard gives the final measure of success or failure.   It measures those 1942 Phillies as worst.

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