This article was written by Gordon Hurlburt
This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal
There have been many great teams in the majors over the past century. The 1927 Yankees, the 1906 Cubs, and the 1930-31 Athletics are a few which come to mind. But equally memorable, in their way, are those teams at the other end of the scale who lost almost everything in sight, stumbling through a season in what must have looked like a comedy of errors. The 1962 Mets have provided the most recent such example; and the 1935 Boston Braves were almost as inept, in spite of the presence of the aging and fading Babe Ruth. In the 19th century there were several teams that failed to meet minimum standards, including the 1889 Louisville team in the American Association (27-111) and the 1890 Pittsburgh NL Club (23-113). In this article, we look at a team which played 80 years ago, and left its mark to this day as the most “hopeless” of all.
Until that fateful season of 1899, the Cleveland Spiders had fielded a pretty good team. Their pitching staff boasted none other than the immortal Cy Young. Outfielder Jesse Burkett and third-baseman Bobby Wallace have since joined Young in the Hall of Fame. All three were in their prime at the end of the 1890’s. Jack Powell was already a proven 20-game winner, just starting on a career which would see him win nearly 250 games. At nearly every position, the Spiders were at least adequate, if not strong, and in a tough league they were one of the best, not far behind the great Boston and Baltimore teams. In fact, the 1895 season saw Cleveland finish only 3 games behind Baltimore and then defeat the Orioles in the Temple Cup Series 4-1. The next season they again finished 2nd, this time 9½ games out. The team seemed headed for sure greatness, building on a reputation already gained for colorful, scrappy play. But owner Frank Robison had other plans for his team.
At the beginning of 1899, the St. Louis team was for sale. The colorful, one-of-a-kind Chris Von der Ahe had owned the club for most of two decades, first in the American Association and then in the National League. Faced with huge debts and personal and family problems, he finally bowed to the inevitable and sold his team. After a period of uncertainty as to who would be its next owner, Robison finally came into possession of the franchise. He already owned Cleveland, but in those days it was not illegal but common practice for one man to have interest in two teams. In fact Baltimore and Brooklyn also were part of syndicate baseball in 1899.
The club Robison got was no prize. St. Louis had finished dead last the previous two seasons with an accordingly poor team, with the only bright spot being Lave Cross at third base. Already dissatisfied with his Cleveland team, where attendance was poor and Sunday baseball was outlawed, etc., Robison switched most of the Spiders to St. Louis for 1899. Except for Cross, many of the St. Louis players went to Cleveland. Now with two star third-basemen on the St. Louis team, Bobby Wallace left the position to Lave Cross and switched to shortstop. He went on to a distinguished career at that position, although he had never before played there in the big leagues. The following table shows the switching of personnel between the two teams between 1898 and 1899:
1898 St.Louis 1899
Tucker, Decker lB Patsy Tebeau
Quinn, Crooks 2B Cupid Childs
Lave Cross 3B Lave Cross
Smith, Hall, Sullivan SS Bobby Wallace
Tom Dowd OF Henry Blake
Dick Harley OF Jesse Burkett
Jake Stenzel OF John Heidrick
Clements, Sugden C Schreck, O’Connor, Criger
Hughey (7-24) P Powell (23-19)
Sudhoff(l 1-27) Sudhoff(13-10)
Taylor (15-29) Young (26-16)
Carsey (2-12) Cuppy (11-8)
1898 Cleveland 1899
O’Connor, Tebeau lB Tom Tucker
Cupid Childs 2B Joe Quinn
Bobby Wallace 3B Suter Sullivan
Ed McKean SS Harry Lockhead
Henry Blake OF Tom Dowd
Jesse Burkett OF Dick Harley
Jim McAleer OF L. McAllister
Lou Criger C Joe Sugden
Young (25-13) P Knepper (4-22)
Powell (23-15) Hughey (4-30)
Wilson (13-18) Schmidt (2-17)
Cuppy(9-8) Bates (1-18)
Since pitching is the key to any club, let’s look more closely at the Spider’s pitching staff in 1899. Of the top five named above, none was a worn-out veteran on the decline, and all were supposedly at the prime of life. Yet, inexperience and lack of skill did play their part. This was Charlie Knepper’s first and only season in the big time, and Bates had seen only limited action the year before. He, too, never had another big-league season. Jim Hughey’s career had begun back in `91, but he finished at a sorry 29-80 lifetime log. Fred Schmidt was 31 and hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1893, a six-year layoff, and then it had been only sparingly, as reflected in a lifetime record of 7-36. Harry Colliflower was a 30-year old rookie who called it quits after the 1899 disaster. Of the pitchers on the staff, Jack Stivetts had the best credentials, with a lifetime log of 198 wins, including a banner year of 35 wins in 1892. However, though only 31 years old, Jack decided he had had enough after an 0-4 season with the hapless Spiders.
The season itself began in St. Louis on Saturday, April 15, with Cleveland absorbing a 10-1 defeat. They lost again on Sunday, then, after three days rest went to Louisville where they lost two more, bringing us up to Saturday the 22nd. On that day, Cleveland played a doubleheader in Louisville and won the first game, 6-5 before dropping a 15-2 verdict. Out of the 20 games the Spiders won all season, 12 came in split doubleheaders, meaning that they only had 8 days all year of unmixed victory. Two more losses in Cincinnati made their April record 1-7.
The month of May started with a home-opener doubleheader against Louisville. Cleveland got off to a good start with a 5-4 victory in 14 innings in the opener before the home folks, but then reverted to form in the nightcap. They also split a doubleheader with the same team the next day, but then went on their first skid, losing 11 in a row as Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati came to town. This brought the year’s record to 3-20 going into action on Saturday, May 20th. The team had been idle since Monday, and it seemed the layoff did them good, because they now hit their best stretch of the entire season. It started with a decisive 10-4 win over Philadelphia that day, then a journey to Louisville for a Sunday game and a 4-3 victory. Washington visited Cleveland at the beginning of the following week, and the Spiders took the middle game of the set. Then came Baltimore, and Cleveland gained a split in two games with the mighty Orioles. In that memorable week, the Spiders won 4 games in 6 tries. These all came in single contests, and thus represented half the club’s total of single game wins for the entire year.
The end of May saw Cleveland go back east for a road trip which was to mark the beginning of the long downhill slide after that brief flash of respectability. The month of May ended with an 8-26 log for the season so far, including another doubleheader split in Boston on Memorial Day.
The month of June proved to be eventful in several ways for the team. On the second of the month, it looked after six innings like Cleveland had a rare victory in the bag in Brooklyn. They led by 10-1 at that point, but then the roof fell in as the hometown nine scored ten times in the last three innings to take an 11 to 10 win. On Monday, June 5, after a 14-2 defeat at the hands of Brooklyn, manager Lave Cross quit to move on to more encouraging things at St. Louis, his old team. He left Cleveland with an 8-30 record and five straight losses. His successor, Australian-born infielder Joe Quinn saw the current losing string run to 13 before it ended with a 6-2 win over Pittsburgh at home on the 15th. Then came another slide of 7 games, mostly before the home fans. The next win came on June 25th, in one of the curious Sunday doubleheaders played at the time. Since not all cities allowed Sunday ball, teams where it was banned went to play where it was allowed, where the home team played two contests against two different opponents. For example, on this date, hometown St. Louis played New York and lost in the first game, then took on Cleveland and bowed again.
The Clevelanders won only 3 games in the whole month, against 22 losses. Overall, they were 11-48. Curiously, all three of those June wins were single games, giving them 7 single-game wins for the year, and after that they could muster only one more such win in the remaining three months of the season. With such dismal facts to face, it is no wonder the fans stayed away in large numbers, and led to Robison’s decision to send the team on the road for the rest of the year. The Spiders closed their home stand with a doubleheader on July 1, then took to the road for all their remaining schedule except for a brief home stand at the end of August. This meant playing only 6 games at home out of 93 remaining, and earned the team a new nickname in the press of the day: the Exiles.
The first half of July saw another 14-game losing streak for Cleveland, topping by one their previous worst of a month earlier. The doubleheader on Independence Day proved to be double disaster. It was a real battle with Pittsburgh, but Cleveland still lost both games, in 10 and 13 innings. It was more of a double disaster on the 15th, when Baltimore won both ends of the twinbill by shutouts, 10-0 and 5-0. After a Sunday rest the next day, the two teams met again for two on Monday. In the first game, the Spiders broke their losing skein with a 7-2 victory, but acted as if winning was too much for them when they allowed the Orioles to walk off with a 21-6 win in the afterpiece. It was the Clevelands’ worst loss of the year. On the 18th, they played another doubleheader in Washington and split the decisions.
On July 22 the Spiders played an exhibition game in Atlantic City against a minor-league team representing that city, and this gave them a win, 10-3. Too bad that couldn’t be added to their slim victory total against the League. July closed with three more doubleheader losses. In the final game of the month, the Spiders rose up to score 10 runs in the 7th inning, enroute to a season high of 13 for the game. Out of about 380 occasions when 10 runs or more were scored in an inning in major league play, it has meant victory on 370 occasions. But, this being the 1899 Cleveland team, it wasn’t one of those times, as Louisville won a 16-13 verdict to sweep the twin bill.
Cleveland won four games in July, against 26 losses, and they were to repeat that won-lost record in August. On August 18 the team turned in a fielding gem, making a triple play to kill off a Brooklyn rally, but the final result was still a 4-2 loss to the Superbas. On August 24, the prodigals returned home for the last time, and played New York in the first of six games before their “fans”. Attendance at this first game was no more than 100, which was one of the smallest “crowds” in major league history. New York won, of course, by 6-2. The next day, Cleveland turned the tables on the visitors with a 4-2 win. The overall record now stood at 19-94.
As bad as this was, the worst was still to come-the worst, in fact, of any team in history over a similar stretch. There were still 41 games left on the schedule, but Cleveland would win only ONE of those-that’s right, only one. August 26 saw the club embark on a 24-game losing streak which lasted until September 18 and still stands as the NL record for futility. On the 16th, it looked like the streak might end one game earlier, as Cleveland rallied for 8 runs in the second inning against Washington, but the Capital nine overtook them for a 15-10 decision. On the 18th, Cleveland won the first of a doubleheader with Washington, but dropped the second game to start them off on their final run of 16 straight losses to end the season. The record for September was an unbelievable 1-27!
In those days, without a World Series following the season, play went on till the 15th of October. For Cleveland, at least, it was a light playing schedule in October, closing with four games at Cincinnati on the final weekend. The final act of the season-long nightmare was a double loss to the Red Stockings, in which the demoralized club threw away the contests by 16-1 and 19-3, making their final count just 20 wins, and 134 losses.
The facts and figures which summarize that season of misery for the Spiders (alias Exiles) almost boggle the mind. The team had six losing streaks of 11 or more games, for example, and the longest string of wins they could muster was TWO, which they only did once! They were 9-32 at home, and 11-102 on the road. The accompanying chart shows their comparative record against the other teams in the League. Ten or more runs in a game were scored by their opponents 50 times that season, but in contrast, Cleveland scored in double figures only seven times-and lost four of those.
The club finished last in all the following categories: runs, doubles, triples, home runs, batting average, slugging average, stolen bases, strikeouts by pitchers, shutouts by pitchers and earned run average. They were seventh in number of errors, fifth in double-plays, and ninth in fielding average. Their pitching staff was 11th in bases on balls allowed, and interestingly enough, second in complete games with 138. This, of course, does not indicate all that many games with close scores, with the starting pitcher staying in long. But the Spiders’ record of one-run decisions is interesting: 8 wins, 19 losses; nothing spectacular of course, but a much higher percentage than they had overall.
During the following winter, the National League decided to cut back to 8 teams, and Cleveland was one of the clubs which was dropped. A year later, of course, the city was to be represented in the new American League, where it has been ever since. The Cleveland Spiders passed into history, and in a most negative way.