Cozzens: 1899 Cleveland Spiders, baseball’s worst team

From Peter Cozzens at The National Pastime Museum on July 6, 2016:

The cinematic Cleveland Indians sportscaster Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) would have felt right at home with the Opening Day roster of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, then a National League franchise. The team was a sorry mix of erstwhile benchwarmers, fading regulars, mediocre minor leaguers, and former semipros. But unlike the fictitious Indians in the movie Major League, the real-life Spiders made no stirring midseason comeback. On the contrary, they grew progressively worse, ending with a 20–134 record and a .130 winning percentage, the worst in Major League history.

The owners of the Spiders, local streetcar magnate Frank DeHass Robison, had not set out to lose it all, as did Rachel Phelps, the fictitious former showgirl owner of the Indians in Major League, but Robison’s preseason maneuvering made winning all but impossible.

Greed, mendacity, and a disdain for Cleveland fans were hallmarks of Robison’s character as a baseball executive. The Spiders had finished a respectable fifth in the 12-team National League in 1898, but home attendance had been so low that Robison had barely made the payroll. When the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns went bankrupt after the season, Robison bought the team at a sheriff’s sale, confident that with an improved lineup drawn from the best of the Spiders—of which he would continue to maintain ownership—he could produce both a contender and a strong fan base (St. Louis was the nation’s fourth-largest city). It was not uncommon for club owners to hold stock in other teams, such was the nature of “syndicate baseball” of the day, but the yoking of two clubs under the same ownership was novel.

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Originally published: July 6, 2016. Last Updated: July 6, 2016.