The Philadelphia Spiders?

The Phillies, who have brought new meaning to the phrase “home away from home,” are in St. Petersburg tonight, giving us time to contemplate the insanity of a divisional leader having lost 22 of its first 35 games in its own park. For the record, in the NL East only the Mets are at .500 or better at home, and that 13-22 mark for the Phils compares unfavorably to Washington’s 12-23 home start.

Futility at home always brings back fond Collective Baseball Consciousness Memories of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, baseball’s all-time worst team, and the last to actually abandon their home city in midseason. Cleveland was the National League’s third most successful franchise during the monopoly years of the 1890’s, but in those days there were no rules about the same people owning more than one franchise. When the St. Louis Browns slid into bankruptcy before the season of 1899, the Cleveland owners, the Robison Brothers, bought that team as well. 
With St. Louis then being a far larger market, and less than three weeks before Opening Day 1899, the Robisons promptly transferred all 20 of the Spiders’ top players – including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace – out of Cleveland. The Spiders, filled with has-beens, reserves, and occasionally local amateurs signed for cameos, lost 20 of their first 23 games, and managed to draw a total of 3,179 fans for their first 16 home games (you not only read that right – less than 200 fans a game – but many contemporary reports suggested that those numbers were padded).

It quickly went from bad to unbelievable, even for the fluid standards of 19th Century baseball. By a July 1st home doubleheader split with Boston, the Spiders were 11-48. It was at this point that the Robisons decided that there was very little purpose in playing any more games in Cleveland. They would perform in front of the home fans (fan) only eight times thereafter, and as a wandering tribe of dispirited players, they finished the year with the remarkable record of 20 wins and 134 losses (9-33 at home, 11-101 on the road, and 0-13 in Cincinnati). Cleveland ended up in twelfth place, 84 games behind first-place Brooklyn and 35 games behind eleventh-place Washington. And of course it got worse as it went along. The Spiders lost 35 of their last 36 games (only one of them played in Cleveland).
Necessarily the Spideys produced some horrific statistics, especially for pitchers. Coldwater Jim Hughey, the staff ace, was 4-30 (and the majors’ last thirty game loser). Charlie Knepper finished 4-22, and Frank Bates, 1-18. Among the position players, Lave Cross is a longshot Hall of Fame candidate (and after suffering as player-manager until June, was ransomed back to St. Louis). Saddest of all, the man who might have been the most talented athlete in the game’s history, Louis “Chief” Sockalexis, was already so far lost to alcohol that he lasted just seven games with history’s worst team, and was dropped on May 14.
Thus at 13-22 at home, the ’09 Phils are already guaranteed to do better than this gothic nightmare out of the pages of the history of baseball greediness.

7 Comments

From Trenton (NJ) to Lancaster (PA and featured on Countdown) to Newark (DE) the papers are moaning the inaction of the PHillies. Say it ain’t so is heard throughout the Tri-State area, a phrase usually heard only in Delaware and usually about VP Biden.

That said, I am a Yankee Fan and currently have nothing to brag about.

Since we’re talking about emails I’m sending you this one to ask you if you’ve ever heard the song “Time” by Chris Cornell.

Ok, I’ll ask it – when are you going to write a baseball history book?

@The Troll: Consider yourself reported for abuse.

On topic: Somehow, I’m not surprised that a team called the Spiders wasn’t successful. The choice of that name, alone, indicates that somebody upstairs was making some really bad decisions. Reading that team’s dismal history reminded me of the fictitious soccer team in Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” (the “Golden Gordon” episode), LOL.

“@The Troll: Consider yourself reported for abuse.”
Again.

Sad to say, what the Robson brothers did wasn’t all that strange at the time. Didn’t the National League shift several star players from the Baltimore Orioles to the Brooklyn club in 1899 under manager Ned Hanlon, who had managed the great Orioles teams of the 1890s?

One of the craziest ones I read about was when Cardinals owner Sam Breadon ordered Branch Rickey to trade Rogers Hornsby after the 1926 season, when Hornsby had played and managed the Cardinals to the world championship. Rickey sent him to the Giants for Frankie Frisch, which worked out fine for both teams. But Hornsby owned a significant share of Cardinals stock, and if I remember correctly, the league had to chip in to buy him out because Breadon wanted to pay the original price rather than full value. In the meantime, a Cardinals part-owner played for the Giants!

All of which, from the Spiders to the present, is why I honor Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the Orioles and the Redskins, for saying that the dumbest football owner is smarter than the smartest baseball owner.

The story of this team resides in “MISFITS! Baseball’s Worst Ever Team” by J. Thomas Hetrick, Pocol Press, 1999.

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