By defeating the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 4, the Orioles won their 41st game of this forgettable baseball season, thereby escaping the ignominy of matching the all-time worst 40 wins against 120 losses racked up by the New York Metropolitans in 1962, their inaugural year in the major leagues.
Students of baseball remember that team fondly. It was managed by the 72 year-old Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel and was populated by a frustrating and endearing cast of misfits and never-has-beens.
Chief among them was Marvin Eugene Throneberry (“MET”), who legged out a rare three base hit, only to be tagged out for missing third base. When Stengel objected, the umpires informed him that Marv had also neglected to tag either first or second. Stengel once said he’d have given The Marvelous One a cake on his birthday but was afraid he’d drop it,
- Pitcher Roger Craig won 10 games that season but also lost 24, leading him to point out that one had to be good to get enough starts to lose that many.
- Lefthander Vinegar Bend Mizell was 0-2, with a 7.34 earned run average. If nothing else, he deserves a spot on baseball’s All Name Team.
- And there was catcher Harry Chiti, who was acquired from the Indians for a player to be named later. After hitting .195, he was shipped back to Cleveland, becoming the first player ever to be traded for himself.
As Stengel later lamented, “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had a few.”
But less well known are the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who in their 13th and last season in what was then a 12-team National League, managed to lose 134 while winning only 20 — the worst ever major league season of either the so-called Modern Era (post-1900) or the preceding period.
But there is a story here, similar to the one from about the same time that caused the breakup of the original Baltimore Orioles and their subsequent rebirth as the New York Americans, then Highlanders, and ultimately, the Yankees.
The owners of the Spiders purchased the St. Louis Browns, an established National League franchise, and changed their name to the Superbas. To avoid a conflict of interest, they sold the Spiders, but not before shipping their best players to St. Louis, including their best pitcher, Cy Young. The Superbas’ name was changed one year later to the Cardinals, and it became the most successful National League team in history.
And so, on Opening Day 1899, the headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer read: “The Farce Has Begun,” as the Spiders staggered through their final season, never winning more than two games in succession and losing 54 of their last 57.
The squad’s two most accomplished pitchers, both left-handed, were Harry Colliflower, who won one game while losing 11 and posted a sparkling 8.37 earned run average, and “Crazy” Schmitt, who won two and lost 17, while giving up 5.36 runs per game
The team was so bad that home attendance for the entire season totaled 6,088 intrepid fans, an average of 145 per game. Over their first 15 games, average attendance was 199. Opposing teams began refusing to travel to Cleveland because they had no chance of covering their costs from the visitors’ share of the gate receipts. Accordingly, the Spiders lost 104 road games, a record that will never be equaled.
Looking ahead, the Orioles reboot will continue for quite a while, and attendance will continue to slide as we anticipate better times ahead. We were patient through 14 years of exceeding mediocrity, until a combination of exceptional on-field management, a world-class bullpen and emphasis upon smart defensive execution re-established competitive teams.
This week’s announcement of the departures of Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette and Manager Buck Showalter, accompanied by the very apparent confusion — if not outright turmoil — in the front office suggest a very tough slog back to respectability.
Meanwhile, as this summer of our discontent inched to its merciful conclusion, Orioles fans can take solace in knowing that this season’s edition is not the worst team to ever take the field. It’s not even the worst in American League history — that honor belongs to the 2003 Detroit Tigers.
They lost 119 games. Our guys only lost 115.
Tim Armbruster is a longtime Orioles fan. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.