Sep 21, 2020
Writer/author (and Episode 158 guest) Eric Nusbaum ("Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between") returns for a second visit, this time to help us obsess about the curious story of the National League's 1899 Cleveland Spiders - the worst major league baseball team of all time.
While today's current generation of baseball fans will swear that the 1962 NL expansion New York Mets (40-120 record; .250 winning percentage), the 2003 AL Detroit Tigers (43–119; .265), or even the 2018 AL Baltimore Orioles (47-115; .290) might each own the record for on-field futility - none come close to the stunningly woeful 20-134 (.130) performance turned in by Cleveland's first major league team, one that preceded and indirectly influenced today's AL Indians.
The Spiders were a consistently competitive team in the 1890s - loaded with eventual Hall of Fame talents like Bobby Wallace, Jesse Burkett and legendary pitching ace Cy Young. Attendance and ticket revenue, however, were terrible - hindered significantly by Ohio blue laws that prohibited lucrative games on Sundays.
So in the 1898 off-season, team owner-brothers Frank & Stanley Robison took advantage of the NL's liberal "syndicate" ownership rules, purchased the financially teetering but far better-drawing St. Louis Browns, and shipped their more talented Spiders roster to the Gateway City as the "Perfectos" - leaving their Cleveland franchise to founder for 1899, all by design.
Nusbaum takes us through the various layers of ignominy that beset the Spiders' last season of existence, including: losing 40 of their last 41 games (and 70 of their last 74); drawing so poorly by June (a mere 179 per game) that all home games were moved to either neutral sites or visiting teams' home parks; and even proffering a local hotel cigar stand clerk to pitch their final game in Cincinnati (a 19-3 loss).
Plus, how the Spiders helped today's Indians get their now increasingly controversial nickname.