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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

Shakespeare the Way It Was Meant to Be Played: The 1899 Cleveland Spiders

Today we preview the Louisville Grays’ opponent for this palate-cleanser series before we return to 1936. Meet . . . the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, almost universally agreed by baseball historians to be the worst major league team to ever “grace” the diamond (the reasons for that could, and have, taken a whole book to explain).

The Spiders were twenty-game winners. Ordinarily, that’s a good thing in baseball, but note I said “the Spiders were” – as in, the whole team. The problem was that their season consisted of 154 games. To save you the math, that’s a sterling winning percentage of .1299.

The Spiders weren’t just mediocre. They weren’t even ’62-Mets-bad. These poor guys really put their backs into it, as the saying goes.

They began the season with a four-game losing streak. Beginning with game fourteen, they dropped 11 in a row to post a 3-20 record. A bit later, not satisfied with an 8-25 record, they dropped 13 in a row. Standing at 12-48, they dropped 14 in a row. When things stood at 17-79 for the year, they dropped 11 more, and a few days later, added 24 straight L’s for good measure. They finished off – and that is indisputably the right term – the season with a sixteen-game-losing streak, thus winning exactly one of their last 41 games.

On the face of it, the hitting or the Spiders looks a little better than the Grays (but then I guess we’ll find out). Catcher Joe Sugden hit .276. First baseman Tommy Tucker hit .241. Second baseman Joe Quinn was .286 for the year. Regular shortstop Harry Lochhead hit .238. Third baseman Suter Sullivan hit .245. The regular outfielders, Dick Harley, Sport McAllister and Tommy Dowd, hit .250, .237 and .278 for the year.

The pitching, on the other hand . . . not pretty. Jim Hughey started 34 games, finishing 4-30 with a 5.41 ERA. Charlie Knepper went 4-22 with a 5.78. Frank Bates was 1-18 with an ERA of 7.24. Number four starter “Crazy” Schmitt was 2-17 with an ERA of 5.86. Finally, Harry Colliflower was 1-11 with an ERA of 8.17.

But my favorite pitcher on the Spiders, even beating out Crazy Schmitt, has to be the proud owner of the best nickname ever coined for a pitcher: “Highball” Wilson. Alas, ol’ Highball only appeared in one game during that memorable season, a complete game loss in which he walked only five. Although it took Highball three years to “ascend” from the Spiders to a new team, he did manage parts of three more seasons in the majors, one with the Philadelphia Athletics and two with the Washington Senators. The nickname is something of a mystery, since for his abbreviated career, he only averaged one walk every 5 innings.

On Friday, we’ll be in Louisville for Game 1 – the Grays against the Spiders.

(And my apologies to anyone descended from a Spiders player. They were doing the best they could, I’m sure. According to most baseball historians, the Spiders’ debacle was as much a story of the owners phoning it as it was the players.)


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