On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place
by George Robinson & Charles Salzburg
They don’t make last place teams like they used to.
Let’s admit it, folks: this is a sick, sadistic book. Even a few months ago I would not have been able to write about it. But there is a chance that the Red Sox will finish last this year , and this is a book about finishing last.
The authors present ten rotten baseball teams, “a strange mixture of elderly vets and green kids.” They chose the worst club from each decade: the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, 1904 Washington Senators, 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, 1928 Philadelphia Phillies, 1935 Boston Braves, 1942 Philadelphia Phillies, 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates (“the worst team of the modern baseball era”), 1962 New York Mets, 1979 Toronto Blue Jays, & 1988 Baltimore Orioles.
As you can see, Philadelphia has three decades, Boston only one. But Beantown gave the Quaker City a run for its money. It is a strange baseball story. In 1914 and 1915 Philly and Boston had back-to-back World Series: Braves-A’s and Sox-Phils. Then, one by one, all four teams went down the toilet.
In the years between 1915 and 1945, out of a possible 62 last place finishes, Philadelphia teams captured 31, exactly 50%. Boston teams had 13 (21%). Together they ruled baseball’s skid row.
The Phillies finished last 16 times and next-to-last 8 times. The Braves were last 4 times, but specialized in finishing just ahead of the Phillies: they were next-to-last 11 times. Twelve times the Braves and Phils were a 7th-8th tandem.
Over in the American League, the Athletics had 15 last place finishes and 3 next-to-last. The Red Sox had 9 years in last place, 4 years in next-to-last. They were 7th and 8th together three times.
In 1922 these Sister Cities of Failure accomplished the Grand Slam. The bottom of the NL standings read: Philadelphia, Boston. The bottom of the AL standings also read: Philadelphia, Boston. 1923 and 1945 were Trifecta years: 8-8-7-6. Boston had double cellar-dwellers twice, Philadelphia hit the Daily Double an incredible nine times, twice doing it three years in a row! (let the Yankees and Mets try to match that!).
The Phillies, chosen as the worst single team of the Twenties, had a winning percentage of .370 for the decade! The Red Sox were .388 for the Twenties. The lofty Braves hummed along at .394, and drew 2.5 million fans. (That’s a ten-year total.)
All of this sets the stage for the 1935 Braves. On paper, not a bad team. They had a Hall of Fame manager, Bill McKechnie, a Hall of Fame shortstop, Rabbit Maranville, and a Hall of Fame right fielder, Babe Ruth. They had a center fielder who would lead the league in home runs and RBI’s, Wally Berger. The previous year the club had finished fourth, with two 17-game winners and a 16-game winner. But there were a few items which hurt team morale. The owner, Judge Fuchs, went broke and the National League had to put up the money for the Braves to conduct spring training. Babe Ruth quit after two months. Rabbit Maranville was old and his legs were shot. The pitching staff just collapsed; Ben Cantwell earned the distinction of being the last major leaguer to lose 25 games, and he had the best ERA in the rotation (4.65).
The Braves went 4-20 for the month of May and 5-23 for July. A fan wrote to a baseball magazine suggesting they take up handball or volleyball, and signed himself “A Boston Braves Fan (The One Who Attends the Game on Fridays)”. In one stretch of 30 games in August and September the Braves won only twice. They were 25-50 at home and 13-65 on the road. They finished the season 61-1/2 games out of first place. Their 38-115 record is the worst ever for a National League team. Judge Fuchs lost control of the club and the new president, Bob Quinn, held a contest after the season to re-name the B****s. The entries included the Sacred Cods and the Bankrupts, but the winner was Boston Bees. B****s Field became National League Park, better known as The Hive, as the ballclub tried to erase 1935 from the public memory. The Bees weren't very good, but at least they never finished 8th again.
Philadelphia reclaimed the Worst title in the next decade, with the Futile ’42 Phillies:
In mid-June [Philadelphia Record] sports editor Bill Driscoll published the major-league standings in reverse order as a sop to the long-suffering fans of the city’s two baseball teams... Shortly thereafter the NL standings printed in the Record included a separate listing, “Bush League” under which the Phils could be found.
A few days later nine letters were printed, berating Driscoll and [Red] Smith... Finally, Driscoll authored a column parodying the famous New York Sun “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial. He closed, “And just to prove to you, Virginia, that there is a Phillies in the Big Leagues we want you to look at the National League standings on this very page. There, ’way down at the bottom, you will find the Phillies. See? We’re taking them out of the Bush League just for you, Virginia.”
As with the ’35 Braves, after the season the Ph*****s got a new owner who tried to improve their wretched public image. He, too, held a contest to change the team’s nickname. The winning entry was Philadelphia Blue Jays. But like the Boston Bees, this team soon reverted to its previous identity.
It is truly a wonder that baseball survived in these places. It took a World War to wake up the Red Sox, Braves, and Phillies. Within a few years after WWII, they all made it to the World Series. Of course, they all lost.
Traditions die hard. The Athletics went on to inflict another decade of bad baseball on the fans of Kansas City, and were later nearly the worst team of the Seventies, after Charlie Finley stripped his Oakland champions (that was when their radio flagship was a 500-watt college station). Finley lost the dubious honor by one game, to the Toronto (not Philadelphia) Blue Jays. The Braves, meanwhile, went on to be the most consistent losers of the late Eighties. The Red Sox have managed to stay out of the cellar for quite a while, but they might be back this year. And the Phillies are in last place as this is written.
They don’t make last place teams like they used to. As the authors point out:
...the bad teams of the 70’s and 80’s aren’t nearly as awful as the pre-expansion horrors. The 1932 Boston Red Sox, the 1939 St. Louis Browns, and 1941 Philadelphia Phillies, none of whom are in this book, were much worse than the 1979 Blue Jays.
We believe that expansion has diluted the talent pool in both directions. If the good players are spread thinner, so are the bad ones.
More likely, the great equalizers are the draft (1966) and free agency (1976), which make Worst-to-First a possibility for almost anybody.
Reviewed by David Nevard (1992)
The Library of Book Reviews