The 1890 Athletics: The Worst Team in Major League Baseball History
The worst team in Major League Baseball history.
It didn’t start off that way, of course. But a series of twists and turns brought the Athletics to that point.
Ordinarily, losing three regulars and your pitching ace, and replacing them with career minor leaguers and faded veterans isn’t a recipe for success. But 1890 was no ordinary year. A group of players, mostly from the National League, formed their own league. Six Athletics players jumped to the Players League: first baseman Ted Larkin, ace pitcher Gus Weyhing, stars Lou Bierbauer, and Harry Stovey, and backup catchers Lave Cross and Jack Brennan. They were replaced by the likes of Jack O’Brien, a former Athletics catcher who had been out of professional baseball in 1889, and Joe Kappel, whose previous Major League experience consisted of 4 games in 1884. But they held on to Curt Welch and Denny Lyons, which gave them a leg up in a season in which Louisville, after finishing a distant last in 1889, lost its best player and became an instant contender. The Brooklyn and Cincinnati clubs, having finished first and fourth in the AA in 1889, transferred to the National League, leaving the American Association race wide open. A new Brooklyn team was created to complete the AA, and the Athletics sold shortstop Frank Fennelly to help stock it.
The Athletics held spring training at home in Philadelphia, and gave tryouts to several minor leaguers and amateurs. Most of them washed out, and top returning pitcher Ed Seward came down with a sore arm to boot. The team lost all seven games to its cross-town rivals, the Philadelphia NL club, as well as single games to Yale and University of Pennsylvania. So things weren’t looking good as they headed into the championship season. Veteran George (Orator) Shafer and his much-younger brother Taylor were signed as spring training ended. They were both in the International League the previous season. George took over right field, with Blondie Purcell moving to left to replace Stovey, and Taylor became the regular second baseman. Curt Welch replaced Stovey as team captain. Thirty-year-old rookie Ed Green, tried as an infielder, was retained as a pitcher.
The Athletics took part in what may have been the beginning of a baseball tradition on April 3, when they helped the Wilmington club of the Atlantic Association open its new ballpark. The governor of Delaware was on hand, and threw out the first ball, the earliest instance of that ceremony known to the author.
They went into the season with the following starting lineup: O’Brien at first, T. Shafer at second, Dennis Fitzgerald at shortstop, Lyons at third, G. Shafer in right, Welch in center, Purcell in left, and Wilbert Robinson behind the plate. Fitzgerald was the first casualty, breaking his ankle in the second game. He was soon replaced by Ben Conroy, who proved a reliable fielder, although an extremely weak hitter.
With Seward ailing, Sadie McMahon became the team’s ace. After a solid half-season as a rookie in 1889, McMahon emerged as a star in 1890, being credited with over half the team’s wins. Denny Lyons was hitting better than ever against the weakened pitching; he ended up leading the league in both on base and slugging averages. The club got off to a good start, and went into first place on May 10. They added former NL star pitcher Jim Whitney in June, and Seward’s arm came around with the warm weather, bolstering the thin pitching staff.
They were winning every way possible. In their May 31 game against Columbus, rookie pitcher Duke Esper struck out the last 2 batters in the top of the 9th with runners on second and third, and then Lyons and Kappel pushed across the winning run in the bottom of the inning. The next day they scored 3 in the bottom of the 9th to beat Columbus again, 15-14. Extra-inning wins in Syracuse followed on June 3 and 5. At home on June 19, they demolished Syracuse 20-2. Even the weather was with them; on June 29 they were rained out in the fourth inning while losing 4-1 to Toledo. The league office also chipped in, giving the Athletics the decision in a disputed game against Toledo played July 2. A double header sweep on July 4 against Columbus gave them a six-game lead over second place Louisville and a 40-20 record. And then everything suddenly fell apart. Fifteen losses in their next 19 games dropped them to third place. Wilbert Robinson said he was so embarrassed that he wanted to buy some false whiskers to disguise himself with on his way home from the ballpark.
Personnel changes came fast and furious. Veteran shortstop Henry Easterday was signed in mid-July to replace Taylor Shafer, with Conroy shifting to second base. Mickey Hughes, a 25-game winner for Brooklyn just two years earlier, was added to the pitching corps. He would win only 1 of 5 starts for the Athletics. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Esper, their second best pitcher, was released. He would go on to win 20 games for the Phillies in 1891. When Robinson and his replacement were both hurt, Kid Baldwin was signed. On August 16, the Athletics blew a 9-0 lead to St. Louis, losing 12-11. Easterday was released. On August 28, they were humiliated by Columbus, 21-8. Denny Lyons, playing with a hangover, made 4 errors, and watched helplessly as Columbus repeatedly bunted for hits. This was not the first incident with Lyons during the season, and manager Billy Sharsig finally lost patience with him. Lyons was dispatched to St. Louis in September. Seward’s arm was bothering him again. Despite leaving the August 28 game after 2 innings, he pitched again two days later, losing his final start of the year. When August ended, the Athletics found themselves in 6th place with a 51-50 record.
In September, catcher John Riddle was added, followed by third baseman Al Sauter, pitcher William Stecher, and shortstop George Carmen. Yet the losing continued. A split of a 4-game series with Baltimore mid-month left them with a 14-37 record since July 4. The win on September 14 would prove to be their last of the season. Their scoring had dropped from 6.6 runs per game to less than 5 since July 4, while they were allowing 7.1, up from 5.2 at July 4.
What happened? Part of it was that the team had been playing over its head the first half of the season. It helped that only 21 of their first 60 games up to July 4 were on the road, and, excluding the protested Toledo game, they split 20 decisions as visitors despite being outscored 116-80. But the competition from two other teams in Philadelphia proved too much for the Athletics. The first hint of trouble came in June when the club was sued by a carpenter who hadn’t been paid for work that he did on the Jefferson Street grounds. In early September it came out that the players hadn’t been getting their full pay since mid-July. Soon after that, treasurer Whitaker announced the club was bankrupt. The league took over the club, putting Billy Barnie in charge. Before leaving for their final road trip on September 18, the Athletics released all of their players. Perhaps not surprisingly, Barnie’s Orioles signed the cream of the crop: Welch, McMahon, and Robinson. A few of the players decided to stay on while a bunch of new bodies was added. Many of the newcomers had limited professional experience. They would all agree to play for a share of the gate receipts rather than receive a salary.
Where did these new men play? Anywhere, it seemed. Joe Daly caught and played all three outfield positions. Charles Snyder caught and played left and right. Pete Sweeney played second, third, and center. Riddle played center, left, second, and third as well as catching. Carmen played second, third, short, and right. They changed around mid-game several times. Only Andy Knox, at first base, stayed put. Ed Pabst was the only one who distinguished himself, which led to him getting a brief trial with the Brown Stockings. After the 1890 season, these players would accumulate an additional 2 games of Major League experience.
This new team went 0-21. They lost 7-6 in Syracuse on October 4. Their next closest loss was by 4 runs, and many were by double digits. In total, they were outscored 273-59. At that rate, over the course of a 132-game season, they would have been expected to win 4 games. This in a league which The Sporting News said was little better than an amateur circuit. If this wasn’t the worst team to ever pass itself off as Major League, it was certainly close. Stecher and Ed O’Neil bore the brunt of the abuse for the pitching staff, combining for a 0-16 record and allowing 187 runs in 120 innings. The offense was so bad that an 18-year-old, 123-pound amateur picked up by St. Louis, George Nicol, held them to 1 hit in his first 2 games. However, they were able to limp to the finish line, allegedly breaking even financially on the road trip. The Athletics finished with a record of 54-78, only avoiding last place because of the weakness of the Brooklyn franchise, which was replaced in mid-season by Baltimore. Attendance was sparse in the last few games. Syracuse received only $15 for its share of gate receipts for the season-ending 3 game series. The club’s property was auctioned off to pay its debts. Finally, the once-proud franchise came to an ignominious end, voted out of the AA on November 24.
The Sporting Life
The Sporting News
August 2008 SABR Biographical Research Committee report
Private correspondence with Peter Morris