Worst. Baseball Team. Forever.

Most of you know the story, but it bears repeating for the faint of heart who only now may be digging in to the research feast that is baseball history. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders have almost forever been the worst team of all time – and they likely shall retain that title from here to crack of doom. The reasons for both extreme assignment and prediction is one and the same: The Cleveland Spiders were the unfortunate product of an 1899 condition in baseball that will not (must not) ever occur again,

Here’s how it happened, starting with the bottom line on final results. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders finished their National League season with a record of only 20 wins against 134 losses, bad enough for last place in the 12-club circuit. The Spiders finished the year a full 84 games behind the first place Brooklyn Superbas – and  35 games behind the 11th place Washington Senators. The season was a total waste. Whereas, nearly 389,000 fans showed up to watch the 3rd place Philadelphia Phillies play at home, only 6,088 fans turned out to watch the hapless Spiders play in Cleveland.

Here’s the deal. A fellow named Frank Robison owned the Cleveland Spiders, but then, as the rules of the game then permitted, he also bought the St. Louis Perfectos of the same league. For some reason, the National League could neither spell “conflict of interest” nor foresee the obvious problem coming from this dual ownership situation. All they apparently saw was Robison as the man who would keep the St. Louis franchise from folding.

What they got was deserved.

Robison effectively turned his Spiders club in Cleveland into a farm club of service to the St. Louis Perfectos, almost immediately transferring Cleveland’s biggest stars, including future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace, to St. Louis. That pattern was the operative two-way elevator for the balance of the season.  Cleveland players who did well moved up to St. Louis, and vice-versa.

Cleveland rage set in pretty quickly. Fans were so outraged that fear for the safety of available Spider players forced the club to play the balance of their many remaining home games on the road.

Dual franchise ownership was banned after the 1899 season, but that action came too late to alter the role of the Cleveland Spiders as the worst. club. ever.

One Cleveland tradition did take root in 1899 – and it wasn’t losing. In 1899, they signed Chief Sockalexis, the first Native American big leaguer of true big league playing ability and value – and they got keep him in Cleveland beyond their unfortunately unforgettable season. That fact would historical importance for another reason. Once Cleveland got passed naming their new American League club the “Naps” in honor of star player and manager Napoleon Lajoie, they became the Cleveland Indians in 1915, a named adopted in honor of Chief Sockalexis, the only good thing to come out of 1899 in Cleveland beyond the rule against dual team ownership itself.

Spiders may appear sinister, but humans are the really nasty trap-builders. “Oh! What tangled webs we weave!”

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