- Cellar Dwellers: The Worst Teams in Baseball History by Jonathan Weeks
American sports fans have an inexplicable fascination with underdog teams. Overcoming entrenched reputations as losers, underdogs like the 1969 New York Mets or the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates seem to transcend their sport and represent hope, possibility, and the fulfillment of dreams to many fans. Often the confluence of bad ownership, poor management, under-producing players, and a myriad of events out of the team’s control (fate, perhaps), truly horrible teams, such as the 1962 Mets (losers of 120 games in their inaugural season) or the 1952 Pirates (who lost 112 games in 1952 followed by 104 and 101 the next two years) test the limits of fans; yet, these teams still occupy a special place in the pantheon of sports. Call it Schadenfreude or simply a fan’s relief that his or her team is at least not that bad; the worst of the worst teams are intriguing in their own right. Cellar Dwellers: The Worst Teams in Baseball History, Jonathan Weeks’s imminently readable and informative book, provides an introductory look at the thirteen worst teams (defined by winning percentage) in major league history, discusses the historically horrendous season, and offers a few glimpses of the team’s best and worst players.
Other than the aforementioned Pirates and Mets, and the 2003 Tigers, the teams included span an era from 1890 to the 1941 Philadelphia Phillies. Instead of providing a series of boring statistics and game scores to prove just how pathetic each team was, Weeks reconstructs insightful historical situations that help contextualize each team’s disastrous season. With a nuanced and encyclopedic sense of baseball history, Weeks reveals, for example, how the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, struggling since their move from the American Association to the National League in 1887, were doomed by the Players Revolt when many players jumped to the newly-formed (and short-lived) Players League and consequently won 23 while losing 113 in 1890; or how Cleveland Spiders’ owners Frank and Stanley Robinson transferred players to their recently purchased St. Louis Browns team and boasted that the Spiders would be a pseudo-minor league team. Not only did fans refuse to attend the Spiders games, opposing teams refused to travel to Cleveland to play them. After a 20–134, season the National League team was disbanded paving the way for a new Cleveland team to play in the inaugural season of the American League in 1901.
Boston is home to two of the worst teams during a period of just four years. A power-house in the teens winning four World Series titles, the Boston Red Sox sank to unimaginable depths in the decade after the sale of Babe Ruth losing 105, 107, and 103 between the years 1925 to 1927, but it could and did get worse. Drawing less than 2,400 fans per game in 1932, the team was led by cash-strapped owner Bob Quinn who had difficulty replacing injured players. A dysfunctional team, dogged by rumors that Babe Ruth might become manager or even co-owner, the Red Sox lost 111 games prompting Quinn to sell the team in the offseason. After a surprising winning season in 1933, the 1935 Boston Braves (with practically the same roster) achieved the lowest winning percentage of any team in the post-Dead Ball era. Teetering on financial insolvency, owner Judge Emil Fuchs hatched [End Page 368] an ingenious plan to solve his miseries: acquire Babe Ruth and name him co-manager and co-owner. However, the forty-year-old Ruth, a shell of his former self and divisive in the clubhouse, caused a near mutiny and retired after playing just twenty-eight games when he realized the team was literally worthless. Requiring cash infusions from Major League Baseball to meet expenditures, the Braves lost an unfathomable 115 times. Fuchs was forced to sell the team in midseason and in an attempt to forget the past new, owners changed the team’s name to...