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The old adage in baseball is that you're generally going to win a third of your games and lose a third of your games. It's what you do with the remaining third that determines a successful season. Over the course of 162 games, that means a team should hypothetically finish with a 54-108 (.333) record at worst.
That doesn't always hold true. More than two dozen teams have finished a season with a win percentage of .300 or lower since 1888.* As recently as 2003, the Detroit Tigers compiled a dismal 43-119 record (.265, good for tenth place on this list). And there are nine teams throughout baseball's history that performed even worse. So, as you watch another potentially disappointing baseball season get underway, you can at least console yourself (Cubs fans, I'm looking at you) by reviewing the worst ten seasons in baseball history.
10. Detroit Tigers, 2003 (43-119, .265)
The Detroit Tigers were in the midst of a 13-season funk in 2003. Many assumed that the team had bottomed out with a 55-106 record in 2002. Instead, the Tigers overachieved in the only way possible—setting a new American League record for losses in a season. They lost 100 games before September, and only avoided breaking the modern major league record by somehow winning five of their last six games to end the season. In doing so, Detroit became the only team in history to have the top three losing pitchers on the same staff. Mike Maroth (9-21) led the way, followed by Jeremy Bonderman (6-19) and Nate Cornejo (6-17). On a happier note, the Tigers did manage to rebuild and reach the World Series by 2006, losing in five games to an underdog St. Louis Cardinals team.
9. St. Louis Browns, 1898 (39-111, .260)
In the years before they became the Cardinals, the St. Louis Browns fell on hard times. From 1885-1888, the team had won four consecutive American Association pennants. When the Browns joined the National League in 1892, however, the franchise began a seven-year streak of losing seasons. This one featured three losing streaks of 10 games or more, two of which came during July (the Browns went 3-24 that month). Coming off of the team's 1897 debacle (see below), this bad sequel doesn't come as much of a surprise. It is, however, damning with faint praise to say that at least this wasn't the worst season in team history.
8. Philadelphia Athletics, 1919 (36-104, .257)
The Philadelphia Athletics were one of the charter members of the newly formed American League in 1901. The team wasted no time in becoming an early dynasty, winning six pennants and three World Series between 1902 and 1914. Following a 1914 World Series sweep by the Boston Braves, however, and defections to the Federal League, manager Connie Mack got rid of nearly every player of value in favor of younger, less expensive players. The resulting downfall was swift and brutal; the Athletics went on to finish last in the league from 1915-1922. The 1919 season, shortened to 140 games due to World War I, at least had 14 fewer disappointments for their fans.
7. Washington Senators, 1904 (38-113, .252)
Another charter member of the fledgling American League, the Senators didn't enjoy a winning season for the first decade of their existence. The 1904 campaign was an all-time low. The team couldn't hit, couldn't take a walk, couldn't score, and struck out more than any American League team, finishing dead last in each of those categories. Their pitching was equally bad, and they led the league in errors. All of which contributed to another miserable summer on the Potomac. The season was so bad that ownership tried changing the team's name to the Nationals. That failed, too. Fans, the press, and everyone else continued to refer to them as the Senators for the next fifty-odd years until the team moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season and became the Twins.
6. New York Mets, 1962 (40-120, .250)
The 1962 Mets are probably the most emblematic symbol of futility in modern-era baseball. A collection of aging stars, castoffs, and misfits, the Mets were baseball's attempt to remedy the departure of both the Dodgers and Giants from New York City. What the fans got in their inaugural season was ineptitude of historic proportions. And nobody embodied that spirit more than starting first baseman "Marvelous Marv," Marvin Throneberry. One story has Throneberry hitting a triple but getting called out for not touching second base. When manager Casey Stengel came out to argue the point, the umpire waved him off, saying, "Don't bother arguing, Casey; he missed first base, too." Their modern record of 120 losses has been threatenened (see the 2003 Tigers above) but never equalled.
5. Boston Braves, 1935 (38-115, .248)
In 1935, owner Emil Fuchs was looking for a way to draw fans and jump start his team. His answer: sign the legendary Babe Ruth away from the Yankees. Fuchs made many promises to Ruth about shares in the team profits and being the heir apparent to succeed manager Bill McKechnie, none of which he intended to keep. For his part, Ruth could by this time barely swing a bat or field his position. Fed up, Ruth retired on June 1 after managing to bat only .181 with six home runs in 72 at bats. Fuchs was ousted as owner in August, and the team finished with the worst record in the majors, a whopping 61½ games out of first place. The Braves would remain in Boston until 1953, when they moved to Milwaukee.
4. Philadelphia Athletics, 1916 (36-117, .235)
As stated earlier, the years in between dynasties for the Philadelphia Athletics were anything but kind. After falling from first to worst in 1915, the Athletics put on an encore performance that would set a new American League record for losses. That record would stand for 87 years until the 2003 Tigers came along. Among the more dubious achievements that year, the Athletics combined with (coincidentally) the Detroit Tigers for a record 30 walks in a 16-2 Tigers win on May 9. The Athletics were responsible for 18 walks in that game, en route to issuing a league-high 715 walks for the season. There was, however, at least one highlight—on September 8, Wally Schang became the first player to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game.
3. St. Louis Browns, 1897 (29-102, .221)
It's hard to understate how horrifically the Browns' 1897 season played out. The team never won more than two games in a row at any point. They closed the season with a flourish, managing only three wins after August (due in large part to an 18-game losing streak in September). Their best pitcher, Red Donahue, pitched 348 innings in 46 games—and sported a 6.13 ERA en route to a 10-35 record. Thanks to pedestrian hitting and abysmal pitching, the Browns finished their season 63½ games out of first place. But at least they won more games than the last two teams on this list.
2. Pittsburgh Alleghenys, 1890 (23-113, .169)
Between 1882 and 1890, the Pittsburgh Allghenys compiled a 441-617 record, finishing above .500 only twice. In 1890, the team's stars (including future Hall-of-Famer Pud Galvin) joined many National League players in defecting to the upstart Player's League. The resulting Alleghenys season was historically bad. The team was last or next to last in the league in nearly every major category—at the plate, on the mound, and in the field. The Alleghenys had the last laugh the next season, though, when the Player's League folded. The owners bought back the services of most of their former players and reformed the franchise as the more successful Pittsburgh Pirates.
1. Cleveland Spiders, 1899 (20-134, .130)
This is the holy grail of bad baseball. In 1899, the owners of the Spiders purchased the St. Louis Browns franchise. They didn't give up their controlling interest in the Spiders, however, and decided to leverage their newfound conflict of interest by trading Cleveland's best players—to themselves. They decimated the Spiders' roster, sending the best players (including Cy Young) to St. Louis and fielding a team that became the worst in baseball history. After a 10-1 Opening Day loss, the Cleveland Plain Dealer pronounced on its front page "The Farce Has Begun." Had it ever.
The Spiders won consecutive games once all season. Home games were so poorly attended that other teams refused to travel to Cleveland to play them. As a result, the team played only 42 home games and were forced to play 112 games on the road, losing 101 of them. The pitching staff gave up 1,254 runs (averaging 8.1 per game), batters hit 12 home runs all season, and the Spiders set numerous other records that no team would ever want to own. In the end, the National League performed a mercy killing, disbanding the Spiders and three other teams as the league contracted from 12 teams to eight.
Baseball Almanac, Baseball Reference.com, MLB.com, Sports Illustrated
* The National League season varied at 132, 140, or 154 games from 1888-1904. The American League, founded in 1901, began with a 140-game schedule before expanding to 154 games in 1904. The standard schedule remained at 154 games for each league until expanding to the current 162-game schedule in 1962.
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