The 1899 Cleveland Spiders
Baseball's Worst Team

by David Fleitz


Lafayette Napoleon (Lave) Cross, 1866-1927.

The poor unfortunate assigned to manage the 1899 Cleveland Spiders was a Toledo resident.

Lafayette (Lave) Cross was the son of immigrants. Born in Maine, he moved to the Toledo area when he began his pro baseball career with a team in Sandusky in 1884. Cross made it to the majors in 1887 and played with distinction for more than 20 years.

Cross, whose two brothers also played in the major leagues, manned every position on the field except pitcher during his career. Lave played most of his time at third base, and invented the now-illegal practice of playing third with a catcher's mitt to knock down hard line drives. He played for the Phillies and Cardinals as well as the Spiders of the National League, and in 1901 jumped to the new American League and played for the A's and Senators. He ranked high among the lifetime leaders in games played, hits, and runs when a broken ankle ended his career in 1907.

The Spiders of 1899 started poorly, finished poorly, and were absolutely awful in between. Cross faced the impossible task of winning games with perhaps the worst pitching staff in history, one which allowed a record 1,252 runs in 154 games.

After 38 games, Cross was dispatched to St. Louis when the struggling Perfectos needed a third baseman. He batted .303 the rest of the season. Winning 8 of his 38 games as manager of the Spiders could be considered a fine accomplishment, since the team went 12-104 the rest of the way.

After his baseball days ended, Lave Cross returned to his home on Post Street in Toledo and became a machinist at Willys-Overland, now the Jeep Corporation. Cross died in 1927. He gained support for the Baseball Hall of Fame when voting began in 1936, but some say that his six-week stay as manager of the worst team in baseball history doomed his chances.

Louis Sockalexis, 1871-1913.

Despite the tribulations of the Cleveland team of the 1890s, a player appeared in early 1897 who captured the local fans as no one, not even Cy Young, had ever done. A speedy young outfielder named Louis Sockalexis earned a place on the team and soon pushed his batting average above .400. Born in Maine and educated at Holy Cross, Sockalexis was a Native American, the first minority player in National League, and perhaps baseball, history. One excited sports writer claimed that Sockalexis was a nephew of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, which was impossible, since Sockalexis was a Penobscot.

Fans flocked to League Park to see the new sensation, letting loose with war whoops at his every move. The writers called Louis the "Cleveland Indian," and during the summer of 1897 the local papers dropped the name Spiders and began calling the team the Indians. 

Unfortunately, Cleveland's rowdy style of play made the Indians hated throughout the league, and the sensitive Sockalexis became the object of hatred and ridicule in the league's other cities. According to historian David Voight, some writers urged fans to lay off, but "it is likely that such pleas merely provoked more of the same." A drinking problem which had gotten Sockalexis kicked off his college team flared anew and destroyed his career.

In the middle of the 1897 season, Cleveland manager Patsy Tebeau assigned other players to baby-sit Sockalexis and keep him sober, but as Sporting Life magazine stated, "it is no longer a secret that the Cleveland management can no longer control Sockalexis." Soon he was benched after falling down in the outfield several times while chasing fly balls. One night Sockalexis broke an ankle by jumping out a second story window, and, despite his .413 batting average, was suspended for drunkenness.

Louis Sockalexis stayed with Cleveland for two more years, but could never control his alcoholism enough to regain his stardom. The excitement he brought to the team faded, and the name Spiders gradually reappeared in the newspaper columns.  Sockalexis eventually became too dissipated even to play for the awful 1899 Spiders, and was released after seven games. He wound up back in Maine on the reservation as a woodcutter.  He died of a heart attack in December of 1913 at age 42.

Cleveland never forgot Louis Sockalexis, however. In 1915, a little more than a year after Sockalexis' death, the Cleveland team of the American League, called the Bronchos, Blues, and Naps in its early years, chose a new nickname.  Club owner Charles Somers, perhaps remembering the excitement that Sockalexis had brought to town 18 years earlier, decided to call his team the Indians.

They were, in baseball historian Lee Allen's words, "the sorriest shell of a team ever seen in the major leagues." They lost 24 games in a row, had six streaks of 11 or more losses, and finished a record 84 games behind the league leaders. They won only half as many games as the 1962 New York Mets, usually considered the worst team of this century. They spent the last half of the season on the road, afraid to appear in front of their hometown "fans".

No, they weren't the 1991 edition of the Cleveland Indians. They were a Cleveland team, however.

The 1899 Cleveland Spiders of the National League were so bad that a local sports writer named Elmer Bates wrote half of a prehistoric Top Ten list to describe the good points of following such a terrible team:

  • There is everything to hope for and nothing to fear.
  • Defeats do not disturb one's sleep.
  • An occasional victory is a surprise and a delight.
  • There is no danger of any club passing you.
  • You are not asked 50 times a day, "What was the score?" People take it for granted that you lost.

Make no mistake, the 1899 Spiders had it all; bad players, bad management, and bad ownership. Bates claimed that the players became so shell-shocked by losing that "they practiced for dear life". Only once did the team win two in a row, which enriched some gamblers given four-to-one odds against such an event ever happening. The ownership of the club spent so much time insulting the Cleveland fans that the total attendance for the first 16 home games was 3,179. When attendance dipped in 1898, the owners announced that the fans did not deserve a winner, and that they intended to "punish" the fans by moving home games to other cities.

What happened to the team that had won the Temple Cup, predecessor to the modern World Series, only four years before? How could a team that employed Cy Young, the winningest pitcher in baseball history, and other magnificent players manage to win only 20 of their 154 games?

This photo of the Spiders was taken in 1895, the year they won the Temple Cup.

The late 1890s were turbulent times for baseball and for the country. Attendance suffered everywhere due to the Spanish-American War, an economic recession, and increased rowdyism among fans and players.

The National League had driven all competitors out of business and operated under a clumsy 12-team structure. The bottom four teams of the league, including Cleveland, suffered from poor play and attendance.

Sunday baseball was still controversial, and in 1897 the Cleveland and Washington teams had been arrested and jailed for playing on Sunday. Denied large Sunday crowds, the Spiders in 1898 shifted many Sunday games to other cities, and wound up playing all their games on the road in the last half of the season.

The final blow to Cleveland baseball came early in 1899. Frank Robison, Cleveland owner, bought the St. Louis Browns at a sheriff's auction and decided that a good team would draw better in St. Louis than in Cleveland. He then transferred all of Cleveland's stars to the Browns, which he arrogantly renamed the Perfectos. Pitching great Cy Young, batting champion Jesse Burkett, and all the other Spiders stars were replaced by minor-leaguers and semi-pros. Other teams followed Robison's lead; the Brooklyn Dodgers bought the Baltimore Orioles, absorbed their best players, and renamed themselves the Superbas. Four different teams held stock in the New York Giants. Ownership of major-league teams represented a jumble of conflicting allegiances which resulted in the weaker teams serving as farm teams for the stronger ones.

Robison put his brother Stanley in charge of the Cleveland branch of his baseball business, and Stanley angered the Spiders fans by announcing his intention to "operate the team as a sideshow." Perhaps the only good player left on the team was Lave Cross, who played third base and managed the team. On Opening Day, the Spiders drew fewer than 500 fans for a doubleheader. They lost both games, and the disaster was on.

After the first 38 games the Spiders had 30 losses, and Manager Cross was relieved of command and exiled to St. Louis. This would be the high point of the season, because the Spiders won only 12 of their remaining 116 games. After this the Spiders transferred all their home games to opponents' cities, and played no more in Cleveland.

The players left behind in the exodus to St. Louis compiled some of the worst statistics ever seen in the game. Pitcher Jim Hughey led the staff in wins with 4 while losing 30 games, 16 of them in a row. Charlie Knepper also won 4 and lost 22, Frank Bates won one and lost 18, Fred (Crazy) Schmitt was 2-17. Willie Sudhoff lost 27 games for St. Louis in 1898 and found himself demoted to the Spiders for 1899. He won 3 of his 11 games for the Spiders, good enough to earn his ticket back to St. Louis, where he won 13 more games before the season ended. His replacement, Frank Bates, lost 4, won 1, then lost 14 in a row. The team hit only 12 home runs, while former Spider star Bobby Wallace hit 12 by himself for St. Louis.

On July 15, 1899, the Spiders accomplished the rare feat of playing a doubleheader against the Orioles without scoring a run, losing 10-0 and 5-0. The Spiders allowed more than 8 runs per game while scoring only 3 per game themselves. Second baseman Joe Quinn, appointed manager after Cross' firing, batted .286 and led the league in fielding at his position, but other promising players were quickly shuttled to the Perfectos. The Spiders wound up the season losing a record 87 percent of their games.

Baltimore, the other decimated team, had managed to hide some of their good players from their Brooklyn parent club and surprised the league by running in the first division. In June, Baltimore pitcher Jerry Nops showed up for a game against Cleveland with a hangover and was battered for one of the Spiders' few wins. Orioles manager John McGraw fined and suspended Nops, and the embarrassed Orioles won the next game by a score of 21 to 6. Word around the league was that teams worked extra hard to beat the Spiders to avoid losing to the worst team in baseball history.

As the season dragged on, the Superbas and the Boston Beaneaters battled for the pennant while the Spiders traveled the country, referred to in the newspapers as the Exiles or the Wanderers. The St. Louis Perfectos, described in a local paper as "not worth a 5-cent Reina", disappointed Robison's plans for a superteam by dropping out of the race despite Cy Young's 26 wins. In the end, Brooklyn won the pennant with 101 wins. The Spiders played their last game of the season against the Cincinnati Reds; they employed 19-year-old Eddie Kolb, a cigar-stand clerk and local amateur player, as pitcher. He lost to the Reds 19-3. Legend says that the Spiders gathered at a Cincinnati hotel after the last game and presented the team's traveling secretary, George Muir, a diamond locket because "you had the misfortune to watch us in all our games."

After the season the National League dropped the four most unprofitable clubs (Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville) and operated as an eight-team league for the next 62 years. The American League, founded in 1901, restored major league baseball to Cleveland.

The Indians have won only five American League pennants in 107 years, but at least they play all their home games. Syndicate ownership, the owning of stock in several teams at once, was outlawed, preventing a disaster like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders from ever happening again.