When a player does not perform to a level that the team he plays for demands he typically is sent back to the minor leagues for more training, rehabilitation, etc., or is released outright. Too bad we can’t do that with some major league baseball franchises. I know there are some leagues that practice this approach to competitiveness in Europe but I don’t see it working with the MLB. Regardless, here are my top five teams that are, or in most cases were, so bad for so long that they deserved demotion. These are impressionistic comments, of course, and I welcome others coming up with their own lists.
St. Louis Browns (1902-1953): This team had been woeful throughout most of its history. It was competitive for a short time in the 1920s but only in 1944 did it win its one and only American League pennant. Indeed, many of the Browns’ fans considered it a badge of honor—even a statement of machismo—to root for this hapless team. They took pride in the generally apt descriptor, “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League.” After their pennant-winning season the Browns slid in the standings every year until they lost over 100 games in 1949. By this time the Browns were pathetic and seemed on the road either to indescribable ruin or to another city. One series with the Red Sox in 1950, known as the “Boston Massacre,” pointed up the desperate straits of the team. In the first game of the series on June 7, the Browns lost to the Red Sox 20-4. The next day was even worse with the Browns losing to the Red Sox, 29-4. How could the team get any worse? It did in 1951, losing 102 games and finishing 46 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. The only bright spot among the Browns was the pitching of Ned Garver, who went 20-12 for a team that won only fifty-two games. During the next spring when Garver wanted a salary hike, owner Bill Veeck urged Garver to sign and quipped, “We could have finished last without you!” Few missed the Browns when the team moved to Baltimore in 1954
Kansas City A’s (1955-1967): This team was horrendous in Kansas City, even as it had achieved great success earlier in Philadelphia and would do so again later in Oakland. In KC, however, it never finished higher than 6th in the American League, and finished in the cellar 5 times during its midwestern sojourn. The team was famous for making trades with the New York Yankees, including the disastrous deal that sent Roger Maris to the Yankees in time to win the MVP award in 1960 and hit *61 homers in 1961. In all, the A’s made sixteen trades with the Yankees in five years, involving sixty-seven players. In 1960 Charles O. Finley purchased the A’s and his stormy tenure ensured off-field shenanigans always took precedence over poor on-field performance. Finley also steamrolled his employees on a regular basis. He was notoriously cheap, engaging in exceptionally public and enormously petty arguments with players over salaries. At the same time, if it was his idea, he could be outrageously paternalistic and generous. When Finley moved the A’s Missouri Senator Stuart Symington quipped about it: “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.” The plus side of the move for Oakland, however, was that the A’s developed into the best team in MLB by the early 1970s and won three straight World Series, 1972-1974.
Cleveland Indians (1960-1990): I have long been fascinated by the hard luck history of the Indians. They won it all in 1920 and 1948, beating respectively the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) and the Boston Braves in those World Series. They had several good teams throughout the 1950s as well as since the 1990s, including pennant winners in 1954, 1995, and 1997. For more than thirty years beginning in the early 1960s, however, the Indians were pretty awful. The team did poorly on the field, which prompted fans to stay away from the games, which put the team into the red, which prompted the team’s ownership to sell or trade its best players and to forego investment in its farm system, which led to even poorer performance on the field, and the continuation of a downward spiral. The team’s problems was best captured by the June 1974 ten-cent beer night in which drunken fans rioted, went after players from both teams, and forced an Indians forfeit. What a screwy attempt at a promotion! Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press was a student attending the game. He recalled, “I went with $2 in my pocket. You do the math.” What did the team’s leadership think would happen? It was emblematic of truly poor management.
Pittsburgh Pirates (1993-Present): Pity the poor Pirates of the present-day, with 19 straight losing seasons. They are a little like the Indians in the sense that they have a strong history of success, 9 National League pennants and 5 World Series championships, in all 14 playoff appearances, but they have been so woeful for so long of late that it is truly depressing. Since losing a tough NLCS series to the Atlanta Braves in 1992 the Pirates have not posted a winning season, and they have lost 100 or more games twice and more than 90 in eight seasons. The Pirates actually came closest to the postseason in 1997 when they finished second in the NL Central, but still posted a 79-83 record. It was remarkable that the team contended so long with a payroll that was only $9 million. So much of this failure seems to be related to poor draft decisions, failure to develop the talent that was in the system, and generally a less than optimal front office. That may be changing, at least I hope so. But it will be a struggle, the team has lost more than 90 games every year since 2005 and it lost a truly embarrassing 105 in 2010.
Cleveland Spiders (1887-1899): My last team that probably should have been relegated to minor league status actually was “contracted.” The Spiders had been a pretty good team for most of the team’s history, largely on the strength of pitching from the incomparable Cy Young. Owned by Frank and Stanley Robison, the team won the 1892 National League pennant, and did so again in 1895. But in 1899 the Robisons also bought the NL franchise in St. Louis, later to be called the Cardinals, and proceeded to ship their best Cleveland players to St. Louis, where they believed they could make more money. This curious phenomenon of “syndicate baseball” was not unknown at the time, and everywhere it appeared it destroyed franchises. The Robisons sent future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace to St. Louis. At the time St. Louis was one of the top five U. S. cities in terms of population while Cleveland was in the second tier. The St. Louis baseball fans had a tradition of supporting their teams, and Cleveland had been lukewarm to the Spiders even when they had been competitive in the first part of the 1890s. With this raid on the Cleveland roster, the Spiders went an astounding 20-134 in 1899 and were shown the door out of the National League, never to play another season in the league.
There are several other franchises that come close, the Kansas City Royals since their 1985 World Series victory come to mind, but these teams represent my winners at least for the moment. What are your favorite hall of shame stories for franchises in major league baseball?