By Glen Sparks
The 1916 Philadelphia A’s probably weren’t the worst team ever.
The 2008 Detroit Lions ended the season 0-16, one of many NFL teams that have suffered through a winless autumn. Philadelphia’s 76ers, meanwhile, dribbled their way to a 9-73 NBA horror show in 1972-73. In the NHL, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals skated, and slipped, to an 8-67-5 mark.
So, the competition for worst sports team ever is awfully tough. But, the ’16 A’s were pretty bad. In fact, they were worse than bad. They were pathetic. That’s what some people called them. The Pathetics.
Just two seasons removed from winning the American League pennant and three years removed from celebrating a World Series title, the Philadelphia A’s of 1916 took a beating. By time it was all over, and it had to be a long wait for players and fans, this Connie Mack-led squad finished 36-117, 54 ½ games out of first place. And, get this … 40 games behind the next feeblest team in the A.L., the Washington Senators.
Just how bad was it? Well …
- The A’s winning percentage of .235 remains the lowest in modern baseball history. (We use that term “winning” loosely.)
- Philadelphia scored 447 runs in 153 games, or 87 fewer runs than the second-weakest offensive collection, the Senators.
- The A’s finished last or next-to-last in hits, doubles, RBI, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage and total bases.
- Pitchers Jack Nabors and Tom Sheehan finished a combined 2-36.
- Shortstop Whitey Whitt committed a league-high 78 errors in 142 games. Oops. All told, Philadelphia led the A.L. with 314 miscues.
The pitching staff didn’t help things. Philly compiled a team ERA of 3.92, nearly a run higher than the next most pitching-poor squad, the Detroit Tigers at 2.97. As a staff, the A’s walked 715 batters, 137 more than any other team. Relievers saved just three games.
How did all this happen? The A’s, after all, were one of the early powerhouses of 20th century baseball. Mack, along with some business partners, founded the franchise in 1901. Over the next 13 seasons, the A’s finished first six times and earned three World Series titles. They won more than 100 games in 1910 and 1911 and 99 in 1914.
Philly featured the “$100,000 infield.” That group included Stuffy McInnis (first base), Eddie Collins (second base), Jack Barry (shortstop) and Frank “Home Run” Baker (third base). Collins and Baker eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Eddie Plank, Charles “Chief” Bender and Rube Waddell—Hall of Famers all–led the pitching staff.
After losing the 1905 World Series to the New York Giants in five games, the A’s won their first Fall Classic by knocking off the Chicago Cubs in five games in 1910. Philly went back-to-back in 1911 by defeating the Giants in six.
The A’s returned to the World Series in 1913. Thanks in part to seven RBI each from Baker and catcher Wally Schang, Philly beat the Giants four games to one. That brings us to 1914.
Bender finished 17-3, and Baker topped the league in homers as Philly finished 99-53, 8 ½ games ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox. The Boston Braves celebrated the National League pennant with a 94-59 won-loss mark.
Jack Berry went just 1-for-14 (.071) for Philadelphia; Rube Oldring did even worse (1-for-15, .067)). The A’s hit only 172 as a team; the pitchers compiled a 3.41 ERA. (The Red Sox put up a 1.15 mark.) Boston swept the Series in four games.
So, the rumors began. Was this Series played on the up and up? Some observers have insisted that the A’s, supposedly upset at Mack for being a tightwad, didn’t give it their all against a team that has since been dubbed “The Miracle Braves.” Big shots like George M. Cohan were placing heavy money against the A’s, according to Bruce Kuklick in his book To Every Thing a Season. To further gin up suspicion, Cohan and some others put down their bets by contacting Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a Boston gambler and bookmaker implicated in the famous Black Sox scandal of 1919.
By 1915, many of Philly’s top players were gone, mostly due to the emergence of the Federal League. This upstart competitor to Major League Baseball raided several teams, including Mack’s Athletics. Mack let ‘em go. Bender left, Baker sat out the season due to a contract dispute, Mack sold Collins to the White Sox, etc. Mack called them all a bunch of “prima donnas.”
The A’s settled into last place for the next seven seasons. They didn’t make it to the postseason again until 1929. Led by Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove, they won two straight World Series and three consecutive pennants. Once again, Mack stood atop the baseball world.
But not for long. Star ballplayers cost money, money that Mack didn’t want to spend. Another sell-off began. Al Simmons ended up with the White Sox, Cochrane with the Detroit Tigers, Foxx and Grove with the Boston Red Sox.
The A’s finished in the second division for the next 14 seasons. They finished last nine times. They were pathetic again.