June 20, 2003
What a Sub-.300 Record May Tell Us About a Team
Since 1901 only 19 teams have crossed that great divide, nearly half of them from Philadelphia. From the 1935 Boston Braves--a team so bad it changed its name to get away from itself--to the 1952 Pirates "Rickey Dinks"--the mental misfire of a genius--to Casey Stengel's Amazin' Mets of 1962, the <.300 teams are always good for a chuckle. Hey, kids! It's Marvelous Marv Throneberry! Look, sports fans! A team so bad not even Babe Ruth can save it! Cue laugh track. Hilarity ensues.
This column is not as much about hilarity as it is about honesty. Only one of these losing teams, the 1962 Mets, was up front about its chances. The disclosure came from the manager. "We are frauds," Stengel said, "but if we can make losing popular, I'm all for it." The rest of them purported to be making a game effort to win, but for various reasons they instead succeeded in losing.
"When fans of the Brewers and the Royals and the Devil Rays figured out that their teams existed only so that the New York Yankees might routinely pummel them, they would abandon the sport altogether. At stake was nothing less than the future of professional baseball."
That's a quote from Michael Lewis' Moneyball, page 121. Many of the teams discussed in this article had this doormat role, but not unwillingly. They sought it out, embraced it. These teams hid the truth in order to elicit sympathy, loyalty, and dollars from the fans. In an age of related-party transactions and aggressive accounting that effectively camouflages a team's financial picture, it's worth asking how much has really changed.
TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB A's 1915 8th 43 109 .283 58.5 A's 1916 8th 36 117 .235 54.5 A's 1919 8th 36 104 .257 52
Among the many "isms" that can liberate one from the real labor of thinking is "paternalism," which in this case refers to the practice of mistaking your employees for your children. In most biographies of Walt Disney, a 1941 strike is cited as the moment of the entrepreneur's disillusionment. In Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, Marc Eliot describes a meeting between Walt and his animators intended to avert the walkout:
"Initially Disney hoped to appeal to his staff's loyalty. Before long, however, Walt lapsed into a nearly incoherent tirade and began scolding his staff. According to one employee, toward the end Walt actually choked with tears as he reminded everyone how he felt like a father toward them and that he considered each his own son. Walt then bowed his head, and the room grew still, until someone in the audience loudly booed, effectively shattering the moment."
Check out the "Lampwick Morphs into Donkey at Pleasure Island" sequence in "Pinocchio" (1940) to see what Disney saw at that moment: before his eyes his staff transmogrified from handsome young animators into little Commie trolls. Relations were never the same.
Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack had that same Disney moment in 1914. His White Elephants were about to contend for their fourth championship in five years (1910, 1911, 1913 were the others). Mack had built a nice little dynasty around his "$100,000 Infield" (1B Stuffy McInnis, 2B Eddie Collins, 3B Home Run Baker and SS Jack Barry) and future Hall of Fame pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank. The pitchers were college men; Mack preferred to sign college players, an aspect of his management philosophy to which many teams have still not caught on.
Mack's players were getting feelers from the new Federal League, salary offers Mack could not (he said) or did not want to match. Mack was miffed that his players would think about leaving him for better pay. "I was pretty sore at the time--awfully sore," he told Fred Lieb. "I felt the players were letting down both me and the club, and that we had paid them as good salaries as baseball then could afford and made it possible for them to get into four rich World Series. Today, over the perspective of the years, I feel a little differently... I long have forgiven the players who gave me those 1914 headaches, and most of them have been back with me in some capacity."
Well, that's mighty wide of you, Cornelius, but you were just fulfilling your obligations to your employees and vice-versa. In any case, the A's were swept out of the World Series, and Mack said that his club was too distracted by the Fed League offers to compete. Mack cleaned house. "I broke (the team) up solely because the boys had shown me that they could not get along together." In 1932, Mack told journalist Joe Williams that "I quit on my team in August" of 1914, a revealing comment given that Mack had spent the last 18 years arguing that his team had quit on him. It wasn't that the A's couldn't pay or wouldn't play, but that the owner/manager/daddy felt rejected.
Mack waived Bender, Plank, and Jack Coombs, and sold Collins to the White Sox, a move encouraged by AL prexy Ban Johnson, who wanted to add some star power to the Chicago and New York franchises. The Yankees ultimately got Home Run Baker and the future Sailor Bob Shawkey (for a total of $55,000). They would have preferred Collins. Mack sold Barry to the Red Sox for $8,000, which was about half of what Barry's rep alone should have netted.
The major acquisition to replace these and other deletions was second baseman Nap Lajoie, 40. Lajoie left his youth, bat, and glove in Cleveland and by this time played the keystone like a washing machine on roller skates. Erstwhile catcher Wally Schang played third base and the outfield because Mack didn't replace the outfielders he'd dealt away. Bruno Haas, one of the new pitchers, walked 16 Yankees in his first game and lost 15-7. Lajoie hit .280 with one homer and 11 walks. The A's declined by 56 games in 1915.
Mack may have needed to reduce payroll or wanted to punish his kids for revealing they were actually employees, but he far exceeded his mandate. Mack ripped his team down to the ground--the average age of the 1915 pitching staff was 22--but then he kept going. He gave up on Herb Pennock before his 22nd birthday, selling him to the Red Sox for the waiver price in June, 1915. Shawkey was only 24. Neither pitcher (both of whom would be staff aces for the Yankees) had the earning power of Collins, one of the top five players in baseball, particularly in an era in which management had virtually all of the leverage in salary negotiations. They went anyway.
Now fast forward to 1917. The Federal League has long since joined the dodo and the moa in the "deselected by Darwin" category, but Mack is still dealing. Bullet Joe Bush and Wally Schang go to the Red Sox for three players and $60,000. In 1918 Mack acquired 25-year-old 1B George Burns. Mack made him the starter, and Burns responded with an .813 OPS, versus a league average of .693. Yet just two years later, Mack sold Burns to the Indians and replaced him with the awful Ivy Griffin. Back to square one.
January, 1918 marked another rare swap in which Mack came out ahead, for a while anyway. He sent McInnis, the last member of his great infield, to the Red Sox for three players, including third baseman Larry Gardner. Gardner was a strong fielder with an above-average stick for the position. The A's started to look up, posting a .407 winning percentage in 1918. The following March, Mack turned around and flipped Gardner and two other players to the Indians for Braggo Roth. Just like that, the Athletics were back to losing 75% of their games.
This pattern continued into the 1920s, one of the most prosperous decades in American history. Philadelphia was the third-largest city in the country, with a population, 1.9 million, almost twice as large as the fourth-largest city. In an era in which attendance and rank of finish was the sole generator of ballclub profits, Mack should have been in the catbird seat--and in some ways he was. According to baseball, the A's were profitable in 1920-1924, years in which Mack was still suffering from his Federal League hangover and pretty much anyone who applied at the Shibe Park gate could get into an A's uniform. It wasn't that he couldn't afford to build a competitive team, it's that he was working on a different business model, one that did not include winning.
The A's finished last every year from 1915-1921, with an aggregate record of 323-710 (.323). By 1925, all the dollars strewn about the national economy emboldened Mack to again spend for talent. These new and improved A's peaked in 1929--just in time for the Great Depression to send Mack scurrying back to the 1915-1924 business plan.
TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB Phillies 1928 8th 43 109 .283 51
The first thing you need to know about Phillies' owner William F. Baker (1911-1930) is that he cut the outfield grass with sheep. That wasn't an aesthetic choice as much as a comment on the price of men who push lawnmowers. Cox was the former police commissioner of New York City. It may say something about the quality of men who policed New York in the early days of the last century that both Cox and his American League contemporary, former NYC police chief/Tammany bag man Big Bill Devery of the Yankees, were among the biggest blemishes on the otherwise unstained escutcheon of baseball ownership.
The Phillies won the 1915 pennant, but thereafter Baker operated the Phillies as a farm team for the rest of the majors. Moderately profitable from 1920-1930, the Phillies were not inept; like Mack they were going another way.
Typical deals: On December 11, 1917, sent pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, 30, and catcher Bill Killefer to the Cubs in exchange for two players and $55,000. Alexander's record to that point was 190-88 with a 2.12 ERA. His record thereafter: 183-120, 2.96 ERA.
A more typical series of deals: Baker personally made John McGraw last four pennant winners (1921-1924) possible by dealing shortstop Dave Bancroft, CF Casey Stengel, and LF Irish Meusel for various bits of spoiled meat. In the Meusel deal, Baker suspended his outfielder for "indifferent play" as a cover for dealing him; Meusel was hitting .353 (.945 OPS) at the time.
Thanks to the stewardship of Baker and his successor, Gerry Nugent, the Phillies lost 90 or more games 23 times from 1919 to 1947. The oddest thing about the Phillies of this period was that in 1924 two members of that year's pennant-winning Giants were banned from baseball for attempting to bribe the Phillies to go easy on them in a late-season series. Then, as now, no one could figure out why you would bother.
TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB Phillies 1939 8th 45 106 .298 50.5 Phillies 1941 8th 43 111 .279 57 Phillies 1942 8th 42 109 .278 62.5 Phillies 1945 8th 46 108 .299 52Hypergamy: "The practice among Hindu women of marrying into a caste at least as high as their own."
William Baker died. He left the Phillies to his secretary. Gerry Nugent married the secretary. You see where this is going. Nugent ran the Phillies exactly as Baker did, but with less discretion.
During the 1928 debacle, the Phillies added Chuck Klein, Don Hurst, Spud Davis, and Lefty O'Doul, good to excellent hitters all. The team began stuttering towards respectability. In 1932, the Phillies were actually two games over .500 (78-76). By the end of 1933, half the team had been dealt, including Klein, who had just won the triple crown. In 1939, the Phillies tossed one of their better pitchers to the Cubs and received Kirby Higbe in return. Higbe turned out to be a decent pitcher. Just under 18 months later he was on his way to the Dodgers for $100,000 and three bodies.
The Phillies lost more than 100 games every year from 1938 to 1942 and were, finally, unprofitable. It had long since become obvious to the fans that whatever the Phillies were trying to do, it wasn't win. When the club went broke, the National League stepped in and punted Nugent. Their choice to succeed him, William Cox, tried to change the team's name to the Blue Jays, was called "The All-American Jerk" by his own manager, and was finally banned from baseball for betting on his own team. Things gradually got better after that catharsis.
TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB Red Sox 1932 8th 43 111 .279 64 TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB Braves 1935 8th 38 115 .248 61.5 TEAM YEAR FIN W L PCT GB Browns 1937 8th 46 108 .299 56 Browns 1939 8th 43 111 .279 64.5
These teams had severely underfinanced ownerships, and it's hard to say who was more culpable: the owners who bought in without the requisite funds to compete, or baseball as a collective for approving and then tolerating them. If you want a rationale for a minimum payroll, these teams are it. The Red Sox were run by Bob Quinn, grandfather of the former Yankees GM, but the real money was to be provided by a man named Palmer Winslow. Unfortunately, he died before he could write a check. Quinn was left to slowly go broke. Before the 1932 team finally forced him to yield to Tom Yawkey, he fell back on Harry Frazee's method of financing the team by selling players to the Yankees (50K will get you Red Ruffing--what a bargain!).
The 1935 Braves were a good outfit that fell apart in the field. An unromantic triangle of manager Bill McKechnie, owner Emil Fuchs (called Judge, though he wasn't one), and a fat, gimpy, sullen Babe Ruth contributed to the unrest, as did the owner's desperate quest to move his team into Fenway Park and turn Braves Field into a dog racing track. Fuchs, who was the attorney for the Giants, bought the club in 1922 for a sickly Christy Mathewson to run/play with. It was a sentimental gesture, but Mathewson was a dying man. Once he was gone, Fuchs was in over his head, both tactically and financially. In August, 1935, the National League asked Fuchs to leave, requesting that he never return.
Contrary to popular memory, the Braves were capable of outdrawing the Red Sox in Boston when they tried hard enough. The Browns, on the other hand, were clearly the second team in a two-team town. They were perpetually last in the American League in attendance. They drew decently when they were good, but they were almost never good; from 1923 to 1943, the Browns had only five first-division finishes and were never closer than 15 games behind the leader. In the leaner years, single-game attendance sometimes fell below three figures. In one 1934 contest, paid attendance was 34. In 1939, AL President Will Harridge asked his clubs to chip in a few good players for the Browns; with no fans in the stands, visiting teams were losing money on road trips to St. Louis. Appropriately, only the Yankees and the Tigers responded; there was an argument to be made that any decent players the Browns received would quickly be sold off to other clubs. Even as Harridge made his request, team ace Bobo Newsom was moved to the Tigers. In 1941, the Browns floated plans to move to California. Pearl Harbor and wartime travel restrictions scuttled those plans.
Opinions, Conclusions, Accusations
All three of these teams, plus the Phillies above, became the Montreal Expos of their time, wards of the state directly or indirectly subsidized by baseball as a whole. The leagues were never quick to intervene (and in the case of Mack, beloved old man of baseball, never did), letting teams reach the nadir of non-competitiveness before taking action. Once they did, the reaction was always the quick removal of the owner who had opted to maintain his team in the second division.
Somewhere in the intervening years, the tail began to wag the dog. It wasn't that the owners were not sufficiently capitalized to compete, but that the players were too expensive or the fans not sufficiently supportive. The sub-.300 teams show that rationale for failure to be an old, disingenuous story. Super-losing is a business strategy, however inefficient and counter-productive, that certain teams pursue from time to time. No team sinks to .276 by accident; it takes a plan, one that does not necessarily say, "We are going to lose," but rather, "We will not win."
Which brings us back to the Tigers and Padres. There have been no <.300 teams since the 1962 Mets became the product of a rigged expansion draft. There are a number of reasons for that: the half-hearted business of on-field integration picked up speed, deepening the talent pool; the amateur draft; free agency; compensatory draft picks for free agent losses. Throw in the recent innovation of revenue sharing and there is now a safety net that did not exist 40 years ago.
The Tigers have only played 69 games so far this year, the Padres 74. It's thus possible that both teams' woes are merely the result of a blend of incompetence, bad luck, and small sample size. But given baseball's breaks on mediocrity, along with the history of the 19 sub-.300, post-19th Century MLB teams, if Detroit and San Diego finish below .300 this year, history will suggest that something may have been in play.
Steven Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com. Your questions, comments, suggestions, and corroborated alibis (Where were YOU when the Tigers decided not to compete?) welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.