Say “Cleveland’s sports history” and words like “almost,” “disappointment,” and “areyoufreakingkiddingme” immediately come to mind. Michael Jordan sinking “The Shot,” John Elway directing “The Drive,” the Chicago Cubs breaking “The Curse”—all these great sports moments came at the expense of Cleveland teams and fans.
Then there are the truly tragic moments, the ones that feel like betrayal—think Art Modell taking the Browns to Baltimore or LeBron taking his talents to South Beach. These moments hurt the most and they only stop hurting after they’re forgotten by history.
Such is the case with the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. If you’re asking “What’s a Cleveland Spider,” it was an official National League Baseball team based in Cleveland between the years 1887 and 1899. The reason there were no 1900 Cleveland Spiders is because the 1899 campaign was so god-awful that the team was disbanded after the end of the season. In fact, the team’s absolutely dismal 20-132 record gives the 1899 Spiders the worst single-season winning percentage of all time, a feat that’s virtually unbreakable.
How could this happen, you may ask? Let’s begin.
The franchise started in 1887, in the nebulous early days of Major League Baseball. Before the Spiders, the team was known as the “Cleveland Blues” or the “Cleveland Forest Citys.” The Spiders joined the National League in 1889 and began to rise through the ranks after signing future hall-of-famer Cy Young in 1891.
Now a formidable team, the Spiders had a few solid seasons throughout the 1890s and even reached a few prototype versions of the World Series, winning one in 1895. Unfortunately, this was to be the high-water mark for the Spiders.
Baseball was just starting to become a profitable business and still lacked common standards of practice and ethics regulations. The owners of the Spiders, brothers Frank and Stanley Robison, made enough money off the Spiders’ success that they were in the market for a second team. The phrase “conflict of interest” will become important to this story.
In 1899, they bought the St. Louis Browns—today’s Cardinals—another team in the National League. After taking stock of their teams, the brothers decided that St. Louis was a better market for baseball than Cleveland. They proceeded to cannibalize the Cleveland Spiders’ roster, sending Cy Young and other top performers to St. Louis just two months before the start of the season.
Spiders player-manager Lave Cross—who was one of the poor players sent to Cleveland—scrambled to put a team together, but it was clear that it wouldn’t stand a chance. The Spiders were now essentially a minor league team in a major league world. The Robison’s made no bones about it either, going as far as to publicly call their Cleveland team a “sideshow.” As a result, game attendance suffered dramatically—fewer than 150 tickets were sold for the average Spiders home game in 1899.
Low attendance had a different effect on teams than it would today. Back then, players were paid according to ticket sales—an empty stadium meant empty pockets for both teams. Consequently, teams largely refused to come to Cleveland, forcing the Spiders to play the majority of the season on the road. Their away record that year was 11-101, an abysmal record that is impossible to break under the modern MLB game schedule.
The reputation of the Spiders, commonly referred to as “The Misfits” at this point, was so bad that when one Baltimore Orioles pitcher lost a game to them, he was actually fined and suspended for it. The next day, the Orioles beat the Spiders 21-6.
Individual Spiders’ players had some of the worst statistics of the league that year and own the second-longest streak for consecutive losses at 24. When the pitiful season finally concluded, the team gifted its traveling secretary a diamond locket because he “had the misfortune to watch us in all our games.”
The team was mercifully disbanded at the end of the season, part of a general reorganization of the National League that took place at the turn of the century. Similar team plundering in other franchises that year led the league to create regulations that prevented such conflicts of interest. Finally, the newly-founded American League took advantage of Cleveland’s new baseball vacuum and founded a new team called the Cleveland Blues in 1901. Today, we know them as the Indians.
Alas, we all know the Cleveland Spiders’ 1899 season was not to be the last major Cleveland sports tragedy, but maybe that’s our cross to bear. Would Cleveland really be Cleveland without its long, checkered history of letdowns and disappointments? It might just be what makes the victories that much sweeter and the drive to persevere that much stronger.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that while they only won 13 percent of its games, the Cleveland Spiders were the only team in the league that didn’t miss a single game of their 1899 schedule—and that might be the most Cleveland thing a Cleveland sports team ever did.