Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Cleveland Spiders

I have a new favorite retro baseball team! Well, actually, it’s my first favorite retro baseball team, but it’s really, really retro.

The Cleveland Spiders.

I’d read about them before, first probably a few years back when I started watching baseball again as a means of relaxation. Spiders? That name leapt off the page at me. Who the heck would name their team the “Spiders”?

Well, they’re kind of an interesting part of history.

Owned by streetcar tycoon Frank Robison and his brother, the team lasted thirteen years at the tail end of the 19th century, from 1887 until 1899. For the ’87 and ’88 seasons they played in the American Association league and were known as the Cleveland Forest Citys (some sources say Cleveland Blues). In 1889 they jumped to the National League – yes, the National League that we watch today – after changing their name to the Spiders.

Allegedly because of the way the players looked in their uniforms.

How a baseball player looks spider-like, I can’t quite imagine.

Anyway, the Spiders had a kind of Bell Curve spread of success over their lifetime. The first two seasons were somewhat unremarkable (sixth and seventh place finishes out of eight), but the club began turning things around in ’91 (fifth), helped tremendously by a young pitcher named Cy Young.

In fact, strong pitching led the Spiders to the postseason championships three of the next five years. In ’92, after finishing second, they lost to the first-place Boston Beaneaters in the “World Championship Series” 5-0-1. (Ties were a part of the game back then, usually due to darkness.)

Two moderately successful seasons followed, a third and sixth place finish, both with winning records, until the Spiders made it back to the championships again. This time it was called the “Temple Cup” (kinda like a cross between the Stanley Cup, a tea pot, and an urn). Reaching the rarified heights of professional sports, the Cleveland Spiders defeated the Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 1 to claim their place as league champion, in 1895.

The following year the baseball gods demanded a replay, a do-over. Again the Orioles finished first with the Spiders nipping at their heels, only this time Baltimore swept Cleveland to retake the Temple Cup.

Then the Bell Curve began to turn south.

’97 and ’98 resulted in a pair of fifth place finishes, though both with winning records.

Then the Bell Curve really, really steepened.

In 1899 the Robison brothers saw an opportunity in the bankruptcy of the St. Louis Browns. They salvaged the team, renamed them the “Perfectos,” and, thinking St Louis a juicier market than Cleveland, shipped their premium Spider players, including Cy Young, over to the newer team. As a result, the quality of play on the shores of Lake Erie plummeted, and my now beloved team earned its place in the annals of baseball history as the losingest team of all time:

20 wins, 140 losses … for a “winning” percentage of a meager .130.

In 1900 the National League dropped four teams, the Spiders foremost among them. The Robisons sold off their assets in the club, and thus endeth the Spiders. Cleveland, however, was not to be without baseball for long. The Grand Rapids Rustlers moved in the following year, and the team was called the Lake Shores, Bluebirds, Broncos, and Naps before settling on Indians in 1915.

Much of the Spider’s success was due to one man, with a prototypical late 19th century name: Patsy Tebeau. He arrived in Cleveland in 1889 playing first and third, and became the team’s player-manager in 1891. Though he never brought a first-place finish to the team, he did guide the team to the championship in ’95. He, too, was one of the team members transferred to St. Louis at the beginning of that final, 1899 season.

Tebeau had somewhat of a fiery, abusive temper and wasn’t afraid to use it on players and umpires. He played for thirteen years and had a lifetime batting average of .279 and a managing record of 726-583. After retiring from baseball he ran a saloon. Twenty-three years after that championship season Patsy put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, after his wife left him.


(Each season had a handful of ties, which have been left out)

1889 … 61-72, sixth out of eight

1890 … 44-88, seventh out of eight

1891 … 65-74, fifth out of eight

1892 … 93-56, second out of twelve

1893 … 73-55, third out of twelve

1894 … 68-61, sixth out of twelve

1895 … 84-46, second out of twelve

1896 … 80-48, second out of twelve

1897 … 69-62, fifth out of twelve

1898 … 81-68, fifth out of twelve

1899 … 20-134, twelfth out of twelve

(The St. Louis Perfectos finished fifth, 84-67)

Combined record 827-938, .469


’92 – lost “World Championship Series” to the Boston Beaneaters 5-0-1

’95 – won “Temple Cup Series” over the Baltimore Orioles, 4-1

’96 – swept in the Temple Cup series by the Baltimore Orioles, 4-0

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