Worst of the worst

Monday Book Reviews

June 10, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer

ON A CLEAR DAY THEY COULD SEE SEVENTH PLACE: Baseball's Worst Teams. By George Robinson and Charles Salzberg. Dell. 288 pages. $8.95.

WITH the Orioles off to a mediocre start this spring, and thhorrors of the 1988 season still too painfully fresh for objective recollection, O's fans may be forgiven if they fail to be amused by the Birds' appearance in a book devoted to light-hearted, breezy descriptions of teams renowned for being wretched, distinguished for disaster, historic in their haplessness -- well, you get the idea.

Of some consolation, perhaps, may be the assertion of sportswriters George Robinson and Charles Salzberg that the '88 Orioles probably were the "best" of the dismal teams chronicled in "On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place,"due in no small measure to the O's "astounding" turnaround in 1989. But trying to decide which of the ghastly teams in this book were better than the others "is a little like arguing the comparative merits of natural disasters," write Robinson and Salzberg. "Did you prefer the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Johnstown Flood or Hurricane Hugo?"

Evidently the worst team of all time was the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, which set records for ineptitude that remain untouched to this day: the longest losing streak in the history of the sport -- 24 games (as opposed the '88 O's, who opened the season losing 21 straight) -- and the largest number of losses, 134. (The '88 Birds lost 107.)

In modern times, it is the authors' "considered opinion" that the worst team of the 20th century was the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team which "was last in more significant statistical categories" than any other. Joe Garagiola, a catcher on the '52 Pirates, has made a career of joking about them. Robinson and Salzberg say that his wisecracks, if anything, have been "too kind." Among other things, Garagiola claims that the '52 Bucks were so bad "they wouldn't put our pictures on bubble gum cards."

Will Rogers said that everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else. If Birds fans shudder at the $H remembrance of what Orioles historian James H. Bready has called "the year of woe upon us," then plenty of grins can be found in the accounts in this book of the equally woeful exploits of the other abysmal teams, a dog for each decade of baseball's modern era. Following the aforementioned Spiders come the 1904 Washington Senators, 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, 1928 Philadelphia Phillies, 1935 Boston Braves, 1942 Phillies, those '52 Pirates, the 1962 New York Mets and the 1979 Toronto Blue Jays.

The authors discern similarities among these losers. Often a team's descent into atrociousness was due to parsimonious owners and began where baseball today continues to begin and end: money. All 10 teams "featured a strange mixture of elderly vets and green kids," which put less strain on the owner's wallet. Another constant was "pitching -- or rather, the lack of it." And each team had "ERAs that look like the measure of the circumference of Donald Trump's ego."

Frequently a terrible team has some terrific -- even legendary -- players on it. The '35 Boston Braves were the last stop for Babe Ruth; rookie shortstop Joe Cassidy on the '04 Senators hit 19 triples, setting a record for rookies that still stands; Stuffy McInnis on the '16 Athletics was "one of the finest fielding first basemen of all time." And, as the authors assert under a grinning photo of Cal Ripken Jr., he could continue smiling despite the '88 season "because he's on his way to Cooperstown . . ."

Robinson and Salzberg temper their tale of the Orioles in '88 by noting that even including that horrendous season, the O's still have the best record in baseball since the four divisions were created 21 years ago, and over the past 30 years, the Birds still have the highest winning percentage in the majors, .555. And they say that the Orioles' miraculous comeback in 1989 "set a standard for future bad teams to strive to live up to."

Statistics in baseball can be a source of solace, perhaps even encouragement. The authors quote Tommy Lasorda: "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference."

Don't we know it.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore author whose latest book, "Baltimore: Jewel of the Chesapeake," will be published this month.

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