Remembering the Philadelphia ‘Pathetics’, the worst baseball team in history
IIt’s been a demoralizing season for fans of the Oakland Athletics. The team announced its intention to leave for Las Vegas, and on the field the A’s are closing out a historically bad year. barely playing over .300.
But this isn’t the worst A-team in history. More than a century ago, the Philadelphia Athletics, playing nearly 3,000 miles away, not only had the worst record in franchise history, but also the worst record of any Major League Baseball team in the modern era.
The 1916 A’s finished 36-117 (a .235 winning percentage). They were so bad that sportswriters called them the “Pathetics.”
What was most striking about that team was how quickly it had fallen. Just two years earlier, the A’s had won the AL pennant with a winning percentage of .651, the final season of a five-year dynasty as the team won four pennants and three World Series titles under Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack. That 1914 team won 99 games. But after the mother of all fire sales, their win total dropped to 43 in 1915 as they plummeted from first to last place in the eight-team American League. The downward spiral continued in 1916.
Mack, who was also a co-owner of the team, faced inflationary salary pressures the upstart Federal League. He responded by selling stars like Eddie Collins and Frank “Home Run” Baker, both future Hall of Famers who had been part of the dynasty’s “$100,000 infield.”
“Baseball economics, a costly bidding war from an upstart professional league, and Connie Mack’s desire to rebuild the team completely turned the 1910, 1911 and 1913 World Series champion in athletics into a bottom-feeding brunch,” wrote John G. Robertson and Andy Saunders in their 2014 book, A is as bad as it gets: Connie Mack’s pathetic 1916 athletics.
At the time, Major League Baseball had no divisions – just the two leagues, American and National, each with eight teams. Sportswriters would call teams that finished in the top half of the standings “first division,” and those in the bottom half “second division.”
But the ’16 Athletics were truly in their own division, finishing a whopping 40 games behind the second-worst team, the Washington Senators, who were just a game under .500 and finished 14 ½ games out of first place. The funhouse nature of the standings reflected how the other seven teams improved their record against the A’s, with only the Yankees failing (barely) to hit over .700 against them, at .682.
The A’s opened the ’16 season at Fenway Park, losing 2-1 to 21-year-old Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth, who had not yet been converted to the outfield to take advantage of his hitting skills. The A’s started 0-6 and never won more than two games in a row that year. Their last two-game winning streak came on the final day of the season, when they improbably scored a doubleheader against the first-place Red Sox. In an odd bookend to the season, they ended the season with a win over Ruth, who led the AL in ERA that season. Between the first and last games of the season, the A’s were consistently terrible, including losing 20 in a row during the dog days of summer, from 2-28 in July.
Philadelphia had three Losers of 20 games that season: Elmer Myers (14-23), Bullet Joe Bush (15-24) and Jack Nabors (1-20). Nabors won his first start that season before losing the next twenty straight games. The following April, he left Major League Baseball at the age of 29 – with an abysmal 1-25 record. The team’s 3.92 ERA was decent by today’s standards. But this was it the Deadball era – a period when scores were low and pitchers dominated – and the AL ERA in 1916 was 2.82. In fact, Philadelphia was nearly a point worse than their closest AL rival, the Detroit Tigers, who finished with a 2.97 ERA.
The A’s lineup featured future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, a lifelong .338 hitter who had set the modern batting record of .426 for the A’s 15 years earlier. But in 1916, Lajoie was 41 and washed up, hitting a career-low .246 in what turned out to be his final season.
Perhaps the worst part of the A’s was their defense. The team committed 314 errors in the season, including 11 in one doubleheader. Nine players had fielding percentages below .900, including starting pitcher Nabors (.827) and starting third baseman Charlie Pick (.898), who committed 44 errors. The starting shortstop, rookie Whitey Witt, committed 78 errors, but because he had many more fielding opportunities, his fielding percentage was a touch better, at a still abysmal .903.
Years later, Witt recalled that Mack imposed a new surname on him: “Mack didn’t want to write Wittkowski on the batting card every day, so he changed my name to Witt. Because I had blonde hair, he called me Whitey.
“I wasn’t a very good shortstop.” he admitted. “But I could hit, so Mack kept me in the lineup.” Witt played mainly outfield after his rookie season, including several years with the Yankees, where he became one of Ruth’s best friends.
The 1916 A’s finished 54 ½ games out of first place, but Mack’s job was safe. He would remain as manager for another 34 years, until he was 87. In total, he was manager of the A for no less than 50 years, wearing his trademark suit and tie in the dugout. (Yes, he was old-fashioned.)
Although 1916 was a low point for the A’s, it was not an outlier. They would finish in last place for the next five years – bringing the cellar streak to seven – before finally sneaking past the Red Sox for a seventh-place finish in 1922.
In 1929, Mack led a new dynasty in Philadelphia, as the team won three consecutive pennants (including two World Series titles). But in a continuation of the franchise’s boom-and-bust nature, a Depression-ravaged Mack sold or traded major players such as Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Jimmie Foxx, all future Hall of Famers. That led to a twelve-year period, from 1935 to 1946, in which the team finished last nine times.
The A’s moved to Kansas City in 1955 and then moved further west in 1968, when they moved to Oakland. And as if breaking down dynasties was in the franchise DNA, the A’s won three consecutive World Series titles in the early 1970s — only to trade away star players like Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman when owner Charlie Finley dismantled the team. Finley had also made deals to sell other stars such as Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi and Vida Blue, but Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn blocked the moves, citing his “best interests of baseball” authority.
The A’s haven’t won a World Series title since 1989, so this year won’t mean yet another relegation from the championship. And as poorly as the 2023 A’s have played, they aren’t as bad as their 1916 forebears, even though they started the season in a bigger ditch. Through 60 games, the 2023 A’s were 12-48 (a .200 winning percentage), behind the 1916 A’s, who were 17-42 with one tie (.288) up to that point in the season.
In other words, by early June, the 2023 A’s were on track to break the 1916 track and field record for futility. But they’ve shown some fight since then, even putting together a seven-game winning streak, including five wins against two good teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.
The verdict of history is clear: athletics has exceeded the low bar of ‘pathetics’.