A duplex in the dungeonby Frank Jackson
November 29, 2012
During the NL Division Series in 2012, it was often remarked that Washington, D.C. had not hosted postseason ball since 1933. Oh, there was major league baseball in the capital for another 38 seasons, but the Senators’ play, for the most part, evoked the old Washington rallying cry of “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
But it could have been worse—twice as bad, in fact. Suppose there had been two teams in D.C., and “First in war, first in peace, last in the American and National Leagues” had been the refrain?
Well, Washington has never been a two-team town, but other cities have had representation in both leagues, and twin last-place finishes are far from uncommon, though not as renowned as twin first-place finishes.
Much is made of the various subway series in World Series history. Technically, the term applies only to New York teams, but other cities have had their own versions. The all-St. Louis series in 1944 was known as the Streetcar Series. If there is a name for the 1906 Cubs-White Sox match-up, or the San Francisco Bay series of 1989, I haven’t heard of them.
If a metropolis does collective cartwheels when both its teams are in the Fall Classic, what does it feel like when both major league teams finish in the cellar? Is there a noticeable spike in prescriptions for antidepressants? In a rigidly partisan metro area, how can a fan delight in the other team’s misfortune when his own team has also bottomed out?
It’s not a situation to be wished on any city, but the situation is not that unusual. In fact, it happened 13 times during the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
For the purposes of this article, I am examining only the modern era through 1968. One reason is that during the 19th century, a number of leagues that called themselves major leagues came and went. This state of flux does not bode well for serious consideration.
I’ll grant that the National League had major league status in the 19th century, but since we’re looking for teams from different leagues finishing last, one league won’t cut it. The Senior Circuit needs a serious Junior Circuit to accompany it, and that didn’t happen till the 20th century.
Speaking of the 20th century, the Federal League experiment of 1914-1915 is moot, as the two last-place teams (the St. Louis Terriers in 1914 and the Baltimore Terrapins in 1915) were not sharing the basement with any crosstown teams.
But if I start in 1901, why stop at 1968? Well, a lot of things changed in America during the 1960s, and major league ball was no exception. The advent of divisional play in 1969 doubled the number of last-place teams. Today, of course, we have six last-place teams, so the cellar isn’t quite so cold, damp and dark as it used to be. It’s not lonely at the bottom any more.
On the other hand, the post-expansion period from 1961 (from 1962 in the National League) to 1968 is particularly meaningful, as each league had 10 teams. During that period, when a team finished last, it had truly reached the ultimate mucky bottom—a subbasement, as it were.
Surprisingly, even with three teams, New York never had more than one team in last place at any one time. I’m guessing that any old-school Dodgers fan would never countenance anyone calling the Bums a New York team. Granted, the Dodgers and Yankees played in different boroughs, but the same was true of the Giants vis-à-vis the Yankees after 1923, even though the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium were separated by little more than the Harlem River. For purposes of this article, it doesn’t matter, since neither the Dodgers nor the Giants ever finished last the same year as the Yankees.
For the most part, the Dodgers’ record (aside from pennants in 1916 and 1920) is nothing to write home about. They didn’t achieve their first title till 1955, but except for one last-place finish (in 1905), there was always another National League team that was worse.
Of course, given the fact that the Yankees have finished last only three times presented limited opportunities for the two National League teams to follow suit. The Giants were also uncooperative, as they brought up the rear just three times (1902, 1915, 1943) themselves.
The Yankees finished last in 1908, 1912 (in those days they were known as the Highlanders); and 1966. In 1908 and 1912, the Dodgers gave it their best shot at finishing in the cellar (53-101 and 58-95) but were beaten out by the Cardinals and the Braves, respectively.
Given the Mets’ legendary shortcomings during their first seven years of existence, one might think they would have matched the Yankees in 1966, but no! In those days, you could expect the Mets to do the unexpected. In 1966, they actually finished in ninth place, a whopping 7½ games ahead of the Cubs! It was the franchise’s first foray out of the basement.
The next year the Mets moved back into the basement, but the Yankees had moved up to ninth place. Two seasons, two golden opportunities for dual last-place finishes gone to waste! Even so, at that point, the glory years of 1950s New York baseball must have seemed like ancient history.
The Second City has bragging rights over Gotham when it comes to dual last-place finishes. Admittedly, the situation occurred only once in Chicago, but that is one time more than in New York. From 1901 to 1968, the White Sox finished last four times, the Cubs seven. Only in 1948 were the North and South Siders feeding at the bottom simultaneously. That same year was when the Chicago Tribune flubbed the Presidential election with the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. Must have been something in the Lake Michigan water that year.
Tying the Second City for second place in the last-place sweepstakes is St. Louis with one season of dual futility. This is somewhat surprising, given the Cardinals’ ineptness during the first quarter of the 20th century and the Browns’ dismal performance for almost their entire existence. Yet the fates decreed that only in 1913 would the two last-place teams reside on the west bank of the Mississippi.
In Beantown, the Braves and the Red Sox were no strangers to last place. The Braves finished last seven times and the Red Sox 10 times!
The lion’s share of the Sox seasons of despair came after Babe Ruth was sent packing to New York. From 1922 to 1932, the Red Sox finished last nine times, including six years in a row from 1925 to 1930! I don’t think the word dynasty would be out of place here. Even the most rational, logical, and reasonable Red Sox fans of that era must have seriously pondered the existence of a Curse of the Bambino!
During that last-place finish in 1922, the Red Sox were joined by the Braves for the second time. The first time was 1906. The three decades after 1922 were relatively decent in Boston (the Braves decamped for Milwaukee after the 1952 season).
One city proved to be the true overachiever of underachievers. As you might have guessed, I am referring to Philadelphia, home of the A’s and the Phillies. The A’s finished last 18 times while the Phillies took up residence in the cellar for 21 seasons (22 seasons if you count 1947, when the Phillies and the Pirates tied for next-to-last place).
It was truly the end of an era when the A’s moved to Kansas City after the 1954 season, thus breaking up the Quaker City tag team of cellar-dwellers. Out of 54 seasons, the two teams finished last simultaneously nine times! That’s one season out of every six, and good enough to run away with the title in our competition! And you wondered where Philly fans got into the habit of booing! Standing tall atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, William Penn must have contemplated jumping more than once.
Philly had not one but two three-year runs of dual last-place tenancy, 1919-1921 and 1940-1942. But for sure the golden age of baseball buffoonery in Philadelphia was the 10-year span from 1936 to 1945 when the two teams finished last together six times! Brotherly love, indeed!
Bear in mind that the Phillies shared the same ballpark with the A’s from mid-season 1938 through 1954. During the five seasons the A’s and Phillies both finished last at Shibe Park, they made a mockery of the concept of home field advantage:
HOME TEAM RECORD AT SHIBE PARK
A’s Phillies Total 1938 28-47, .373 15-33, .313 43-80, .350 1940 29-42, .408 24-55, .304 53-97, .353 1941 36-41, .468 23-52, .307 59-93, .388 1942 25-51, .329 23-51, .311 48-102, .320 1945 39-35, .527 22-55, .286 61-90, .404
So if you went to Shibe Park in 1942, you had less than one chance in three of seeing the home team emerge victorious. During 1945, the best year of the five, the home team won only a little more than twice in five tries.
As the above amply demonstrates, the Phillies were particularly bad during those dual last-place years. Their debut year in Shibe Park was their best, and even then they couldn’t win one out three. By contrast, the A’s worst record of .329 in 1942 was better than the Phillies’ best. The one year (1945) the A’s were above .500 at home, their overall record was 52-98, meaning their road record was an astonishingly bad 13-63.
Of course, those years of Philadelphia phutility were before fans took to wearing brown paper bags over their heads to hide their shame. If that tradition had been around back then, the stands at Shibe Park would have looked like a convention of Mexican wrestlers.
I would be remiss in describing that 1938-1945 stretch in Philadelphia without invoking the name of broadcaster Byrum Saam, who was an eyewitness to all but 33 of those losses.
At the beginning of the 1938 season, Saam was hired by the A’s to be the play-by-play man for home games. Since he was a mere 23 years of age, one might assume he had not paid his dues. Maybe, maybe not, but over his career, he would pay more than his share.
In 1939, he took on home broadcasts for the Phillies. So Saam all but took up residence in Shibe Park for half the year. Just imagine all those dreary Sunday double-headers—all that plus Sunday blue laws!
Saam continued his double duty through 1949, after which he worked exclusively for the A’s (so he missed out on the 1950 Phillies pennant), doing both home and road games, through the 1954 season. When the A’s moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season, he went back to the Phillies, for whom he worked through 1975.
During Saam’s career in Philadelphia, he witnessed 19 last-place finishes (20 if you include that 1947 Phillies team that tied the Pirates for next-to-last place), including 11 100-loss seasons. Pennants? Close but no Phillies cigar. The legendary 1964 Phillies collapse probably haunted Saam more than it did manager Gene Mauch.
In 1990, however, Saam won the Ford Frick Award for baseball broadcasters and was granted a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Since he witnessed more than 4,000 losses during his career, he probably deserved a separate wing in the museum.
Well, no present-day announcer is likely to repeat Saam’s ordeal, since all announcers are wed to just one team, and there are fewer two-team cities today than during the first half of the 20th Century.
Even with more opportunities to finish last these days, it is difficult to see that happening in New York, as the Yankees are unlikely to sink that low, no matter what the Mets do. In Los Angeles, it’s difficult to envision the Dodgers and the Angels both stinking simultaneously. The Giants and A’s? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath, as both teams won their divisions in 2012. The White Sox and Cubs are probably the most likely candidates. With Houston moving to the American League, the Cubs have one less competitor in the race to the bottom.
Now that the A’s are on the West Coast and the Phillies are twice removed from Shibe Park, the quagmire era of Philadelphia baseball is a distant memory. Nine seasons of tandem last-place finishes is likely a record that will never be broken.
But as long as teams finish last, there’s always hope.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.