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The Kind of Year That
Could Have Killed Baseball in Boston

In 1906, Boston had a bad summer of baseball. As Bill Nowlin explains, Boston had two teams, and both squads experienced an unprecedented lack of success—the NL Beaneaters finished 66½ games out of first while the Boston Americans finished a mere 45½ games back. With a total of 96 wins between two teams, Boston was lucky to field a team in 1907.

By Bill Nowlin , February 7, 2018

Boston Americans during spring training in 1906.
Source: Boston Public Library on Flickr
https://creativecommons.org/license/by/2.0

Boston has always been one of the better cities for baseball, and from 1901 through 1952 it was (with Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis) a city that hosted two Major League teams.

The National League team, which began as the Boston Red Stockings and became the Beaneaters and the Braves, were frequent champions, finishing first in the league 12 times in the 27 years from 1872 through 1898. As the twentieth century opened, though, it was a different story altogether.

The then-new century saw the American League debut in 1901, and the Boston Americans (later, the Red Sox) promptly claimed a solid following, often outdrawing the Nationals. They finished second in 1901, then they won the pennant (and the first World Series) in 1903 and 1904 (when the New York Giants declined to go up against them in a Series).

So both teams had been riding high. In 1905, however, the Beaneaters finished next to last, 54½ games out of first place. The Americans finished fourth, 16 games out.

But it was 1906 when both teams suffered the sort of seasons that could have killed baseball in Boston.

The Boston NL team had that remarkable history of championships in the nineteenth century but had fallen on hard times. Despite starting the 1906 season by winning their first four games, and being not far under .500 at 12–16 on May 16, they didn’t win another game until June 9. They suffered through a 19-game losing streak—the first 16 of the losses coming on an excruciating road trip. They’d returned home and lost the final three of the streak. They were 5–21 for the month of May.

The Beaneaters had the worst pitching in the league, measured by earned run average alone, but only marginally worse than fifth-place Brooklyn, 3.14 to 3.13. They suffered the most in offense, scoring only 2.68 runs per game when the league average was 3.57. The pitchers allowed 649 runs on the season, but the team only scored 408.

In 1905, they had four 20-game losers on their pitching staff. In 1906, they repeated that with four 20-game losers—but this time they finished in last place, for the first time in franchise history. They finished a record 66½ games out of first place. They were shut out 28 times, at one point four games in succession. Their final record was 49–102 (.325).

There is only one team that has finished even further down in the standings—the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20–134), who finished 84 games out of first place. But that was an aberration, a team that wasn’t trying. Owner Frank Robison owned two teams (permitted at the time), and he stripped Cleveland of its best players to build up his St. Louis Cardinals team (among those shipped to St. Louis were three future Hall of Famers: Jesse Burkett, Bobby Wallace, and Cy Young). No wonder the Spiders failed so miserably.

In 1905, 28-year-old rookie Irv Young pitched 378 innings, started 42 games and finished 41 games for the Boston Beaneaters.

Oddly, there were two other teams who both finished the same 66½ games back: the 1889 Louisville Colonels (American Association) and the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys (National League).

The four 20-game losers on the 1906 Beaneaters staff were:

Irv Young 16–25

Big Jeff Pfeffer 13–22

Vive Lindaman 12–22

Gus Dorner 8–25

No pitcher other than those four won a game all season long. An additional seven total losses were ascribed to three other pitchers.

Managed by Fred Tenney, the Beaneaters drew 143,280 fans to Boston’s South End Grounds.

Over in the other league, the Boston Americans—who had won the pennant in both 1903 and 1904—also plunged to last place, with a 20-game losing streak (almost all at home) surpassing by one defeat the 19-game losing streak of the Nationals. The Boston Americans finished 45½ games out of first place. That wasn’t the worst in even the brief five years of prior league history—the 1903 Washington Senators had finished 47½ games back, and the 1904 Senators 55½ games behind. (Later, the Red Sox outdid themselves three times in a six-year stretch, finishing 59 games behind the Murderers Row Yankees in 1927, 50 games back in 1930, and 64 games out of first place in 1932.)

Their record in 1906 was 49–105, a .318 winning percentage. Manager Jimmy Collins left after starting 35–79 (.307); replacement skipper (the team’s center fielder) Chick Stahl saw the team win 14 games and lose 26 (.350). Stahl never managed again, committing suicide during spring training 1907.

Jimmy Collins might have been fired by Boston but went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.

The team lost their first three games, then tied one. They stood 6–7 at the end of April. Then a Mayday call was in order. On May 1, they were shut out in New York, 8–0. They came back to Boston and, starting on May 2 and running all the way through May 24, they lost every single home game—20 in a row. They finally won on May 25, in a game played in a crisp 1 hour, 19 minutes, with Jesse Tannehill shutting out the White Sox with a two-hitter, 3–0.

The misery had not ended. From June 6 through July 20, they never won two games in a row, winning seven games over the stretch while losing 33. From September 19 through the first game on September 30, they were 1–10.

The Boston Americans had been significantly worse than the rest of the league, both in pitching and in offense. Their team ERA was 3.41, with the 3.25 recorded by Washington the closest competitor. They actually could boast a pitcher with a winning record—Tannehill at 13–11. Tied for the team lead in wins was Cy Young (13–21). They had one other 20-game loser, the hapless Joe Harris, who was 2–21. (Harris, for whatever reason, was actually rehired the following year, but after he went 0–7, he was cut loose.) Two other pitching stars from the team’s recent glory years were Bill Dinneen (8–19) and George Winter (6–18). Dinneen had won three games in the 1903 World Series. Winter had won nine games for the Americans that year, and he helped win the pennant in 1904 as well.

The Americans scored 2.99 runs per game; the league average was 3.66. They scored 463 runs, but allowed 706. They drew almost three times as many fans as the Beaneaters, some 410,209 (ranking fourth among the eight AL teams). Why fans went to see either team would be pure conjecture, other than the fact that Bostonians seem to have always loved baseball. Some 3,055 fans were there, though, at the Huntington Avenue Grounds on May 25, wondering if they were going to see the team go down for 21 losses in succession. With the win, the next day’s Boston Herald’s subhead read: “At Last the Local Americans Win a Game, Strange as It May Seem.” The Boston Globe wrapped up their game account saying, “the joy of the rooters was supreme.”

How much joy was left at season’s end is uncertain. But the double whammy didn’t hurt attendance too badly. The Americans drew even more the following year, some 436,777 (ranking third of eight league clubs in attendance), finishing seventh in the standings.

So 1906 was the kind of year that could have killed baseball in Boston, but it did not.

The Boston Nationals (under new ownership beginning in 1907 and known as the Boston Doves) also finished seventh and drew 203,221, an increase of just under 60,000 (and just about 42 percent more than in 1906).

Postscript: The 1906 World Series was all Chicago, with the Chicago White Sox beating the Cubs, four games to two.

There were two other times when both Boston teams finished last, in 1922 and again in 1929.

Boston fans have always been very dedicated. Fans here are scaling a wall during the 1903 World Series when the Boston Americans were victorious.
Source: 
Boston Public Library on Flickr
 https://creativecommons.org/license/by/2.0/

 

 

 

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Were there actually any documented discussions that the teams might fold or disband because they were so bad?

chasfh

posted 02.09.2018

Not that I recall. Baseball has always been popular in Boston, and both teams survived in the same market through 1952. There was a bit of a dip for the Boston Americans in 1906, but attendance was nonetheless higher than it had been in the years 1901 through 1903. For the National League team, attendance in 1906 was more or less the same as it had been in the years 1901 through 1904. One might wonder why fans kept coming out, given how bad the won/loss records were for both teams in 1906. But they did.

billnowlin

posted 02.09.2018