It’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 wrapping up a historically bad year, playing barely over .300.
But this isn’t the worst A’s team in history. More than a century ago, playing nearly 3,000 miles away, the Philadelphia Athletics had not only the worst record in franchise history, but 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 dubbed them the “Pathetics.”
What’s especially striking about that team was how fast it had fallen. Just two years earlier, the A’s had won the AL pennant with a .651 winning percentage, the final season of a five-year dynasty when 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 tumbled from first place to last place in the eight-team American League. The downward spiral continued in 1916.
Mack, who was also co-owner of the team, faced inflationary salary pressure from the startup Federal League. He responded by selling off stars such as 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 Athletics into a bottom-feeding brunch,” wrote John G Robertson and Andy Saunders in their 2014 book, A’s Bad as It Gets: Connie Mack’s Pathetic Athletics of 1916.
Back then, Major League Baseball had no divisions – just the two leagues, the American and National, each with eight teams. Sportswriters would call teams that finished in the first 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 next worst team, the Washington Senators, who were just a game under .500 and finished 14 ½ games out of first. The funhouse nature of the standings reflected how the other seven teams padded their record against the A’s, with only the Yankees (barely) failing to play 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 prowess. The A’s started 0-6 and never won more than two games in a row that year. Their final two-game “winning streak” took place on the final day of the season, when they improbably swept a doubleheader against the first-place Red Sox. In an odd bookend to the season, they ended the season with a victory over Ruth, who led the AL in ERA that season. In between the first and last games of the season, the A’s were consistently terrible, including losing 20 in a row in the dog days of summer, going 2-28 in July.
Philadelphia had three 20-game losers 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 20 straight. By the following April, he was out of Major League Baseball at the age of 29 – with a ghastly 1-25 lifetime record. The team’s 3.92 ERA was decent by today’s standards. But this was the Deadball Era – a period when scoring was low and pitchers dominates – and the AL ERA in 1916 was 2.82. In fact, Philadelphia were nearly a run worse than their closest AL competitor, the Detroit Tigers, who finished with an ERA of 2.97.
The A’s lineup did feature future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, a lifetime .338 hitter who 15 years earlier had set the modern-day batting record of .426 for the A’s. But by 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 a league-high 314 errors, including 11 in one doubleheader. Nine players had fielding percentages under .900, including starting pitcher Nabors (.827), and starting third baseman Charlie Pick (.898), who committed 44 errors. The starting shortstop, rookie Whitey Witt, made 78 errors, but because he had many more fielding chances his fielding percentage was a tick better, at a still awful .903.
Years later, Witt recalled that Mack had imposed a new last name on him: “Mack didn’t want to write Wittkowski on the batting card every day, so he changed my name to Witt. Then, because I had blond 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 mostly 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 secure. He’d stay on as manager for another 34 years, until he was 87. In all, he was the A’s manager for an astonishing 50 years, wearing his trademark suit and tie in the dugout. (Yes, he was old school.)
Although 1916 was a low point for the A’s, it was no 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 in 1922 for a seventh-place finish.
By 1929, Mack was guiding a new dynasty in Philadelphia, when the team won three straight pennants (including two World Series titles). But in a continuation of the boom-and-bust nature of the franchise, a Depression-strapped Mack sold off or traded great players such as Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Jimmie Foxx, all future Hall of Famers. That led to a 12-year period, from 1935 to 1946, when the team finished last nine times.
The A’s moved to Kansas City in 1955, then continued west in 1968, when they relocated to Oakland. And as if tearing down dynasties was in the franchise DNA, the A’s won three straight World Series titles in the early 1970s – only to trade away star players such as Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman as owner Charlie Finley dismantled the team. Finley also had deals in place 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 doesn’t represent yet another championship teardown. And as bad as the 2023 A’s have played, they’re not as bad as their 1916 ancestors, although they started the season in a bigger ditch. Through 60 games, the 2023 A’s were 12-48 (a .200 winning percentage), trailing the 1916 A’s, who were 17-42 with one tie (.288) through that point of the season.
In other words, back in early June, the 2023 A’s were on track to shatter the 1916 Athletics’ record for futility. But they’ve shown some fight since then, even putting together a seven-game winning streak that included five wins against two good teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.
History’s verdict is clear: The Athletics have exceeded the low bar of the “Pathetics.”