Chronicling the worst ever
Stafford author profiles baseball's losingest team
GARRISONVILLE- J. Thomas Hetrick grew up on baseball. Some of it was good; much of it, as a longtime fan of the Washington Senators, was mediocre.
Combine that with a lifelong fascination with statistics, and what better person is there to write about the worst professional baseball team ever, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders?
Hetrick, a Garrisonville resident who spends his days working in security for the MITRE Corporation in Tysons Corner, has just published a book on the Spiders- Misfits! The Cleveland Spiders in 1899.
The book chronicles the final season of the Spiders, who won just 20 of 154 games and lost 40 of their last 41.
Hetrick, who has never been to Cleveland, and who had never attempted to write before, first got the idea from the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who opened the season with 21 straight losses.
"When I was just 12 years old I got a copy of the Macmillian Baseball Encyclopedia," Hetrick said. "A friend of mine and I went down to the Brentano's Bookstore in Tysons Corner and we saw the book for 25 dollars. Eventually, we scraped together the money, and the price dropped to 15 dollars, so we each got one."
It was while paging through that book that Hetrick first learned about the Cleveland Spiders.
"When we first came across the Spiders, we thought it couldn't be true, so we looked further and we found that it was the worst team ever," Hetrick said. "As I got older, I didn't think anything of it, until the 1988 Orioles."
It was then that Hetrick got his idea to write his book. He began by spending part of nearly every day at the Library of Congress, researching old newspaper clippings and various baseball publications and encyclopedias.
"Living in the Washington area proved to be a definite advantage," Hetrick said. "The Library of Congress has copies of just about every newspaper in the country, so that made it easy."
Hetrick also paid a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
In the course of his research he found that the Spiders were actually one of a number of "syndicated" teams that existed in the National League in the late 19th century, working in combination with a sister franchise in St. Louis.
As the story goes, Cleveland owner Frank DeHaas Robison and his brother bought out the St. Louis Browns from the previous owner, Chris Von der Ahe, who went bankrupt.
Because of a dispute with the fans of Cleveland, the Robisons decided to switch the two teams, moving the Spiders to St. Louis and renaming them the Perfectos, and taking the Browns and moving them to Cleveland.
Fans and media quickly saw through the ruse, and the Cleveland franchise drew only 6,000 fans the entire season.
The Perfectos, who later became known as the Cardinals, flourished under the arrangement; the Spiders did not, and became one of the four National League teams (Baltimore, Louisville and Washington were the others) to fold at season's end.
Hetrick spent the next year writing the book, using a day-by-day narrative style while borrowing liberally from newspapers of the day in both content and style.
"I wanted to remain as faithful to the period as I could," Hetrick said, "right on down to the spelling and word usages."
Hetrick tried seven different publishers before finally making a deal with McFarland, a North Carolina-based publisher which specializes in baseball books.
Hetrick's love for the game shows in the book. It's an easy read, mixing in game accounts with anecdotes.
It focuses on such personalities as Still Bill Hill, Lou Sockalexis, Harry Colliflower and Highball Wilson.
"Many of the players of the day were drunk and misfits," he said. "The Cleveland team seemed to have their share."
With his first book now complete, Hetrick now plans a book on Von der Ahe, calling him the most fascinating personality ever in baseball.
* PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The above book, originally published by McFarland, is now titled MISFITS! Baseball's Worst Ever Team.