More than 120 years after they stopped playing, the Cleveland Spiders remain a legendary baseball team for all the wrong reasons. The story of the Spiders is a dramatic one that includes coming close to a championship in 1892, receiving historically bad treatment from the team owners, and then setting a record for baseball futility in 1899 that still stands today.
The story also has an interesting cast of characters, from Hall of Famers such as Cy Young to brawling managers, brothers who became owners, and a tobacco salesman who talked himself into a one-day major league career.
When Cleveland renamed its team for the 2022 season, some advocated for a return to the Spiders. But perhaps it’s best to leave that name, and its attendant history, back in the 19th century.
Good-to-Almost Champions: 1887-1896
The Spiders got their start as the Cleveland Blues, founded in 1887. The Blues played two years in the American Association (not to be confused with the American League). The American Association lasted from 1882 to 1891. But the Blues were already gone.
The team changed their name to the Spiders in 1889 and joined the National League. The NL at that time had eight teams: New York Giants, Boston Beaneaters, Chicago White Stockings, Philadelphia Quakers, Pittsburgh Alleghenys, Indianapolis Hoosiers, Washington Nationals and the Spiders. The Spiders finished in sixth place.
After two more mediocre seasons, player-manager Patsy Tebeau took over the team in 1892 (he managed part of the 1891 season, as well). Known for his toughness and willingness to brawl with other players and even umpires, he led the Spiders to contention. The Spiders had seven consecutive winning seasons under Tebeau. In his first full season, Tebeau took the team to the championship series, where they were swept (with one tie) by the Beaneaters. In 1895, the team won the Temple Cup, a forerunner to the modern World Series that started in 1903.
By 1888, the Spiders had a strong roster. Six players later became Hall of Famers: Cy Young, John Clarkson, Bobby Wallace, Jesse Burkett, George Davis and Buck Ewing. Young especially gets credit for turning the Spiders into contenders after he joined the club in 1890. His best year was 1892, he led the NL with 36 wins, including nine shutouts. He pitched 48 complete games.
But none of those players – or Tebeau – would be with the club in 1899.
The Farce: 1899 Cleveland Spiders
Before the start of the 1899 season, the Spiders owners did something that still, all these years later, ranks high on the list of “bad things owners do to fans.”
Owner Frank Robison had built the Spiders into contenders with capital from his streetcar business in Cleveland (which he partnered on with his father-in-law). He financed construction of the Spiders home stadium, League Park. His brother, Stanley, later joined Spiders ownership.
While they made their fortune in Cleveland, the Robisons were unhappy with attendance levels at Spiders games. They purchased the bankrupt St. Louis NL club and changed the name from the Browns to the Perfectos. Before the start of the 1899 season, they decided a good baseball team would draw better in St. Louis than Cleveland. So, they shipped most of the good players from Cleveland to Missouri.
These moves left the Spiders as, essentially, a minor league team, Player-manager Joe Quinn, who took over the team after original manager Lave Cross oversaw an 8-30 start, was one of the few experienced players on the team.
In a sign of things to come, the Spiders opened the season against the Perfectos, losing 10-1. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article on the game under the headline: “The Farce Has Begun.’ This headline proved accurate, as did nicknames for the team created during the season by the sports press: the Exiles, the Misfits and the Forsakens.
Among the many memorable “accomplishments” of the Spiders are the following.
- Posted a 20-130 record, a 13 percent winning percentage that remains a record for baseball futility
- Lost 24 games in a row, an MLB record
- Endured six losing streaks of 10 games or more
- Finished 84 games behind the first-place Brooklyn Superbas
- Finished 35 games behind the next-to-last team, the Washington Senators
- Finished at the bottom of the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, stolen bases, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage
- Only 6,088 people attended home games – attendance was so bad that other teams refused to come to Cleveland, forcing the Spiders to play most of the season’s games (112) on the road
One of the best Spiders stories came at the very end. In the final game of the season, which turned out to be the final game for the Cleveland Spiders, the team was ending a 35-game road trip. Playing in Cincinnati, the team stayed at the Gibson House, a downtown hotel. A 19-year-old named Eddie Kolb, who sold tobacco products at the hotel, dreamed of a career in baseball. He somehow talked Quinn into letting him pitch the second game of a double header on Oct. 15, the last day of the season, according to “Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases” by Peter Morris.
It’s Kolb’s only game. Sports reporters at the time called it a “severe drubbing,” according to Morris. He quotes the Plain Dealer writer as reporting that “the outfielders did nothing but chase hits from the time the bell rang until the last man was retired.” Kolb gave up 19 runs. Also, the box score referred to him as “Holb.”
It proved a fitting end for the Cleveland Spiders – at least, the 1899 version.
What Happened to the Spiders and Perfectos?
The Cleveland Spiders never played again after the day Kolb took the mound. They represent the last NL club to call Cleveland home. The franchise that became the Cleveland Guardians started in 1901 as the Cleveland Blues, then later became the Bronchos (1902), Naps (1903-1914), Indians (1915-2021) and Guardians starting in the 2022 season. They are considered a separate franchise with no connection to the Spiders.
Despite the influx of great ex-Spiders, the Perfectos finished fifth in the NL in 1899. In 1900, the team became the St. Louis Cardinals and went on to become one of the most storied franchises in baseball history.
Despite causing the Spiders’ debacle, Frank Robison’s heart apparently remained in Cleveland. He died in his home there of heart failure on Sept. 25, 1908, at the age of 56. According to a newspaper report on his death, he had become a Cleveland Naps fan, and the team’s loss that day in the heat of an American League pennant race “is thought to have hastened the end.”
Despite owning the Cardinals, Robison “was one of the Naps most ardent supporters,” the newspaper reported. The writer continued: “Yesterday he felt unable to attend the game and had one of his friends telephone the game, play by play, as it progressed. When he heard that Washington had scored five runs in the ninth inning, he never waited for Cleveland’s half of the inning, but dropped the receiver from his hands and sank into a stupor from which he never rallied.”
Stanley Robison, who managed the Cardinals for the final 50 games of the 1905 season (a 19-31 record) also died in Cleveland on March 24, 1911. Under the Robison brothers’ ownership, the St. Louis club never finished higher than fourth place (just once, in 1901).
Tebeau managed the Perfectos in 1899 and the Cardinals for the first 92 games in 1900 (a 42-50 record) before resigning. He ran a successful saloon in St. Louis. However, he died by suicide on May 16, 1918 not long after his wife left him.
Kolb went to some fame for his one-game major league career. He continued to manage and play for numerous small baseball clubs in Florida, Indiana, Illinois and Massachusetts with varying levels of success for the next decade. In 1911, he moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and later owned a successful restaurant.
Another legacy of the Spiders: MLB banned people from owning more than one team in 1910.