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The 2017 Phillies’ terrible month of May is nothing compared to the 1916 Athletics’ terrible month of July

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Let us hide in the past, where it’s safe.

On July 11 of 1916, the Philadelphia Athletics won the second game of a double header against the St. Louis Browns. The 3-0 victory came together on two runs in the first and an insurance run in the fifth, orchestrated by six hits, all singles, eight walks, and a stolen base by Connie Mack’s basement-dwelling backstop, Wally Schang.

Just over a week later on July 20, the A’s fought off another double header sweep, this time against the Indians, winning game two with a pair of runs in the sixth inning. The Athletics outdid themselves, managing an actual extra base hit via centerfielder Amos Strunk amid, again, an offense comprised of six singles, as well as a walk and a stolen base, this time courtesy of shortstop Whitey Witt, a man best known for being brained unconscious by a hurled soda bottle six years later with the Yankees.

These two wins were dots on the calendar, distinguished by only two small factors:

  • Both games were started - and finished - by Athletics pitcher Bullet Joe Bush, a gun-shooting, hard-throwing hurler who learned to pitch in Brainerd, Minnesota by chucking rotten apples at an outhouse.
  • They were the A’s only two wins that July.

By now, the mythology of Philadelphia sports includes folk tale after folk tale we all know by heart; but not the magic, engaging folk tales with lessons at the end - these are deranged yarns full of suffering with no point. Currently, the 2017 Phillies and their May record of 6-22 are penning their own section, while we pray this is a manageable mess and not the prologue of an anthology. But even if it is, we’ll suffer through. Why, it was 101 years and one month in the past that Philadelphia fans were going through the exact same thing, but somehow even worse.

Let that be a lesson to you people: It could always be worse.

But we’re nearing the bottom.

We know that our joy over the return of baseball and the Phillies seemingly moving in the right direction have added to our early-season hope this year and, in turn, our late-May melancholy when it all fell apart (This does not of course apply to all of the cynics blessed with the clairvoyance that allowed them to see all 22 May losses coming, of course). But even the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, a team coming off a 109-loss season in 1915, had their share of hopeful idiots: One Baseball Magazine writer called Connie Mack’s stripped-down A’s a "pleasing mystery well worth Philadelphia patronage."*

From 1914 to 1915, a third wing of baseball was in operation: the bad boy Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, which existed to throw the rules of the established AL and NL on the ground and perform a highly unrehearsed ragtime dance routine on them. At the time, this was the ultimate form of disrespect.

The FL was a weird place with teams that seemed to have not played in an alternative organized body, but rather stepped through a portal from another dimension: Terriers and Green Sox! Peppers and Blue Sox! Terrapins and Tip-Tops! The Chicago Whales were responsible for the FL’s most lasting legacy: Wrigley Field.

But it was a rebellious dream that ended after the haughty National and American Leagues had enough of Federal League causing player salaries to spike and bought out most of the owners. The dream was dead. But fortunately for rebuilding teams like the Philadelphia Athletics, now eight rosters’ worth of talented players were available to be signed!

The A’s signed none of them.

In fact, the Athletics also did not sign or trade for talented players from teams in any league, defunct or otherwise. Manager and part owner Connie Mack had an extremely limited toolkit with which to go out and win games because, after paying for a "$100,000 infield" earlier in the century and winning multiple championships, starting in 1914, he sold every effective, expensive name on his roster.

He was building for the future, he said. "I am broke financially but full of ambition... I love to build up teams. I have done it once, and I will do it again."* But Mack’s future, despite the team’s plummet from three-time World Series championships to on-field ruination, was entirely secure.

There were no calls for Mack’s head... In fact, after the season he was pursued for a managerial job by the Red Sox, the team that had just won the World Series. Mack declined and continued as Philadelphia’s skipper. It was a job he would hold for the next 34 years.

Perhaps an ongoing World War at the time gave people a healthy perspective, that baseball was not worth harassing and insulting each other over. Or perhaps they did not have as illustrious and vibrant a platform as social media on which to share their opinions. In any case, the 1916 Philadelphia A’s season got underway and sucked immediately, with six straight losses.

Shibe Park was a hideous, dusty, baseball crime scene, where the A’s somehow won ten more games than they lost (23). They played every team 22 times and beat no team more than 7 times. They lost 39 games by at least five runs. They went a combined 12-54 against the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers. The fifteen games they won from April 12 to June 1 made up just about their hottest stretch of the year.

The A’s started July with a pretty keen idea of who they were. The names people did know belonged to comers and goers outside their primes, but no one man could fend off history’s future judgements and cutting puns; as John G. Robertson and Andy Saunders would write in "A’s Bad as it Gets," July 1916 was, "The. Depths. Of. Ineptitude."

"The college-boy pitchers became sacrificial lambs. While an entire generation of Europe’s youth was being decimated in the trenches of France, an entire generation of college baseball players seemed to be parading across the pitching mounds of the American League wearing Athletics [uniforms]."

The July 4 holiday brought no joy, partially from the double header being played at Shibe Park - they played nine double headers this month - and partially because the Somme Offensive had begun in Europe, in which one million soldiers would lose their lives. Some of Connie Mack’s players had understandably checked out already, with the team 17-44 and all, and Mack in turn had begun getting rid of them. Second baseman Jack Barry went to the Red Sox for $10,000 on July 2. Rube Oldring’s BA dropped from .279 to .247 at the start of the month and Mack dropped him. At the end of July, a guy named Charlie Grimm, who worked concessions in St. Louis at Sportsman’s Park, was brought on board. He went 2-for-24 through the end of the season.

Grimm was not alone. The A’s flailed at the plate, slashing .227/.288/.288 for July. They had 44 XBH in 977 AB. On July 21, the day after Bullet Joe Bush pitched the team through their second July win, the Athletics began a stretch in which they lost 20 straight games, almost three consecutive weeks of losses. It wasn’t until Bullet Joe pitched again on August 9 that they managed to scrape together another W. The New York Journal published a poem mocking the team.

c/o “Cellar Dwellers: The Worst Teams in Baseball History,” by Jonathan Weeks

As always, there had been bright spots, as difficult as they are to find. Pitcher Elmer Myers gave up a league-leading 128 ER and 168 BB in 1916, but if you isolated his numbers to July, he wouldn’t look half-bad, including a ten-inning appearance on July 12 in which he allowed one earned run (but lost).

In fact, of his seven starts that month, Myers completed five games and threw fewer than seven innings only once. In three of his starts he didn’t even walk anybody. We can contribute this at least partially to it defying the common baseball sense of the time to remove a pitcher from a game, unless the manager had a plan to utterly, permanently shame the man for the remainder of his career and life. The A’s managed ten hits of support on July 26 in St. Louis for Myers, only to not get a single run across. They lost 5-0. This is presumably the point when Mack looked into the stands and penciled Charlie Grimm, the kid hocking snacks in the aisles, into his lineup.

We can all draw the parallels: The promise of a rebuild. The misplaced enthusiasm. The long, slow trudge through an unending month of failure. The frantic, desperate polishing of bright spots. The lack of run support. Even the press was the same: on July 6, a writer for The Sporting News intimated that perhaps Mack's famous rebuild was "not paying immediate dividends," which is the eloquent, correctly-spelled version of sports media tweets from a long-past century.

We just watched a Philadelphia baseball team go 6-22 in a month. We know this won't last forever, whether through a change in the wind, a shift in technique, some adjustments to the roster, or the end of the world. But this city survived the worst month of the worst team in sports history, and we can do it again. Maybe we should just be glad that perhaps the only thing worse than having to watch one (baseball) team in your city completely implode for 30 days would be having two of them do it.

All we can do as fans is influence change where we can.

*"Cellar Dwellers: The Worst Teams in Baseball History," Jonathan Weeks

**"The Philadelphia Athletics," William C. Kashatus