Saturday, March 11, 2006

Harry Colliflower and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders

Major league pitcher and umpire J. Harry Colliflower was born on this day in 1869 in Petersville, Maryland.

Colliflower only pitched one partial season in the majors, and is remembered today, if at all, as a paragon of big league futility. It was Colliflower’s fate to be picked up in July 1899 by the Cleveland Spiders, a National League ballclub that was destined to set a record as the worst team in major league baseball history -- yes, even worse than the 1962 New York Mets, who finished with a .250 win percentage.

In 1889, the Cleveland National League franchise, then known as the "Forest Citys," was purchased by horse-drawn streetcar tycoon Frank DeHaas Robison. Under Robison's leadership, the Cleveland Spiders were built into one of the most successful franchises of the 1890s — the 1895 Temple Cup champions and perennial contenders, featuring future Hall of Famers such as Cy Young and Jesse Burkett.

Things changed overnight for the Spiders when, after the 1898 season, Robison bought the St. Louis ballclub in a sheriff's sale. In what has become the living embodiment of major league sports prohibitions against the ownership of more than one competing club by a single owner, Robison decided that St. Louis would be a more profitable baseball city, and essentially robbed his Cleveland club of its best players to support his preferred St. Louis team, which he named the Perfectos. That left Robison’s brother Stanley to run the Spiders as a “sideshow,” populating the club with a rag-tag collection of minor league and semi-pro players, and whomever else Brother Stan could manage to snag on short notice.

In their first 38 games of the 1899 season, the Spiders lost 30 and won only 8. That’s when Stanley Robison fired his player-manager, brave Lave Cross, and did him the favor of exporting him to St. Louis. Slick-fielding second baseman Joe Quinn picked up where Cross left off, and the results were even worse, if you can imagine it: the Spiders won just 12 games out of their next 116. On July 15, the Spiders reached the depths of ignominy when they were held scoreless in a double-header against Baltimore, losing 10-0 and 5-0.

The team was so bad and so unloved in Cleveland, that after July 1, they gave up playing in Cleveland altogether, playing the rest of their season on the road. Thereafter, the newspapers began referring to them as the "Wanderers," or the "Exiles." Meanwhile, sportswriter Elmer Bates recounted the reasons why it was good for one to follow the Cleveland Spiders: "There is everything to hope for and nothing to fear . . . Defeats do not disturb one's sleep . . . An occasional victory is a surprise and a delight . . . There is no danger of any club passing you . . . You are not asked 50 times a day, "What was the score?" People take it for granted that you lost."

Harry Colliflower was a Washington, D.C. carpenter who gained a bit of local renown as a semi-pro southpaw hurler with the Eastern Athletic Club. At the beginning of the 1899 season, the 30-year old was considering some minor league offers and almost signed with a Texas club. But on July 21, Colliflower was still pitching for Eastern when Joe Quinn, whose Spiders were in town to face the Senators, signed him to pitch.

In his first major league appearance, Colliflower shined, giving up only 3 runs on 6 hits to lead the Spiders to a 5-3 victory in the first half of a double header. The Washington Post gushed, "Colliflower possesses every quality that is required in a major league twirler. He has fine control of the ball, good speed, and, the requisite amount of nerve."

From there it was all down hill for poor Harry. Staying with the club for the rest of the 1899 season, Colliflower amassed a record of 1-11 with an ERA of 8.17, pitching his last game on October 12 during the Spiders' final road-series in Cincinnati, and losing to the Reds, 6-2. For their last game, the Spiders' starting pitcher was a 19-year old cigar stand clerk they found in Cincinnati named Eddie Kolb. The Spiders lost to the Reds, 19-3.

The Post for the most part kept mum about Washington's favorite son during the season, noting merely that Colliflower was batting well in September. True enough, Colliflower added more to the team as a hitter, finishing the season with a batting average of .303; Quinn put him in centerfield and at first base a few times just to get his bat into the lineup.

The Cleveland club, which finished in last place with a record of 20-134, folded at the end of the season as the National League contracted from 12 teams to 8. Robison may have ruined Cleveland, but he didn't manage to reap any rewards with his St. Louis super-club – they finished the season 18-1/2 games out of first place.

Having lost his major league berth, Colliflower drifted during the next few years -- pitching and/or coaching for one or another of Washington's semi-pro clubs or in the Virginia State League, umpiring high school games or refereeing in the nascent Professional Basketball circuit. In 1905, he coached Georgetown University's baseball team before catching on as a minor league umpire, returning to D.C. in the off-season to work in the D.C. Highway Department. He umpired for two seasons in the South Atlantic League before being engaged by American League president Ban Johnson to report for duty as an American League umpire in July 1910.

Writer David Q. Voigt notes what a difficult time Colliflower had adjusting as a major league umpire:

When an earnest young neophyte named Colliflower joined the American League staff, he was cruelly mocked for the name. He changed his name to James, but this was a bad choice since antagonists took to calling him 'Jesse.' Under such conditions, survival demanded that a man have tough moral fiber.
Colliflower umpired in the Southern League in 1911, and returned to D.C. in 1912 as an umpire for the "Departmental League," a collection of ballclubs organized by clerks in the various branches of the federal government. (The box scores from these games are quite entertaining –there's probably no where else can you find Interior beating the War Department, for example.)

As the years progressed, Colliflower spent some time scouting for the major leagues, allegedly discovering Detroit first baseman Lu Blue, but for the most part, he worked as a clerk for his nephew James E. Colliflower's fuel oil and coal company. James E. Colliflower was known as a leading citizen of D.C., "the fellow who has a hand in everything that goes on around Washington," and is enshrined in the Georgetown Sports Hall of Fame for coaching the Georgetown varsity basketball squad from 1911 to 1914, having received his bachelor's degree and three law degrees there. Nephew James saw to it that Harry Colliflower was never wanting – and Harry eased into a graceful retirement from the sporting scene, coming out occasionally to perform "Casey at the Bat" for athletic club luncheons. Harry passed away at the age of 92 on August 12, 1961 in Washington, D.C.

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Blogger andrew said...

This is a brilliant little article. I'd always wanted to know the name of the guy who pitched on the last day of the Spiders season, having heard they literally picked him out of the crowd.

This is really great stuff.

Thanks again.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing up this article. I recently found out that I'm related (quite directly) to James Harry Colliflower (and James E.). I've been looking for more info on Harry. This article has given me the most and in detail. Thanks again!

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was interesting. I too (like the previous anonymous commenter) am related to James E. Colliflower (he is my great-grandfather). I had no idea I was related to someone with MLB experience like Harry.

10:51 PM  

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