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Lessons for this year’s Twins, from the A’s of yore

REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Rick Osentoski
The Minnesota Twins went 59 and 103 last year.

With the Minnesota Twins sinking to a 59-103 cellar last year, their poorest record ever, it’s fair to ask: Could the season have been worse? Could this year be bad?

Yes and maybe.

Robert Franklin

Look at the records: Just over a century ago, my hometown Philadelphia Athletics notched 117 losses and only 36 wins, playing nine fewer games than last year’s Twins. That .235 percentage still stands as Major League’s worst since 1899.

The 1916 Athletics blew through 50 players, committed 314 errors (78 by one player), won only two of 30 games in July and gave up 49 walks in four games, according to a Sports Illustrated article last June. Another remarkable statistic, from Bleacher Report: Three pitchers had at least 20 losses and only two had more than two wins.

Those A’s finished 40 games behind the next-to-last Washington Senators, which today, of course, are the Twins.

Maybe lessons persist from the A’s, a thrice-dominant American League team skippered by a manager like none ever to be seen again. For instance:

Winning isn’t everything. During the first 18 summers of my life, the A’s recorded only four winning seasons. In 54 years in Philadelphia, they hit 100 losses 11 times.

But they – and the Philadelphia Phillies – often were worth watching. I remember A’s lineups with All-Star infielder (and later manager) Eddie Joost, All-Star outfielder Sam Chapman, Czech-born outfielder Elmo Valo (later briefly a Twin), who didn’t fear crashing into walls in pursuit of fly balls and once hit two bases-loaded triples in the same game. And pitcher Bobby Shantz, 24-7 in 1952, when he was named the American League’s most valuable player.

Bob Lundegaard, my retired Star Tribune colleague who also grew up in suburban Philadelphia’s Cheltenham Township, recalls watching many Sunday doubleheaders, often at a kid rate of 65 cents. It was an easy Reading Railroad ride to Shibe Park, where the National League’s Phillies also played. As Lundy notes, you got to watch the best players from both leagues, as you also could back then in Boston, New York, Chicago and St. Louis.

Money always matters. With the likes of Frank “Home Run” Baker and pitchers Albert “Chief” Bender and Rube Waddell, the A’s won six American League pennants in 1902 and 1905 and during the 1910-1914 period, and three World Series. Faced with payroll competition, they then gutted the team and endured 10 losing seasons, winding up in last place seven consecutive years. Somewhat like the Twins under former owner Calvin Griffith, the A’s were not bankrolled by outside income.

Sports Illustrated quoted 1916 Manager Connie Mack: “The best thing for a team financially is to be in the running and finish second. If you win, the players all expect raises.”

Rebuilding can be slow. Mack brought the A’s back in the late 1920s with such stars as Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Ty Cobb and pitcher Lefty Grove, and they won three pennants and two World Series in 1929-31.

Then, in the Great Depression, they gutted the team again, followed by mostly losing seasons – 11 times in last place. Attendance flagged, the 1950 Phillies won a pennant and the A’s were sold in near-bankruptcy in 1954 and moved to Kansas City (and ultimately Oakland).

You couldn’t invent the history. When Lundegaard and I were kids in the 1940s, the A’s skipper was still Mack, born Cornelius McGillicuddy in 1862. His managing career spanned 50 years until he retired at age 87 in 1950 after sometimes dozing off during games. Mack was the unmistakable figure in the dugout, a tall, spare man who wore a business suit instead of a uniform.

No one will ever match Mack’s 3,731 wins (or 3,948 losses). He was a good judge of talent, especially for pitchers since he was a former catcher, says Lundegaard, who mentions Mack in tours he gives at Target Field on non-game days. “He did a lot with very little money.”

Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim wrote, “Maybe more than any other figure, Mack advanced baseball’s culture and led its growth.” He had an “uncommonly agreeable personality,” emphasized aggressive base-running and made it acceptable “to sacrifice the present for the future.”

Lundegaard asks tourists, with “managers being fired left and right” today, why wasn’t Mack let go in down years? Because he was also the team’s dominant owner.

He mentions Mack because Target Field has a suite named for one of Mack’s early ace pitchers, Chief Bender, a Chippewa Indian born in Crow Wing County. Bender, the first Minnesotan named to baseball’s Hall of Fame, won five of his seven World Series starts in 1910-13.

Lundegaard recalls a memorable Mack quote, something like, “If there’s one game I need to win, I want Albert Bender on the mound.”

Another connection: Dick Siebert, A’s first baseman in 1938-45, who later became the most winning coach ever at the University of Minnesota history.

You can’t predict. As for the Twins’ future after losing seasons in five of the past six years? To tourists from Atlanta, Lundegaard noted last summer that both the Twins and Atlanta Braves were in last place in 1990. The next year, of course, the Twins beat the Braves in the World Series.

Robert Franklin is a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor and a former University of St. Thomas adjunct faculty member.

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