For one magical, infamous, atrocious season in 1899, a 30-year-old carpenter from Washington D.C., with no special proficiency for the game of baseball traveled to Cleveland to play in the majors. Nobody knew it at the time, but what was about to follow was so monumentally futile that its existence is relegated to stat lines and folklore. This is the story of Harry Colliflower, the worst player on the worst baseball team in history.
The most remarkable thing about Colliflower’s ascent to the major is that there’s no romantic story of overcoming adversity. No heralded beginning of the next “great one.” In fact, there’s literally no justification for how anyone would want to sign Harry Colliflower, or why he joined the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
An on-and-off five year career in the minors of no consequence, it’s unquestioned that Colliflower loved the game of baseball, but it didn’t love him back. He was not an especially gifted batter, or fielder, or anything really. Colliflower battled to have a minor league batting average barely over .200, he was a poor fielder, and on the rare occasion someone decided to put him on the mound, he rewarded them by giving up more hits than innings pitched.
The only thing that caused Colliflower to land on the Spiders was circumstance. Starting the season at 8-30, and recently firing their player-manager Lave Cross, the team was looking to shake things up. In dire need of pitching help during a trip to Washington to face the Senators, new manager Joe Quinn heard rumors of a decent semi-pro pitcher in town. Sight unseen he found and signed Harry Colliflower, immediately putting him on the mound. Colliflower was, against all odds, decent in his first outing in the majors. The Washington Post fell in love with the local player, framing him as a future star following the Spiders’ 5-3 win in town.
“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.”
This would not last.
There’s a generally accepted answer when it comes to “Who is the worst baseball player of all time?” John Gochnaur, a shortstop who played from 1901-1903, was so bad at the plate that he finished his career with a battling average of .187, and so awful in the field that he finished with 146 errors in 264 games. There’s no doubt Gochnaur was awful, but he was the worst player on a series of decent teams. Harry Colliflower was the worst player on the worst team in history.
Following a promising showing on the mound in Washington, Colliflower kept getting starts for the Spiders. He never, ever managed to be as good as his first outing — but the Spiders were bamboozled by the mystique that he might actually be good. Quinn kept putting Colliflower into games, and he failed over, and over, and over again.
The 1899 Spiders are best remembered for being the worst team in the history of baseball, finishing the season with a -723 run differential. Harry Colliflower was a major contributor to this infamy. He went 1-11, with an 8.17 ERA. Every time Colliflower pitched it was worse than the last.
When the dust settled on the season Colliflower had pitched 98 innings, giving up 152 hits and 122 runs. He only struck out eight batters on the season, walking 41 and hitting 11 with pitches. If you stepped to the plate against Harry Colliflower it was the ultimate confidence booster. You were three times more likely to be walked by him than struck out, and that’s assuming you didn’t just get a hit — which happed constantly.
Despite all this, Colliflower had one major cheerleader back home: The Washington Post, who first wrote about his astounding potential. Avidly following the home-town “star,” Colliflower continued to get written about in the paper, though any mention of his atrocious pitching was scrubbed from the record. The Post never, ever wrote about his horrible outings on the mound — instead focusing on his batting, which, to be fair wasn’t bad. Colliflower was a much better batter than he was a pitcher, averaging .303 and recording 23 hits in as many games. If you lived in Washington at the time and only knew of Harry Colliflower from the paper, it’s entirely likely you thought he was a star.
Instead he was a decent hitter and the worst pitcher in history, a shitty 19th century Shohei Ohtani.
There was no long-term history for Harry Colliflower. The 30-year-old rookie was cut following the 1899 season, moving on to become an umpire in the major leagues and a big league scout. He went on to astonishingly become one of the most important men in Washington D.C. Colliflower spent the remainder of his professional life as a clerk for his nephew’s coal and oil company, but was known for his utilitarian approach to life. Willing to do anything his city needed, Colliflower assisted the federal government, helped at Georgetown University, and was even enshrined into the Georgetown Athletics Hall of Fame.
The worst player on the worst team in history of baseball went on to have a full, rich and beloved life. Colliflower’s legacy isn’t really that of a bad player, it’s that of a man so loved by those around him that everyone wanted to pretend he wasn’t awful at the game. That is a level of appreciation we will never, ever see in sports again — and it’s why Harry Colliflower might be the worst baseball player in history, but also one of the sport’s most fascinating forgotten characters.