Bad teams are common in major league baseball. Perhaps you're a fan of one of them; nine MLB teams lost 90 or more games in 2011. 90 losses is a benchmark for badness; the 2011 total was a bit higher than the three previous seasons, each of which registered seven such teams.
Ah, but 100 losses -- that's an accomplishment. You have to be really bad to do that. In the 51 seasons since MLB expansion began in 1961, there have been just 52 teams that have lost 100 or more games -- an average of just over one per year. The 100-defeat benchmark has been spread out, too; of the 30 teams currently in existence, just seven (Yankees, Orioles, Phillies, Cardinals, Angels, Dodgers and Rockies) have not had a 100-loss season in the expansion era; the Angels and Rockies are thus the only franchises to never have had one.
As you might imagine, the reason for this awfulness is that these teams didn't have many star players. For the purpose of this essay, I used Hall of Fame players as a benchmark. You'll see why in a moment.
Of the 52 teams, 31 of them had no Hall of Fame players; 13 more had just one, most of them in brief stays (Mike Piazza's five games with the 108-loss 1998 Marlins) or September call-ups (Andre Dawson with the 107-loss 1976 Expos).
With the recent election of Ron Santo to the Hall, though, there is one 100-loss team -- and it's unique in all of baseball history, not just the expansion era -- that had five Hall of Famers, yet lost 103 games, a franchise record. (With one exception, no other team had more than two.)
That's the 1966 Cubs, who now have five Hall of Fame players: Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins ... and Robin Roberts the former Phillie star who finished his career with the '66 Cubs, making 11 appearances with a 6.14 ERA. If you include managers in this exercise, that makes six; manager Leo Durocher, in his first Cubs season, was also in the Hall.
So with all that talent -- and much of it in mid-career -- why was that Cubs team so bad?
Part of it was Durocher trying to wrench the team into the modern age. He wasn't fond of first baseman Banks, who at 35 had one of his worst years. Leo spent time trying to replace him with mediocrities like Lee Thomas, John Herrnstein and even a catcher, John Boccabella, before giving up and acknowledging that Banks was still useful (he had better years the next three seasons).
Most of it was that the pitching was atrocious. The Cubs had 15 different pitchers start a game in 1966 -- this in an era of the four-man rotation -- and just two full-time starters had ERAs under 4.00. After Ted Abernathy set a major league record in 1965 with 31 saves, he was awful the next year and was traded; no '66 Cubs reliever had more than seven saves and the entire team had just 24. Dick Ellsworth's 22 losses -- equaled four times since -- is the most by any pitcher in the last 45 years.
Truth be told, this team wasn't nearly as bad as its record. Essentially the same club had won 72 games the year before, finishing eighth in a 10-team league, and Durocher famously said when hired, "This isn't an eighth-place team." Of course, he turned out to be right; it finished 10th. But after a horrific start, it played near-.500 ball (27-32) from August 1 to the end of the season, a precursor to the Cubs roaring into contention in 1967.
That other 100-loss team that had more than two Hall of Famers? The 1962 Cubs, who had four: Banks, Williams, Santo and Lou Brock.
Brock. If only the Cubs had been smart enough to keep him and use him the right way, maybe those late-1960s teams would have actually won something.