Before there were the Indians, there were the Cleveland Spiders.
The Spiders started out as Cleveland’s entry into the minor league American Association in 1887, then joined the National League two years later. In their decade in that league, the Spiders went from highs, winning the Temple Cup for the playoff between the first- and second-place teams in 1895, to lows, an unsurpassed record of 20-134 in their final year of existence in 1899.
They’re also the subject of a new book by David L. Fleitz, “Rowdy Patsy Tebeau and the Cleveland Spiders,” published through McFarland Publishing. The book is the ninth by Fleitz, a Toledo native now living in Michigan, and many of them deal of the early days in baseball in Cleveland, including books on Shoeless Joe Jackson and Napoleon Lajoie, who both played for the Cleveland American League team, known by various names before it was the Indians. While he was working on various other projects, he had accumulated information on the Spiders, a team that had faded from the public consciousness and indeed largely from baseball history.
“Very few people remember Cleveland had a National League team,” Fleitz said. “I thought the Spiders had a very interesting history – not always a positive one.”
Tebeau, a St. Louis native, latched on with the Spiders in 1889. He jumped ship in 1890 to serve as player-manager of the Orphans, Cleveland’s entry into the short-lived Players League, and when that league folded after a year, he returned to the Spiders as player-manager.
The National League presented itself as a more high-class alternative to the American Association, derided as the “beer and whiskey league,” but under Tebeau’s direction, the Spiders were one of the most brutal teams of the era – which is saying something. They swore. They fought. They threatened umpires.
“They valued aggressiveness above all else,” Fleitz said of the Spiders. “They didn’t care about sportsmanship. They didn’t care about attendance. They just wanted to win.”
The high-water mark for the Spiders was 1895, when the team went 84-46, good for second place in the league, and beat the Baltimore Orioles to take home the Temple Cup. (The Spiders’ best record came in 1892, two years before the Temple Cup was started, with 93 wins.) Also in 1895, future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett won the National League batting title for Cleveland with a .409 average. In 1896, the Spiders again finished second, but this time were swept by Baltimore in the Temple Cup.
But the team was undone by a variety of factors. While the Spiders’ aggressiveness may have paid off in the short term, it probably turned off more fans than it drew, Fleitz said. “Baseball could have failed as a spectator sport if they didn’t get the rowdiness under control,” Fleitz said. “And Cleveland was one of the worst offenders.”
The Spiders always had attendance problems – no doubt due to the inability to play Sunday games as a result of “blue laws.” “It was a state law, but Cincinnati did it with no problem because local officials looked the other way.”
Finally, in 1899, the Spiders’ owners, the Robison brothers, bought the faltering St. Louis team. They transferred anyone worth taking to that team, and the Spiders limped along to oblivion – to the point where they played 122 of their games on the road, since teams couldn’t even recoup their travel expenses to Cleveland.
The Spiders folded at the end of the season, and two years later, the American League started with a team in Cleveland at the Spiders’ former home of League Park.
“It was a team very prominent in its time and virtually forgotten today,” Fleitz said of the Spiders.
In fact, its lasting legacy can probably be found in Cleveland’s current major league franchise. That team became known as the Indians in 1915, and mythology, if not fact, says the team was named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, whose brief major league career came with the Spiders, from 1897 to 1899.
Photo: McFarland Publishing