Here at Notgraphs, where we take an avowed scholarly interest in futility, the name of John Gochnaur holds a certain incomparable cachet. Mr. Gochnaur’s short, miserable career, and most especially his epic 1903 season, stand as an eternal monument to baseball failure. That year, starting at shortstop for all but six of Cleveland’s 140 games, this man compiled a picturesque line of .185/.265/.240, with zero home runs of course, breaking his own modern record for lowest single-season batting average — and setting a new one that would stand for nearly ninety years. And he did it while racking up an astonishing 98 errors, leading the league by more than twenty, and establishing himself as the last major leaguer in history to crack 90. Thanks to these achievements, Mr. Gochnaur has earned himself an all but proverbial status as one of the worst ballplayers, or the worst ballplayer, ever to deface a diamond. A twenty-first century Republican congressman even paid him tribute on the House floor, likening his futility to that of the Endangered Species Act. John Gochnaur, there are some crimes against America that we are eventually prepared to forgive. Yours is not one of them.
1903 was Gochnaur’s second full season; he was gone by the next, off to bat .161 and .156 for the San Francisco Seals of the PCL, before nearly losing his life in the great 1906 earthquake. The puzzle that he poses is not one of simple badness — there are plenty of men who would perform just as badly, given the chance — but rather one of opportunity. How could a contending team (Cleveland finished third that year), led by an entirely competent manager in Bill Armour, possibly put such ineptitude on the field for so many games? The mystery only deepens when we learn that riding the pine all year for this club was a perfectly capable shortstop in 33-year-old Billy Clingman — a man of defensive repute coming off a respectable, .932-fielding full season with the Senators, who managed to bat .281/.387/.328 in his 78 pitiful PA’s in Cleveland! As students of the game have been muttering for over a century, there must be more here than meets the eye.
Now, for the first time, I am prepared to put forward a new theory: a theory based on evidence newly come to light, which turns the existing body of Gochnaur scholarship on its head.
The evidence begins with Gochnaur’s boyhood in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where a young, still-hopeful Johnny would scamper off to Columbia Park at every opportunity to catch the Altoona Mountain Citys (of the fledgling Union Association) in action. The opportunities were not many; the Mountain Citys went 6-19 before folding completely by the end of May. But the unfortunate club did boast a dashing, slick-gloved, fleet-footed young shortstop by the name of Germany Smith. Germany was a local boy from nearby Pittsburgh, and as he paced his short-lived team with a .315 average and eight doubles, little Johnny Gochnaur was quickly smitten.
Smitten enough, no doubt, to be following closely as his hero took up the next season with the Brooklyn Grays of the American Association — and to take particular interest, during that summer of 1885, in what was to become Germany Smith’s most notorious exploit. On June 17 of that year, Smith intentionally muffed seven grounders as the Grays’ hurler, “Phenomenal” Smith, was charged with eighteen unearned runs. Seems “Phenomenal” had done some yapping to the media about how he was so good as to render his teammates superfluous. The club saw fit to teach him a lesson, and young Germany was the ringleader. It was a brash statement of righteousness that surely would have impressed a starry-eyed 10-year-old like Johnny.
Now fast-forward 17 years, to 1902 and Gochnaur’s first dance in the bigs. He’d developed into a pretty fair minor league hitter, batting .261 with 14 triples the previous year in Dayton, but it’s soon clear he’s no match for American League pitching: among batters with at least 500 PAs, he finishes the season dead last in average by a good 30 points. Thing is, he’s no slouch in the field. The 48 errors look unsightly, but in this butterfingered era, his .933 fielding percentage is good for third in the league at his position. It’s not such a huge stretch to justify keeping him around for another year in hopes that his bat will perk up.
Obviously, that doesn’t happen. Instead, his bat turns out to be quite comfortable where it is, and meanwhile he more than doubles his error rate to jaw-droppingly historic levels. Now, that’s a bit unusual. Suspiciously unusual, we might say. So here’s where my theory comes in. What if a good many of those errors weren’t errors at all? What if, taking a page out of his idol’s book of tricks, John Gochnaur decided to boot away an entire season?
It’s an intriguing idea, but without a motive, it’s not going anywhere. Throwing a single game to undermine a smart-assed hurler is one thing. But what motive could possibly compel a promising young shortstop to throw an entire season, and thereby essentially deep-six his career? I suggest that the answer is fairly close at hand. I suggest that we start by glancing across the infield at Gochnaur’s double-play partner: a gentleman named Napoleon Lajoie.
Nap Lajoie, at the time, was the unquestioned superstar of the entire American League. The man was in the process of leading the circuit in batting for the third straight year, dating back to his still-record .426 in 1901. So long a shadow did he cast over his teammates in Cleveland that the club’s fans had just voted to change its name to the “Naps,” after spending a couple of seasons vacillating between the “Bluebirds,” “Blues,” “Broncos,” and “Bronchos” (other contest entries included “Buckeyes,” “Emperors,” “Metropolitans,” “Cyclops,” “Terrors,” “Pashas,” “Dachshunds,” “Mastodons,” and “Midgets”). Lajoie wasn’t managing the team yet — that would have to wait until 1905 — but, for all intents and purposes, it belonged to him. And he wasn’t afraid to show it. Buried in the fielding stats for 1903, for instance, is the curious fact that Lajoie, at second, had a staggering 132 more putouts than Gochnaur, at short, despite appearing in ten fewer games. Bill James himself has looked into this phenomenon — which recurred in Cleveland for several years, and across multiple shortstops — and concluded that Nap racked up his putouts “not because [he] had exceptional range but because [he] took everything at second base.” What must it have been like to play short for one of Lajoie’s squads? Frustrating? Demeaning? Provocative, even, of irrational and destructive behavior?
We may never know. But we do know that Nap Lajoie, out of the blue, came down with a vicious case of pleurisy that offseason. Gochnaur’s replacement at shortstop for 1904, a young hotshot named Terry Turner, was stricken mid-season with typhoid fever. The Naps had been the popular pick to win the pennant that year; instead, they wound up fourth, and never finished higher than second with Lajoie. (And we all know about Cleveland’s history since.) I’m not one to say “curse,” but, well.
Just one further note. One day in July during his year of epochal ineptitude, a long, lonely Tuesday afternoon, John Gochnaur stood at short for 12 full innings without receiving a single fielding chance. This, too, is a modern baseball record. A symptom of the constant invasions from the Napoleon playing to his left? Or an intervention of the baseball gods, a punishment for Gochnaur’s deal with the fielding devil? Either way, it was surely no coincidence.
Convincing, no? No, not really. But it makes for a pretty decent story.
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