JUNE 15, 2009 5:22PM

Is John Gochnaur The Worst Baseball Player In History?

Rate: 11 Flag

It was my childhood fantasy to grow up and play for the New York Yankees. Mantle, Maris, Ford... Fallihee? The problem was that I couldn't hit or run. Even so, I still might have still been better than John Gochnaur. 

I love baseball.

I love everything about it. Poring over the box scores in the Seattle Times, suicide squeeze plays, the bases loaded double, the fact that managers wear the same uniform as the players, the leisurely (some would say languid) pace of the game, and the unflinching optimism of spring training dashed by the reality of being twenty games out of first place by the end of July.

I also love the debates. The endless, sometimes mindless, and always futile arguments that begin whenever two or more baseball junkies take their seats at Safeco Field, drink a few eight dollar beers, and munch on stale peanuts.

Babe_Ruth  willie-mays-hof

Ruth or Mays? Who was the best?

"You still think Willie Mays was better than Babe Ruth?" 

“Hell yes.  Ruth couldn’t run.”

“What do you mean Ruth couldn’t run? He had 136 career triples. Only four less than Mays, and Ruth had two-thousand less at-bats."

"Ruth never faced Sandy Koufax."

"Mays never faced Randy Johnson."

"Mickey Mantle would have smoked them all if his knees had held up.”

"What about Albert Pujols? Or Vladimir Guerrero? How good would they have been on the ’51 Giants or the ’27 Yankees?"

"Say what you want about Babe Ruth, but Randy Johnson would have made mincemeat out of him.”

“What the hell is mincemeat anyway?”

“Babe Ruth trying to hit a Randy Johnson fastball.”

RandyJohnson 

Did Babe Ruth ever face a pitcher like this?  No.

I laugh, take a few swigs of beer, and crack open some peanut shells, when my friend asks, “You ever wonder who the worst big leaguer was?”

“No, but I’m sure he played for Seattle.”

"Seriously, who was the worst player to ever put on a big league uniform?"

"Good question. Has to be someone, right?"

Among true baseball fans these kinds of debates rage on, never resolved, always subject to the last obscure statistic that someone can pull out of thin air to prove their point.

More than any other sport, baseball is a game of statistics.  Every at-bat, every pitch, every run, every out is documented.  There are stats for night game vs. day game averages, batting average with runners in scoring position, batting average with less than two outs, and according to Mrs. Fallihee, batting averages against a pitcher who has at least one relative who has visited Iceland.

Because baseball history is so well recorded, and numbers don’t lie, I decided to do a little "Google Research" to find out who was (or is) the “Worst Baseball Player In History.”

Over the years thousands of young men have been called up to the “bigs,” only to find that they are woefully unable to hit a major league curveball. They are unceremoniously sent back to their hometowns, factory jobs, girlfriends, and wives. These guys don't have enough time in the majors to qualify for "worst ever."

I decided that the “winner” would have to have a minimum of 500 big league at bats, which is the rough equivalent of one full season of every day play.

Baseball historian Mike Attiyeh, who owns a website called baseballguru.com, has written an outstanding article on this subject, and after reading his piece and looking at the lifetime stats, it seems that he has accurately bestowed the title upon Cleveland shortstop, John Gochnaur.

GochnaurPic  

John Gochnaur, Cleveland Indian shortstop, 1902-1903. He was a better friend and bartender than a baseball player. 

You’ve never heard of John Gochnaur?  Neither had I, and according to Mr. Attiyeh, neither have most baseball historians. But, as I said earlier, numbers don’t lie, and Mr. Gochnaur’s numbers are mind numbingly dismal.

John Peter Gochnaur was born on September 12, 1875 in Altoona, Pennsylvania.  His big league career began auspiciously enough for the Brooklyn Superbas, which would later become the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1901 he saw action in three games, going 4 for 11, for a .364 batting average. He made no errors at shortstop.   Sadly, his 1901 audition for the big leagues did not turn out to be a harbinger of things to come. 

Superbas 

Gochnaur's workplace, circa 1901

After the season Brooklyn traded Gochnaur to the Cleveland Indians. Any anxiety that the Brooklyn owner may have had about trading away his promising young ballplayer would soon vanish. Gochnaur played the next two seasons as the Indians starting shortstop.

The 1903 season would be his legacy year, the year that would plunge him to the bottom of the heap, past other notable underachievers such as Fred Buelow, Frank Emmer, and Detroit Tiger pitcher Aloysius Travers, who still holds the modern day record for most hits (26) and most runs (24) given up in a nine inning game.

In a year when President Teddy Roosevelt “spoke softly but carried a big stick,” Gochnaur batted .185, with no home runs, and 48 RBI’s (not terrible), in 134 games.

That was not the worst batting average ever. Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodger catcher Bill Bergen, playing in the same era, had a career batting average of .170, with over 3,000 at bats. But unlike Gochnaur, Bergen could catch and throw a baseball.  Somehow that talent eluded Gochnaur.   

In 1903 Gochnaur redefined the word porous, committing 98 errors in the field, which remains the American League record for errors in a single season by a shortstop.  He averaged one error every 1.3 games.  By comparison, in 2008 Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins led both leagues in futility with 22 errors, less than one fourth of Gochnaur’s total. In a typical season Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter commits 15 miscues.

Attiyeh writes, "Few have been worse than Gochnaur with the bat, and fewer still might have been worse than Gochnaur in the field, but none combined the two-way futility quite the way Gochnaur did."

To nobody’s surprise 1903 was John Gochnaur’s last season in major league baseball. His career stats:  264 games played, .187 batting average, 0 homeruns, 146 errors.

John Gochnaur's Career Stats

GochStats
  

He played four more seasons in the old Pacific Coast league, ending his minor league career with a batting average of .192. According to Mike Attiyeh, Gochner was “a popular man and a friend to many ball players. "Goch" was also helpful, assisting hundreds of Altoona players secure contracts with minor league teams.”

Attiyeh further reported, “According to the Altoona Mirror, Gochnaur also held jobs as a bartender, city police officer and a Penn railroad policeman. At the age of 53, Gochnaur died of pneumonia on September 27, 1929 in Altoona Hospital. A life-long bachelor who spent 35 years around the game of baseball, Gochnaur left behind six siblings, a score of nephews and nieces, plenty of appreciative ball players and citizens, and a woeful major league ledger.”

For every Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, or Randy Johnson, there is a John Gochnaur, his paltry achievements never remembered, but his obituary still described him as a “former Major League Baseball player.”

My obituary (hopefully 50 years from now)  won’t say that.

Now, I can’t help but wonder how good John Gochnaur might have been if Babe Ruth was hitting behind him.  He could have hit .250 or more if he had gotten better pitches to hit. Also, if his pitchers had struck out more batters, he would have made fewer errors.

And, for the record,  if Babe Ruth had 136 triples, the American League was filled with a bunch of weak-armed outfielders. 

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That evidence is conclusive.

Worst hitter I ever saw personally, Rick Camp (a Pitcher) when he had to bat for the Braves in the late 70's, early 80's. .074 (13-175) lifetime. He was just horrendous.
Rated for being a Stat Savant like me.
Man, I was just about to hit you with," Herb Gorman", the guy that had O hits, in one pinch hit appearance with the Cardinals, and then I see the 500 hundred hits, and Damn Man, I got nothing...,
I'm not a "baseball" person but it seems like you know your stuff. The only thing I've ever liked about baseball is Coors Field...a replica from back in the olden days. And who wouldn't like hot dogs and beer? And singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame"? Wondering what you think of that kid who is quitting high school at the age of 16 to be eligible for the 2010 draft? There's a story.
Haven't heard about that kid. If the Mariners sign him he won't get past Tacoma:)
Interestingly enough, you'd think holding the record for most career losses would make a pitcher eligible for the "worst pitcher ever" award. There is an award named after that guy, but it goes to the best pitcher in each league every year.

It's a funny game, baseball.

Good read. Rated.
By the way, Mary is referring to Bryce Harper who made the SI cover 2 weeks ago. He's 16 & announcing that he will forego the rest of high school (get a GED) & enroll in Community College so he can be drafted in 2010. The thinking is that he and Steven Strausburg will be what rescues the Nats. Check it at:
http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/Why-I-mostly-support-Bryce-Harper-s-decision-to-?urn=mlb,170270

Anyway, a really cool story. I loved it. It's just too bad that major league baseball is now out of the price range of so many people. Although I have always enjoyed going up the road to Lake Elsinore and seeing the Storm--the Padres Class A team. More fun than the Pads and a lot less expensive.
Rated
Walter, I love minor league baseball. Around here we have AAA Tacoma Rainiers and A Everett Aqua Sox, both Mariner farm teams.

Shaggy, I considered pitchers but that might be for another blog.

Mary, I've been to Coors a couple of times, love it there.
Thanks all
I love baseball. I am a National League diehard. I know all sorts of arcane baseball trivia but never knew about this guy, so thanks. And I'm very glad he never played for my team. Ahem... THE PHILLIES!!
Sally, I'm happy for the Phillies last year but not happy that Raul Ibanez ended up leving the M's for you. He's having a great year though.
Man, when I was young, with "The Mick" in his prime, and "Roger Maris"in his prime, I was there. And I saw these guys play. You want to pitch for the 'Bronx Bomber's". Get me in my Idol's place, "Center Field", and I would be happy as a pig in shit..,
How he lasted 3 years is another question.

You'd think the coach would've started putting in people from the stands. Anyone that caught a bag of peanuts...
I wondered about that too Jay. He must have had a picture of the owner blowing a dog.
I wondered about that too Jay.
Hey Roger.. One of these days this summer we ought to meet at a Rainiers game. My wife and I love the place.
Sounds good to me. Maybe August when it's nice and hot at night?
A friend emaild me an actual pic of Gochnaur, from a baseball card. I replaced the original photo.
Wow! Okay, I'm prepared to debate although not ready. I spent a year writing an unpublished book with sportswriter Danny Green on the worst all-time baseball team made up of the nine worst players. I'd have to look up the lost manuscript to continue here. It was from 1990.

The name sounds familiar and may me who we came up with too. I do remember a pitcher who pitched around the turn of the century a few innings in the majors without being able to register an out.

Do you recall the fictional patient on The Bob Newhart Show who batted .075 for the Cubs?
Bob, I'd love to read what you have on the worst team ever. I don't remember the Newhart character. There have been plenty of people who hit less than .185 but not with 98 errors. Thanks for the comments.
ps
Bob, This is why I love baseball. The debate never ends:)
He may indeed be the worst ever. Certainly no one playing today would last two years with such an abysmal record. I guess back then you signed a shortstop, you forgot about it for a while. Even the worst teams today have minor leaguers better than Mr. Gochnaur.
Does Bob Uecker know about this?
Aloysius Travers--I rank that up there with Oil Can Boyd and Three Fingers Mordecai Brown among top baseball names.
In a fine bit of irony, Gochnaur's middle infield partner was Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, one of the best hitters of his era.

Great post.
That is ironic, isn't it Stim. Thanks.
As a hapless Mariners' fan (or is it a fan of the hapless Mariners?), I salute you, sir.