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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.