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Monday, June 2, 2003
Updated: June 16, 12:19 PM ET
The List: The worst of times

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Snow, sleet, hail, ice, floods, drought, famine, the early onset of winter. What follows are years when perfect storms gathered over select cities, bringing basketball and hockey misery in winter and spring, baseball suffering in summer, and football despair in fall. We chronicle the worst sports years cities ever had, not to mourn, but to celebrate the hardiness of the suffering fans.

As the late, beloved Angels owner Gene Autrey quipped in 1981, "Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter, once said, 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' Well, Grantland Rice can go to hell as far as I'm concerned."

We've already given you the best years for city's sports, now check out the worst ...

1. Philadelphia in 1940
When you think about sports fans who've had heartbreak after heartbreak, you think Boston, you think Chicago. But Philly fans have suffered so much more, and for just as long. Philadelphia sports teams have had so many bad years we had to just pick a sample for this list. 1940 is as a bad a place to start as any, for the first half of the 20th century. In MLB, Philadelphia fans were treated to 104 wins -- but they were split between the A's (54-100) and the Phillies (50-103). And in the NFL, the Eagles managed to scratch out just one victory, finishing the season 1-10.

The Phillies were the worst hitting team -- by far. They also had the worst pitching in the NL, despite the fact that Boom-Boom Beck had one of the best years in his career. Over in the AL, Connie Mack managed the A's back into the cellar after an unusual seventh-place finish in '39. Even though the A's could score some runs, their pitching was truly abysmal (staff ERA: 6.05) as was their defense (.960 fielding percentage, worst in the majors).

2. New York in 1966
The great times were both behind and ahead, but only two good things happened in New York sports in 1966 -- for the first time, the Mets finished higher in the standings than the Yankees (Yankees, 70-89, 10th in the AL; Mets, 66-95, ninth in the NL), and the Jets had Broadway Joe and a supporting cast decent enough to finish 6-6-2, third in the AFL East.

But the rest was a disaster -- the Rangers went 18-41-11, last in the NHL; the Knicks went 30-50, last in the NBA East; the Giants combined a horrible defense with a terrible offense (Chuck Mercein led the team in rushing with 327 yards) to finish 1-12-1, the worst record in pro football.

Joe Garagiola remembered those awful years in the Bronx: "When I covered the Yankees in the '60s, they had players like Horace Clarke, Ross Moschitto, Jake Gibbs and Dooley Womack. It was like the first team missed the bus."

3. Oakland in 1997
Billy Beane hadn't taken over as GM yet, and the A's went 65-97, even though they seemed to have the dream sluggers' row of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi. "We made $40,000 selling our 1997 uniforms," said A's president Sandy Alderson the following year. "We made an extra $5,000 selling our 1997 players."

The Raiders, still waiting for Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice to join the party, finished last in the AFC West with a 4-12 mark. Coach Joe Bugel wrapped up his NFL head coaching career with a stunning 24-56 record that included 0 (zero) playoff appearances. The Warriors, led by a relatively happy Latrell Sprewell and the wildly successful (in retrospect) head coach Rick Adelman, went 30-52, good enough for seventh and last place in the NFC Pacific.

The Warriors would sink even lower the next season (and for the record, The Sprewell Choke occurred within the 1997 calendar year), but the Raiders, with Jon Gruden coaching, would climb back to respectability, and the A's, coached by Art Howe, would also begin their ascent.

4. 1972 and 1973 in Philadelphia
Philadelphia wasn't the most pleasant place to live in the early 1970s (Rocky's pretty accurate), and there was no refuge at the Vet or the Spectrum. The 76ers set a record in NBA futility, finishing with a 9-73 record in 1973; the Eagles were almost as bad in 1972, going 2-11-1. Of the eight pro team seasons during 1972 and 1973, Philadelphia had just one winning team -- the 1972-73 Flyers, who went 37-30-11 and actually won in the first round of the playoffs.

5. 1969 in Chicago
Oh, man. The Blackhawks finished over .500, barely, but that put them in last in the NHL East and wasn't good enough to make the NHL playoffs. The White Sox were awful, going 68-94, avoiding the AL basement only because the Seattle Pilots had been born. The Bulls finished fifth in the NBA West, 22 games out of first with a 33-49 record.

And the Bears? Let's put it this way -- someone gives you Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, and you figure, that team's going somewhere, right? Somehow, even with two of the greatest football players in history, top-echelon Hall of Famers, the Bears had the worst offense and one of the worst defenses in the NFL, and finished 1-13.

The Cubbies and Leo the Lip, after 24 years of rebuilding, had a great chance to capture a flag but blew a big lead in the NL East to the Cinderella Mets.

6. Atlanta in 1975
Back in the days when Atlanta was "small market" (funny how a market can get bigger with championships, isn't it?), there were some truly dismal years. The Flames pioneered Southern hockey, and they were the city's best team, going 34-31-15 -- but they still didn't make the playoffs. Other disasters: The Braves plummeted from an 88-74 record in 1974 and finished 1975 at 67-94; the Falcons, QBed by the rookie (with a lot to learn) Steve Bartkowski, were 4-10; and the Hawks, coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons, finished at 31-51, fourth in the NBA's Central division.

But the Braves did have some milestones -- against them. Lou Brock stole his 800th base and the Pirates tied a major league record when their first eight batters got hits on Aug. 26.

A few years later, Ted Turner was asked if the Braves were a tax shelter. "They're a shelter, all right," he replied. "A bomb shelter."

7. Cleveland in 1987
The year started poorly for Cleveland. The Browns, who had gone 12-4 during the 1986 regular season, came oh-so-close to their first Super Bowl appearance in January, but they were the victims of "The Drive," and lost the AFC Championship to the Broncos, 23-20.

The Indians were a different story. As Thomas Boswell wrote, "The Indians have only one difficulty. They're the Indians." Remember, this was the team that inspired "Major League" ... the Indians finished seventh in the AL East, with a 61-101 record.

Their pitching was so bad that Tom Candiotti, the staff ace, was the only starter with a sub-5.00 ERA -- and he finished with a 7-18 record. (By the way, his win total of seven tied with Phil Niekro for most W's on the entire pitching staff -- has a team's leading pitcher ever had fewer wins?)

The Cavs, coached by Lenny Wilkens, went 31-51, good for a very solid last place in the NBA Central.

Then, as 1987 turned into 1988, the Browns almost made it all better. After finishing the '87 season 10-5, they marched right into the NFL playoffs and back into the AFC Championship game against the Broncos. Down 38-31 with less than four minutes left, Bernie Kosar drove the Browns close to the tying score. Then, disaster. Earnest Byner, who had played a great game, fumbled on the three-yard-line with 1:05 left, the Broncos recovered, and for the second straight year, the Browns went home one game too soon.

"I was just in shock, just in shock," said Byner. "It felt like we were destined to win the game. Struggling back just to tie was an accomplishment."

8. New York in 1987
Here's what being the biggest sports market in the world gets you: nine major league teams. Here's where it got you in 1987: one playoff appearance and a whole lot of last places -- five, to be exact.

Long story short: Knicks and Nets tie for last place in the NBA East, with 24-58 records; the Devils finish with the worst record in the NHL, while the Rangers fail to make the playoffs and the Islanders are knocked out in the second round; the Dynastic Mets finish three games behind St. Louis in the NL East, with 16 fewer wins than in 1986; the Yankees finish fourth in the AL East. And in the NFL, the Jets go 6-9, last in the AFC East; the Giants go 6-9, last in the NFC East.

9. Detroit in 1979
The Pistons, coached by Dick Vitale, finished with a 30-52 record. The Red Wings led the NHL -- in ties, with 16, but finished with an abysmal 23-41-16 record. The Tigers took a hold of fifth place in the AL East in late April, and let go for only a few days. Though they finished with a decent 85-76 record, they were a solid 18 1/2 games out of first when the season ended.

Unfortunately, things got worse as the year went on. With rookie QB Jeff Komlo at the helm, the Lions had the worst offense in the NFL, and finished 2-14, tied for last in the entire league. The highlight of the season came in a bar in early December, when Komlo slugged 265-pound tackle Keith Dorney, with a beer mug, giving him a black eye.

"After shaking hands in (head coach Monte) Clark's office," wrote Byron Rosen in the Washington Post, "Komlo and Dorney eventually went home to the apartment they share."

10. 1961 in Washington
The nation's capital had only two pro sports teams in 1961: the 1-12-1 Redskins and the 61-100 Senators, an expansion team, starring the wonderfully-named Gene Greene. The Sens tied the A's for last place in the AL, finishing 47 1/2 games off the pace. The Skins had the worst offense in the NFL, and the second-worst defense. Rookie QB Norm Snead, who would never be a very good passer, was truly awful as the starter, throwing 22 INTs and only 11 TD passes. Trivia: Tom Osborne, the legendary Nebraska head coach who's back in D.C. as a congressman, was the Redskins second-leading receiver, pulling in 22 passes for 297 yards.

Also receving votes
1958 in New York
The first baseball season without the Giants and the beloved Bums, and fans of those teams had to endure not only that, but the Yankees winning another World Series. The Knicks could put up points, but still finished last in the NBA Eastern division. The Rangers did all right, finishing second in the NHL, but were ousted by Boston in the first round of the playoffs. A bad year ended in a bad way, with the Giants losing The Most Important Game in NFL History. In sudden-death OT. On national TV. At Yankee Stadium. Ouch.