The Mendoza Line
The Worst Hitters of All Time
Hitting is a difficult craft, inherently prone to humbling disappointment. But then there are those players who further lower the bar, who aspire desperately to bloop a single every fourth or fifth time at the plate, who ought never have taken bat in hand. Even as baseball evolved from dead-ball to juiced-body eras, some batters always stood out as much worse than those around them. They struggled to cross the Mendoza Line, to remain above that .200 mark and avoid detection.
We don’t include pitchers in this category. They are specialists with alibis ready in pocket. All other positions are eligible, however, and most are represented here. Bring us your poor batting averages, your low on-base percentages, your high strikeout-to-walk ratios, your embarrassing WARs (wins above replacement), and your humiliating sabermetrics.
Bill Bergen and His 0-for-45 (46?) Slump
Bill Bergen was a catcher for the Brooklyn Superbas in the dead-ball era, when everyone was in a slump of sorts. Still, even by the measure of his day, Bergen set the gold standard for persistent batting ineptitude. While he demonstrated his futility way back in 1909, his achievement lives and breathes today, still fueling controversy as to whether his slump might really have been 0 for 46. Historians have argued among themselves recently whether one particular handwritten scorecard had him at 0 for 2 in a game or 0 for 3. During an equally impressive slump by Craig Counsell of the Brewers in 2011, The New York Times became somewhat obsessed with this statistical debate, running two lengthy stories about Bergen, one a correction of sorts. And when Counsell laced a pinch-hit single at 0 for 45, it meant that the Bergen argument would live another day and remain just as relevant.
The chief researcher on this subject was Joe Dittmar, vice chairman of the records committee for the Society for American Baseball Research. Dittmar originally determined Bergen’s streak was 46, until the Elias Sports Bureau challenged that finding, lowering the number to 45. This meant that another player, Dave Campbell, had tied the mark in 1973 (Campbell managed to bat .000 for the Cardinals that year in twenty-one at-bats, after being traded from the Padres). When Campbell reached 45, nobody even noticed or cared. But in the present-day Stat Age, every hit or miss is quantified, logged, and reexamined. Dittmar went back to check the scorecards again. He discovered one on July 14, 1909, in which the number of Bergen’s at-bats was smudged. Upon closer inspection, he believed the number was a 2 and not a 3, lowering Bergen’s slump to 0 for 45.
Regardless of the finding, Bergen once made himself a good case for being labeled the very worst hitter in major-league history. He still holds the record for the lowest single-season batting average, .139, for a position player with a qualifying number of at-bats. He also posted the lowest career batting average, .170. He hit a grand total of two home runs in 3,028 career at-bats, with an on-base percentage of only .194 and a slugging percentage—in this case, the stat is a terrible misnomer—of just .201. Though there are no film clips of the fellow, it is safe to say he wasn’t the most aggressive batter. Bergen was never struck by a pitch, which would seem to indicate he didn’t exactly crowd the plate. A reasonable fan might ask, therefore: How did Bergen manage to draw a paycheck for eleven seasons in the big leagues?
Turns out this is no great mystery. Bergen had a Hall of Fame arm. He was a marvelous defensive catcher, one of the greatest to squat behind the plate. In 941 games, he amassed 1,444 assists, ranking him among the all-time top twenty. He threw out 47.3 percent of runners who tried to steal on his rifle arm. In one truly epic game against the Cards in 1909, Bergen nailed half a dozen base runners.
“He is one of the few backstops who can throw on a line to second while standing flat-footed,” wrote a reporter for The Sporting News in 1908. “He gets the ball away from him so quickly and with so little apparent exertion that the runner on first, second or third does not dare to take liberties when Billie is on the job.”
Bergen also had a terrifying psychological alibi for failing at bat, if he ever wished to employ it. His older brother, Marty, played for the Boston Beaneaters from 1896 to 1899 and was rated a far better player. Then, a year before Bill broke into the league in 1901 with the Cincinnati Reds, Marty Bergen slaughtered his own wife and two children with an ax before committing bloody suicide with a razor blade. Bill was apparently nothing like Marty, who was known to scold teammates while throwing tantrums on and off the field. Marty was considered pathologically paranoid. His brother, Bill, was simply a nice guy with no torque to his swing.
Ray Oyler and His Loyal Fans
Ray Oyler may well have been the worst hitter in modern baseball, a batter who rarely climbed to that magical .200 mark. He was also living proof, however, that everybody has his time and place. In Oyler’s case, that place was Seattle in 1969, when he would become the oddest of cult heroes with the expansion Pilots.
By 1968, in his fourth year with the Tigers as a slick-fielding shortstop, the Detroit fans had grown fed up with Oyler and jeered him from Opening Day. You couldn’t really blame them. In his previous three seasons, Oyler batted .186, .171, and .207. He was on his way in 1968 to a batting average of .135, breaking the low-water mark for any player who appeared in a hundred or more games. Oyler’s fielding average was fifteen points above the league average for shortstops, but he went literally hitless from July 13 through the end of the season. This was now a terrible hitter in a terrible slump, so the Tigers benched their reliable glove man for the World Series against the Cardinals—replacing him with Mickey Stanley, an outfielder. Oyler entered four World Series games as a late defensive replacement and was permitted to come to the plate only once, to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The Tigers won the championship and then left Oyler unprotected in the expansion draft. The Pilots selected him in the fifth round.
It was here, in Seattle, that Oyler became an instant hero, thanks in good part to the radio personality Robert E. Lee Hardwick, whose ramblings were aired on the Pilots’ station, KVI. Hardwick recognized the irony in starting a fan club for this particularly bat-challenged player. The comedy show Laugh-In was a big hit at the time on NBC, heavily dosed with the signature catchphrase “Sock it to me.” Hardwick called his new fan club by the acronym “SOC IT TO ME .300.” Those letters stood for “Slugger Oyler Can, In Time, Top Our Manager’s Estimate” and hit .300. The city of Seattle was simply thrilled to get a major-league team, and Oyler became something of a cherished mascot. “He started it just to drum up a little interest in the Seattle club,” Oyler said of Hardwick. “So I figured, what the heck, 150 or 200 members would be a nice thing. But now it’s up to 10,000 and they say it’s still climbing.” Eventually, about 15,000 fans joined the club. Oyler, who was earning $18,800 that season, was given a free apartment and a car. Then, on Opening Day at Sicks Stadium, before Oyler had ever swung and missed at a fastball, the fan club gave him a wild welcome. “He got cheers, horns blew, confetti filled the air in his first time at bat,” wrote the author Fred Cavinder.
Oyler responded to this hysteria with a hit, then won the next game with a homer as his average spiked at .364. “It’s a great feeling,” Oyler said. “Even when you make an out, they start cheering you.” Unfortunately, his average was down to .220 by May, to .190 by June, to .176 by July, to .163 by August, and to .161 by September. Still, Oyler was cheered, and he insisted, “I’m hitting the ball good at home. I’ve got four home runs there.” A single against Oakland on the last day of the season lifted his average to .165, as the Pilots finished 64-98, dead last and thirty-three games behind the Twins in the newly formed American League West. Even Oyler’s fielding average that season of .965 was below par, by his high standards.
Unfortunately for Oyler, the Pilots were in worse shape than his batting average. They were acquired in bankruptcy by Bud Selig, who moved them to Milwaukee for the 1970 season, where they became the Brewers. The people of Milwaukee did not have an emotional investment in Oyler’s career, so he was traded before the season to Oakland, then signed by California for a twenty-four-game stint in 1970 in which he batted .083 with a perfect fielding percentage. After he retired, Oyler opened a bowling alley in the Seattle area, where he was still beloved and where three strikes in a row were considered a good thing.
Bob Uecker, Ballpark Comic
Many players before and after Bob Uecker have been equally disparaged, but none has embraced the tag of incompetence with such inspiration or mercenary zeal. Uecker somehow managed to forge an entire self-deprecating career from six seasons as a utility catcher with four teams from 1962 to 1967. When the infield dust settled, he finished with 167 strikeouts in 731 at-bats and a batting average of precisely .200. This serendipitous statistic is one that Uecker was able to exploit brilliantly in his role as Brewers announcer, film actor, wrestling emcee, and stand-up comedian. As Uecker put it, “I had slumps that lasted into winter.” By his own account, Uecker’s greatest achievement was receiving an intentional walk from Sandy Koufax, with first base open and the pitcher on deck. When he was traded to St. Louis from his hometown Milwaukee Braves at the start of the 1964 season, the deal was for a utility catcher, Gary Kolb, who finished with a career .209 batting average—which meant that still, somehow, it had been a good trade for the Braves.
It is impossible to poke fun at Uecker’s career with less mercy or greater wit than the man did himself. Over time, his career in retrospect became one long nightclub skit. Speaking about a $3,000 signing bonus with the Braves, Uecker almost didn’t accept the proposal, because, he said, “My old man didn’t have that kind of money to put out.” His managers supposedly told him, “Grab a bat and stop this rally.” When he took his kids to a game, he said, “They’d want to come home with a different player.”
Uecker was ironically dubbed Mr. Baseball by Johnny Carson, one of the first television talk show hosts to appreciate his tale-telling talents and sense of comic timing. The Milwaukee-born-and-based player morphed into a well-known self-satirist with the help of Miller Lite commercials. In one of those ads, Uecker is ushered to a ballpark seat far, far away from the front row, where he smugly expected to land. To this day, the obstructed top-level seats at Miller Park in Milwaukee are known as Uecker seats.
Uecker, by the way, wasn’t quite as terrible defensively, which he never wanted you to know. He committed few errors while throwing out one-third of base stealers, a respectable stat. He did allow forty-seven passed balls in 271 games, including a league-leading twenty-seven passed balls in 1967 when he was forced to catch the knuckleballer Phil Niekro. Uecker’s oft-cited quip on the best way to catch the knuckler: “Wait’ll it stops rolling, then go pick it up.”
Mario Mendoza, the Man and the Line
Long before the Internet made even the most obscure baseball statistics available to Bill James freaks at the flick of an index finger, fans relied on the Sunday sports section to provide them with their numerical fix. Most dailies would list in agate type the batting averages of every player in the majors who had amassed enough plate appearances to qualify for consideration. Most often, these averages were listed from best to worst. It was because of this feature—and the playful minds belonging to the Hall of Famer George Brett and the ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman—that Mario Mendoza became much more than just another forgettable, retired journeyman with a lilting name. Brett was in the news regularly, flirting with the .400 mark in 1980, when he said in an interview, “The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza Line.” According to a Sports Illustrated piece on the subject, it was actually a pair of Mendoza’s teammates on Seattle, Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte, who first joked about that imaginary line in an interview before Brett picked up on it. Mendoza, a Mariners shortstop at the time, had laid down the baseline for terrible hitting with his .200-ish average nearly every season. Berman heard Brett’s quote and ran with it. Soon every player off to a slow start or suffering through a lengthy slump was being judged in comparison to this Mendoza Line. “That is all people remember me for,” Mendoza lamented years later.
To be fair, Mendoza did not finish his career at the Mendoza Line. He had a .215 career batting average after hitting .245—with two homers!—in 1980, the season when Brett and Berman made him famous. The player always felt he might have fared better if he hadn’t been lifted so often for pinch hitters. “It made it hard,” Mendoza told BaseballNation.net. “If I could have gotten to the plate three or four times a game, I could have made better adjustments.” Mendoza landed under the Mendoza Line in five of his nine seasons and finished at .118 during his farewell year, 1982, in Texas. The 1979 season was probably his signature year, and the one that stuck in Brett’s mind. Mendoza hit .198 with one homer in 373 at-bats that season, striking out sixty-two times.
For those who cared to dig a bit deeper, Mario Mendoza Aizpuru was more than just a pundit’s concoction. His baseball career was long and eventful. Born in Chihuahua, he was one of the first Mexican players in the majors and was later elected to the Mexican Hall of Fame. Mendoza recalled how one African-American teammate once told him, “You’re not black, you’re not white, you’re orange.” He was playing for the Mexico City Red Devils of the Mexican League in 1970 when a Pirate scout spotted his fielding exploits, ignored the batting flaws, and signed Mendoza to a contract. His nickname in Mexico had nothing to do with any imaginary line. He was called Manos de Seda, or “Silk Hands,” for his uncanny ability to pluck low, hard grounders off the infield dirt.
Excerpted from Who's on Worst? by Filip Bondy Copyright © 2013 by Filip Bondy. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.